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Movie Interviews

Playing The Big Room: An Oscars Joke-Writer Reflects

Originally published on Tue February 19, 2013 2:45 pm

Hollywood's biggest night is in just a few weeks. People tend to focus on the glitz, the glamour and — of course — the gowns. But we thought we'd take a moment to focus on the gags.

Or rather what goes into writing both the jokes that fall flat and the jokes that soar. For a bit of Oscars Writing 101, NPR's All Things Considered turned to Dave Boone, who has written for the Academy Awards eight times.

For those keeping count at home, that's four Billys, two Whoopis, one Steve and one Ellen. Boone has also written for many other awards shows, including the Tonys, the Emmys and the Golden Globes.

He joined NPR's Audie Cornish to talk about his general Oscar-joke guidelines, favorite awards-show moments and why this year's host, Seth MacFarlane, has the potential to take the broadcast to a raunchier place.

Interview Highlights

On why it's important to know the limits of a joke

"I think any time you get too political, it can tend to turn the audience off. What does the public think about Hollywood? They think everybody's very far to the left, and they think that everyone hates anyone to the right, and if you do too many jokes that sort of feed that sensibility, you're gonna just turn people off.

"And you have to also let them know that we get it, that the Oscars are kind of pretentious. You know, there was a year that the statues had been stolen and Billy [Crystal] did a joke about the suspect being 'armed and pretentious,' and that sort of said it all."

Why it's important to know the range of the audience

"People are still talking about Uma and Oprah, unfortunately ... it is a global audience, of course, so you wanna do jokes that people around the world watching the show are gonna get.

"We also try and throw in some jokes that are 'for the room' — jokes about Harvey Weinstein [head of the perennially winning studio the Weinstein Co.].

"You know, Harvey's known as a gruff, big, larger-than-life personality, and he's also a guy who can take a good joke. After Chicago won best picture, he sent us some beautiful cuff links with a note that said, 'If a picture's worth a thousand words, a joke on the Oscars is worth a million at the box office — so thanks."

On why some actors make better punchlines than others

"You go to Jack Nicholson whenever you can because he's the greatest audience in the world. He's a great laugher, he's a huge global movie star, and he's a guy who knows how to laugh at himself.

"The people up front ... it's interesting. Billy once pointed out that the laughter comes from the back of the room — the non-nominees, the family, the friends, the Academy members who scored tickets. They're more willing to laugh than the people up front who are nominated — there's lighting on them, television lighting, which kind of always makes somebody uncomfortable. There's cameras pointed at them.

"That's why a lot of times, you'll hear laughter, but you may not see the folks up front laughing because they're just nervous."

Knowing the host, and writing from backstage

"Understanding the sensibilty of the host is the most important thing, and feeding what we already know about them, giving them jokes that are in their wheelhouse, so to speak. ...

"We're reacting all night long — you know, there's only a certain number of jokes you can write in advance. You can kind of say, 'Well, let's write a lot of jokes in case this movie happens to win a lot,' [and] then you've got something in your hip pocket.

"Otherwise, you wanna be reactive to what's going on. If you were hosting something in your living room and somebody spilled a punch bowl on the floor, you would certainly comment on it.

"If somebody's gonna make an outrageous acceptance speech, you want to say something about it. You wanna gauge the reaction of the audience in the room, and if they are approving, you wanna be the guy who disapproves. If they're disapproving, then you wanna kind of ride that and go, 'Yeah, you know what, you're right.' "

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. And Hollywood's biggest night is less than two weeks away.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ACADEMY AWARDS)

HUGH JACKMAN: Good evening, and welcome to the Academy Awards. This really is the biggest movie event of the year.

BOB HOPE: The winner - the winners will, of course, take home an Oscar. The losers will all be presented with monogrammed do-it-yourself suicide kits.

BILLY CRYSTAL: (Singing) It's a wonderful night for Oscar...

CORNISH: Those voices, previous Oscar hosts Billy Crystal, Bob Hope and Hugh Jackman. Now, people tend to focus on the glitz, the glamour and, of course, the gowns, but we thought we'd take a moment to focus on the gags or rather what goes into writing both the jokes that fall flat...

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ACADEMY AWARDS)

JAMES FRANCO: That'd be weird if my mom called me Academy Award-winner James Franco. I've known her a long time.

CORNISH: And the jokes that soar...

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ACADEMY AWARDS)

CRYSTAL: So tonight, enjoy yourselves because nothing can take the sting out of the world's economic problems like watching millionaires present each other with golden statues.

CORNISH: Well, for a bit of Oscars writing 101, we turn now to Dave Boone. He's written for the Academy Awards eight times. And for those keeping count at home, that's four Billys, two Whoopis, one Steve and one Ellen. Boone has also written for many other award shows, including the Tonys, the Emmys and the Golden Globes, and he joins us now from New York. Dave, welcome to the program.

DAVE BOONE: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Now, we want to understand what works and what doesn't, OK? So I'm going to ask you to break this down into some Oscar joke writing dos and don'ts.

BOONE: OK.

CORNISH: I've done a little research...

BOONE: All righty.

CORNISH: ...and so tip number one, know your limits. What are topics and jokes that you think just don't work for the Oscars? When does it not work?

BOONE: Well, I think any time you get too political, it can tend to turn the audience off. What does the public think about Hollywood? They think everybody's, you know, very far to the left, and they think that everyone hates anyone to the right. And if you do too many jokes that sort of feed that sensibility, you're going to just turn people off.

And you have to also let them know that we get it that the Oscars are kind of pretentious. You know, there was a year that the statues had been stolen, and Billy did a joke about the suspect being armed and pretentious, you know, and that sort of said it all.

CORNISH: OK. And then another rule. Know your audience. I want to play two examples here. One is David Letterman...

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ACADEMY AWARDS)

DAVID LETTERMAN: Uma, Oprah, I feel much better.

CORNISH: ...and Chris Rock from 2005.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ACADEMY AWARDS)

CHRIS ROCK: I remember one year when Halle Berry won the Oscar, Nicole Kidman was smiling so wide she should have won an Emmy at the Oscars for her great performance.

CORNISH: So there's this kind of in-the-room, outside-of-the-room thing about the jokes. What's going on there? Because those are two moments that people, like, the day after, kind of talked about.

BOONE: Yeah. People are still talking about Uma and Oprah, unfortunately. And I think David was - is wonderful. He's a great host. But I think the downfall that year was that he did his show at the Oscars as opposed to sort of adapting his routine for the Oscars. And that joke basically boils down to you're making fun of two people's names. That's what the joke boils down to. And, you know, it just didn't work. When you are the producer of that show and you hire a host with a sensibility like Chris Rock, you get what you pay for.

You know, you invite Chris there, you don't want to stifle him. You want him to give his point of view. Whether or not that point of view may overstep at some points, that's going to be up in the air.

CORNISH: But does it - it has such an enormous audience, right? It's not just about the people in the room. Or is it? Am I wrong about that?

BOONE: No. Well, it is a global audience, of course, so you want to do jokes that people around the world watching the show are going to get. We also try to throw in some jokes that are, quote, unquote, "for the room," jokes about Harvey Weinstein.

CORNISH: And he's the head of Miramax.

BOONE: Head of Miramax, head of the Weinstein Company at this point, actually.

CORNISH: Yeah.

BOONE: You know, Harvey's known as a gruff, big, larger-than-life personality, and he's also a guy who can take a good joke. After "Chicago" won Best Picture, he sent us some beautiful cufflinks with a note that said: If a picture's worth a thousand words, a joke on the Oscars is worth a million at the box office. So thanks.

CORNISH: I also noticed that certain actors get to sit in the front...

(LAUGHTER)

BOONE: Absolutely.

CORNISH: ...and seem to be the butt of a lot of jokes. Are there people that you guys kind of go to again and again?

BOONE: Well, there - you - of course, you go to Jack Nicholson whenever you can because he's the greatest audience in the world. He's a great laugher. He's a huge global movie star, and he's a guy who knows how to laugh at himself. The people up front, it's interesting. Billy once pointed out that the laughter comes from the back of the room - the non-nominees, the family, the friends, the Academy members who scored tickets. They're more willing to laugh than the people up front who are nominated. There's lighting on them, television lighting, which kind of always makes somebody uncomfortable. There's cameras pointed at them. That's why a lot of times, you'll hear laughter, but you may not see the folks up front laughing because they're just nervous.

CORNISH: All right. So another tip, I can imagine, know your host. What do you need to understand in order to make jokes that are going to work? What do you need to understand about your host?

BOONE: It's - understanding the sensibility of the host is the most important thing and feeding what we already know about them, giving them jokes that are in their wheelhouse, so to speak.

CORNISH: So we're going to play a clip from Steve Martin.

BOONE: Perfect.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ACADEMY AWARDS)

STEVE MARTIN: It was so sweet backstage. You should see it. The Teamsters are helping Michael Moore into the trunk of his limo.

CORNISH: Steve Martin always gets a lot of laughs. What is it about him?

BOONE: It's - that was one of my favorite Oscar jokes of all time. It was an ad-lib after Michael Moore accepted for "Bowling for Columbine," and he sort of went off on the war, which had broken out about five days before, calling it a fictitious war and a fictitious president. And we knew we had to comment on that because Steve was coming to the stage right after that. And the creation of that joke was five writers sitting around watching Michael's acceptance speech and Steve saying what am I going to say.

CORNISH: So you guys are actually sitting backstage listening to acceptance speeches and writing?

BOONE: Sure. We're reacting all night long. I mean, there's only a certain number of jokes you can write in advance. You can kind of say: Well, let's write a bunch of jokes in case this movie happens to win a lot, then you've got something in your hip pocket. Otherwise, you want to be reactive to what's going on. If you were hosting something in your living room and somebody spilled the punch bowl on the floor, you would certainly comment on it. If somebody's going to make an outrageous acceptance speech, you want to say something about it.

You want to gauge the reaction of the audience in the room. And if they are approving, you don't want to be the guy who disapproves. If they're disapproving, then you want to kind of ride that and go: Yeah, you know what, you're right.

CORNISH: So you're doing the same thing I'm doing in my living room...

BOONE: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...but getting paid for it.

(LAUGHTER)

BOONE: Getting paid lots of money and getting all the perks that come with sitting backstage on a folding chair in a tuxedo.

CORNISH: I'll concede that your jokes are probably better.

(LAUGHTER)

BOONE: I hope so at this point, but you never know. There are some funny people in their living rooms, I'm sure.

CORNISH: That's comedy writer Dave Boone. Dave, thank you so much for talking with us.

BOONE: Thanks, Audie. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) There's no people like show people. They smile when they are low. Even with a turkey that you know will fold, you may be stranded out in the cold. Still, you wouldn't change it for a sack of gold. Let's go on with the show.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.