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Joel Stein Wrote the Oscars!?

by Danielle Berrin

March 3, 2009 | 2:04 pm

I scrambled for weeks trying to get an interview with Bruce Vilanch for our Oscar issue, when all the while, our good friend Joel Stein got the gig straight through Hugh Jackman.

Stein chronicles his experience writing “a little bit” of the Oscars from a swanky hotel room in New York, why most comedy sucks, and his gay love for Hugh Jackman in a column for Time:

For reasons I accept but will never fully understand, hundreds of millions of people would rather be entertained by the Oscars than by this column. So I felt vindicated when I got an e-mail three weeks ago from John Palermo, the producing partner of this year’s host, Hugh Jackman, saying he liked my work and wanted me to write for the Academy Awards. I wasn’t exactly sure how the Academy expected me to craft an opening in which Jackman quickly segued into talking about me and my sophomoric sexual obsessions, but I was up for the challenge.

Since this was clearly the biggest, most important comedy job I’d ever get, I expected the Academy to send an official package of Oscar history, tips from past writers and a truckload of money. Instead, I got just some grainy DVDs of Jackman hosting the Tony Awards. I was starting to wonder if I was really hired by the Oscars when I found out I wasn’t. It turns out the Academy hires pros like Bruce Vilanch for the presenter banter but lets the host pick his own team. This makes sense when the host is a comedian with a staff of writers. It makes less sense when the host is known for being PEOPLE’s Sexiest Man Alive. What I’ve learned from late-night Cinemax is that sexy people don’t place a high value on writing. (See the top 10 movie performances of 2008.)

Because Jackman lives in New York City, the writers flew from Los Angeles to work out of a room at the Mandarin Oriental hotel. I was expecting to join an enormous gathering of the greatest comedy writers in the world, who would mock me with cutting barbs about my relative youth and handsomeness. Instead, there were three dudes eating Gummi Bears from the minibar. Two of them weren’t even Jewish. The third was a 27-year-old who makes Web videos and got the job when he was pitching a movie idea to Jackman’s company—an idea it turned down. The Emmys, I’m guessing, is written by two interns in Bangalore.

Luckily, all four of us had a few things in common. We hated The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and had no idea that The Reader wasn’t a children’s magazine. We also thought Jackman shouldn’t tell any jokes and should instead open with a big musical number that references the recession. But every good concept we had we immediately killed because it reminded us of Billy Crystal. You would think that would be a good thing, since Crystal was the most beloved Oscar host ever and got the job eight times. But comedy writers are far more interested in impressing other comedy writers than in pleasing an audience. This is why most comedy sucks. If we thought we could have gotten away with an opening number that made fun of genocide, we would have. Instead, we just wasted hours making those jokes anyway. We also spent a lot of time trying to figure out if we’d get in trouble for ordering room service. The answer, so far, is no.

The only proof that we really were writing for the Oscars is that Jackman would visit our room for a couple of hours each day. To my surprise, the best kind of boss is a sexy boss. Jackman greeted each of us with a giant hug, which would have been a perfect test of how gay I am, except I was totally focused on making sure I wasn’t crushed to death by his giant lats. So ... pretty gay. Jackman would laugh uproariously at everything we suggested, which is one of the huge advantages of writing for a noncomedian. He acted out all our stuff, belted out our songs while standing on furniture and even watched most of Be Kind Rewind with us for no good reason. He was so omniscient in his niceness that not only did he look sad when we played him the Christian Bale freak-out tape, but he also, after agreeing to record a parody of it, called Bale to make sure it was cool if we put it online. He even let me try on the real, $18,000 plastic Wolverine claws, which made me want to do a bit about the moon and body hair; the reaction made me realize I probably should have seen an X-Men movie before writing for Jackman.

It soon became clear that not only was writing for the Oscars not the hardest job of my life, it wasn’t even the hardest job of my week. We brought in a guy who wrote music, and six days later, the opening number was complete. It’s not bad, and when Jackman sings it, it’s great. Because while we weren’t smart enough to write great jokes, we were smart enough to figure out that Oscar audiences don’t remember jokes. They remember whether the host set the celebratory mood, as Crystal did. Our job was to get out of the way of Jackman’s charm, and if that meant ordering room service and letting the other writers do all the actual lyric-writing, then I was a fine hire. All the good jokes, by the way, were mine.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Danielle Berrin writes the Hollywood Jew blog, a cutting edge, values-based take on the entertainment industry for jewishjournal.com. A Los Angeles Times profile dubbed her...

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