It’s a great American tradition: the Hollywood award show. Until lately, it seemed like an indestructible cultural institution — every year, the red carpets get rolled out, the stars stumble into the flashbulbs, reveal who they’re wearing, statues get handed out, tears get shed, champagne gets spilled, hilariously pompous speeches get made. Some of us love show-biz award ceremonies, even the most pointless and ridiculous ones.
But it’s a TV ritual that’s definitely reached a crisis point, in terms of ratings and relevance. The recent Emmy debacle was as pitiful as last months’ MTV Video Music Awards. The Oscars used to be the most-watched non-sports TV event of the year — but this year the network is threatening to put it on a strict three-hour limit and force it to pander with a “Best Popular Movie” category. This is like announcing the Super Bowl will last three hours and give out a Handsomest Quarterback trophy.
How did this happen? How did the noble legacy of Joan Rivers go so wrong? And most importantly: Can the award show be saved? So here’s a modest proposal on how to rescue this beloved lunatic tradition — the Oscars, the Grammys, the Golden Globes, even the VMAs. After all, the show-biz award is show a long-running American ritual that tells us about ourselves, and we need as many of those as we can hold on to in these crazy times.
Let it be a mess.
Tina Fey and Amy Poehler showed how to do it when they took over the Golden Globes for a three-year run, finally putting this most sneered-at ceremony on the cultural radar. A simple formula: celebrities plus live TV plus free champagne equals a few hours of insanity. At the end of one of their freewheeling shows, Amy crowed, “This was the beautiful mess we hoped it would be.” A beautiful mess is exactly what an award show should mean — not a punch-the-clock bore.
Get a star to host.
A few years ago, the network bosses got a silly idea in their gullivers — the idea that an award show’s job was to promote the in-house late-night franchise. So every fete began to get hosted by the network’s resident late-night straight white guy. Hey, what a crazy coincidence: This is when ratings cratered. Sure, Jimmy Kimmel does a fine job hosting the Oscars. That’s not the problem. The problem is he does an equally fine job five damn nights a week — so do Colbert, Fallon, Myers, Corden. It’s just not a big deal to see these guys put on a suit and tell some jokes. So they’re a fatal glamour drain — as Colbert’s former alter ego might have put it, they kill the eventiness. When LL Cool J hosted the Grammys, it was a must-see every year. But ever since Corden took over, the ratings have been fading faster than Canibus in a rap battle. So it’s simple: bring back LL. Mama said knock you out!
Remember who’s watching.
And that means people who actually enjoy award shows in all their gaudy excess. Nobody complains the Super Bowl is too long or too slow — people who don’t like football have other TV options, so nothing’s gained by pandering to them, and the same goes for show-biz stroke-fests. Ratings for all live TV events are going down, permanently — even the Olympics, the World Series and yes indeed, the Super Bowl. The Oscar honchos keep worrying the show needs to be younger, maler, straighter, whiter, cornier, plainer, less Oscar-y — but that strategy always leads to disaster, even when Seth MacFarlane isn’t involved.
Let the performers perform.
When the Grammys suddenly got great a few years ago — a shocking development, after years of sludgery — part of their winning strategy was giving out fewer awards and made more room for the stars to do their thing. (And that means letting them make their speeches — keep a leash on that orchestra.)
Get Dolly Parton up there.
Why would you ever have an award show and not invite Dolly Parton? She does everything: sings, acts, writes, dances. You can always find an excuse to include her. Everybody’s always happy to see her. Nothing in the history of TV has ever been less awesome because Dolly showed up. Give her a lifetime achievement award, give her a cameo, anything.
Remember: It’s not about who wins.
Really. Nobody watches to find out who picks up a trophy, because nobody cares. We watch the Oscars to see movie stars flaunt it. We watch the VMAs to see Tommy Lee punch Kid Rock or to enjoy whatever crazy pensées Madonna will utter this year. We watch the Grammys to see Cardi B on the red carpet announce “I’ve got butterflies in my stomach and in my vagina.” Nobody remembers who won any prizes week later, not even the winners’ moms. It’s all about the stars colliding into a beautiful mess.
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