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Edgy? Obscene? Not this piece of the Rock

ED MURRIETA; The News Tribune
Last updated: February 28th, 2005 12:01 AM

What was the big (bleeping) deal?

Chris Rock, a comic who wields words like Mike Tyson wields fists, was supposed to be Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction and George Carlin’s seven dirty words rolled into one big Oscar obscenity that would make Richard Pryor blush.

Unless you count Rock’s two three-letter utterances and one reference to his obscenely pathetic movie “Pootie Tang,” Sunday’s Academy Awards telecast was as racy as an episode of “Murder She Wrote.”

#$(*&%! is right.

In selecting Rock to host the 77th annual Oscar ceremony, the show’s producer sought to inject edge into a program that’s about as relevant to today’s young movie audiences as kinescopes are in an IMAX world.

Here’s the trouble: Rock’s Big Night was pure Hollywood hype. In the week before Oscar night, Rock, with a little help from Internet nudge Matt Drudge, stirred controversy with his insinuation in Entertainment Weekly that the Academy Awards appeal only to fashion-conscious people of certain sexual and racial persuasions – not heterosexual black men like Rock.

After riding the controversy for a couple of news cycles, Rock said he was just kidding. No matter. Ratings expectations were already running high.

Rock might have delivered those coveted butts in seats, but he failed to deliver on his acerbic promise.

“All right,” Rock told the cheering audience as he took the stage. “Sit your asses down.”

And that’s pretty much what this notorious stage stalker did himself. Maybe it was the specter of the ABC censor’s five-second delay. Maybe it was Rock’s desire to promote his two upcoming movies by promoting a toned-down, hold-your-tongue image that plays in Peoria.

“I saw ‘Passion of the Christ,’” Rock said in his opening monologue. “Not that funny, really.”

If you saw Chris Rock host the Academy Awards, you’d say the same thing.

That mystery thud that came during Jeremy Irons’ introduction of the best live action short? It was the sound of the host’s jokes falling flat. By that point in the evening, it sounded like Rock was humoring the show’s writers.

Rock’s funniest bits flirted with the racial humor that’s made him controversial. He introduced two gents from the Academy’s accounting firm, Pricewaterhouse-Coopers. “Murray Sugarman” and “David Moscowitz” came out looking like gangsta thugs in tuxes.

In a prerecorded, Jay Leno-style set of interviews with “real” moviegoers in South Central Los Angeles, none of the “regular people” had seen any Oscar-nominated movies but were hip to the black-guys-in-drag comedy “White Chicks.”

The closest Rock came to the social commentary that’s catapulted his career was when one of the black women he interviewed at the Magic Johnson Theater grabbed his microphone and jokingly thanked her baby.

“What about the baby’s daddy?” asked Rock, no fan of single mothers, as the woman looked at him blankly.

Rock’s bit with Adam Sandler – Rock stood in for the “missing” co-presenter Catherine Zeta-Jones as Sandler attempted second-grade sex zingers – made David Letterman’s “Uma, Oprah” intro in 1995 sound like the apex of wordplay.

Robin Williams was far racier with just a fraction of Rock’s stage time. Presenting the award for animated feature film, Williams gave an in-your-face to ABC executives who had nixed his planned musical send-up of cultural conservatives who see homosexual agendas in children’s cartoons.

“They tell me that SpongeBob is gay,” Williams said. “SquarePants is not gay. TightPants, maybe. SpongeBob HotPants – you go, girl!

This year’s show (three hours, 10 minutes) was the shortest in Oscar history; a far cry from the 2002 show, a lugubrious four-hour, 23-minute affair. This speed was due to the ceremony’s new format of both bringing all nominees in certain categories onto the stage and having the presenters in the audience.

“Next year they’re gonna give out Oscars in the parking lot,” Rock said. “There’s gonna be an Oscar lane. Get your Oscar and a McFlurry and you’re outta here.”

That was a funny line, one that didn’t sound scripted. But it’s still probably not the kind of humor that Rock’s fans had expected – the edgy stuff that makes his hosting duties at the MTV movie awards better than many of the movies themselves.

Though there was no edge, there was some tension when Sean Penn challenged Rock’s extended put-down of Jude Law. The pugnacious Penn defended Law’s acting honor while presenting an award. Rock later retorted that his “accountants” wanted to see him, a joke that was lost on many.

Rock isn’t Billy Crystal or Steve Martin, previous Oscar hosts who can be bawdy yet lovable. He’s far funnier than another multiyear Oscar host, Whoopi Goldberg, who has a penchant for controversy but lacks Rock’s edge and connection with the younger audiences the Academy covets.

It’s more likely that Rock will be a one-term Oscar host like Letterman.

Next year, the Academy should reach out to both Latino viewers and the demographic that Rock claims doesn’t watch awards shows (straight men) by having Salma Hayak, a wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen, host the show.

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