The Return of Billy Crystal is one of the biggest stories of Sunday (Feb. 26) night’s Academy Awards telecast, but behind the familiar face is a familiar returning voice.
Longtime stand-up favorite and “Seinfeld” and “Larry Sanders” veteran Carol Leifer, fresh off a WGA award as part of the “Modern Family” staff, is writing for the Oscars for the seventh time, her third time writing for and with Crystal as host.
Just days away from the Oscars, I chatted with Leifer about why viewers will treat Crystal like comfort food after last year’s less-than-warmly-received telecast, whether the writers are concerned about the perception “The Artist” has the night’s big awards in the bag and how she wants people to discuss the show on Monday morning.
Click through for the full interview…
HitFix: OK. We’ve got five more days to go until the Oscars. How’s the show looking and can you actually afford the time to be talking to me right now?
Carol Leifer: [Laughs.] No, I can’t. And good-bye. [Pause.] Ummm… You know, yeah, this is crunch time, but honestly, this is where it all gets so exciting to me. Every year there are even more award shows, there are endless ones, but there’s only one Oscars and that’s why I not only love working on it, but I’m so honored that it’s my seventh time back. It’s not a job you get for life. Each year you need to be hired anew. There’s no job like it. It’s just really fantastic and I get as excited for the show on Sunday as the audience does.
HitFix: You’ve written for and with Billy Crystal as Oscar host and for and with other Oscar hosts. How is it different working with Billy than any other host?
CL: The thing that I love, and this is my third time working with Billy, is he takes it really seriously. I don’t know any host who works harder than he does. He just wants to be committed to giving the best show possible, but what I think is amazing about him, working with him, is that as diligently as he works, and he does work hard on the Oscars, when the show starts and the curtain comes up, he has so much fun and he’s so in the moment. He loves doing the Oscars and I think it really shows. A live performer goes out to host the Oscars, it’s like being a pilot, you know? If you’re nervous, the audience is nervous. They take the cues from you. I don’t think anybody has a better time doing it than he does.
HitFix: How conscious are you guys of what a Billy Crystal Oscar show traditionally feels like? And how much do you either want to meet those expectations or attempt to surprise people?
CL: Well, certainly Billy has a reputation for doing certain things for the audience that they’ve come to know. Since my confidentiality agreement went from a post-it a few years ago to like a 10-page document, I can’t really say much, but I think Billy’s like comfort food to the audience and I think they’re excited to see him this year, because he’s done it more than anybody, I think, except for Bob Hope and I think they’re going to be pleasantly surprised that he’s back, because Billy’s a guy that you know, when he hosts the Oscars, you’re gonna be in for a great ride.
HitFix: You didn’t work on last year’s Oscars telecast, but looking back on that show, why do you think viewers are going to want “comfort food” this year?
CL: I think that also being a stand-up comic, I have a real reverence for the hosts who, like Billy and like every other comedian I’ve worked for, who host the Oscars, because I think it’s what’s needed. I don’t think people realize that to host the Oscars, you need someone to walk out who’s very used to walking out in front of live audiences and knows that animal, you know? I’m really partial to the comedians, because I think you need that kind of presence at the biggest show, the greatest show on Earth, as far as I’m concerned. You need someone who has that weight of walking out in front of a billion people, who has the confidence to say, “I do this. I’m in front of live crowds all the time and this is something I can handle.” I think it’s maybe too big a proposition for people who don’t do that for their career. That’s why I love when they have comedians.
HitFix: Is this one of those situations where on the morning after each year, people are like, “Geez, we want something different,” but then when it actually comes around, it turns out that they really don’t at all?
CL: It’s interesting. I’m not involved in the decision-making of the Academy of who they want and who they want to go after or what their concerns are by way of demo or whatever, but I think that it’s always clear, year in and year out, to get a seasoned comedian is the kind personality you need to really be the master of ceremonies for this show, because they’re the host, the host for the evening of like a great party, and you want that foundation to be really solid and really great. Whatever host they have, the Monday Morning Quarterbacking, you can never go wrong with a seasoned vet and I think that’s why people are so excited about Billy being back. He hasn’t done it for a while and they know that they’re in good hands with him. Look, I was excited about Eddie Murphy. He’s another comedy buddy of mine, I go back with a long time ago, someone who certainly knows about live performing and all that. For whatever reason that didn’t work out and I’m just so glad they went to Billy.
HitFix: What is the mixture of new and established writers like in the room drafting this?
CL: There are a bunch of us who have worked on it many times before, but Billy also hired a few new people who simply sent him jokes that he saw on the page and then responded to and the next thing you know, they’re hired onto the Oscars. I think that’s really cool about someone like him, that he doesn’t just have the vets who’ve been around and have worked with him countless times before. He’s also smart enough to know that there’s always great comedy talent out who’s probably undiscovered and to give them a shot.
HitFix: There’s a perception this year that a lot of the major races have been somewhat pre-determined, that we can pretty much guarantee a large number of “The Artist” wins, etc. How does that impact the way you guys attempt to pace the show, particularly in its second half?
CL: I know if there’s a lot of deliberate thought into that. Honestly, this year is so much better in terms of… “The Artist” might have a slight edge, seemingly, out in the zeitgeist, but it’s way different compared to the years that I’ve worked on where… “Avatar” was the dominant movie or “Lord of the Rings” or something like that, where there’s such a clear favorite out there that to me, it still feels like anything can happen. We’re really not looking at it from the perspective of, “Oh, this movie or that movie’s gonna dominate.”
HitFix: And as a last question: If the show goes exactly the way you want it to on Sunday night, how would you like to have people discussing the Oscars show on Monday morning?
CL: Hmmm… Well, first, it never goes the way you expect it will. That’s what I love about working on it. It’s just so spontaneous and so anything-can-happen. What I’m confident the audience will take away on Monday morning is, “Man, it was good to have Billy Crystal back. Boy, this was just what the doctor ordered.”
The Oscars air on ABC on Sunday, February 26. Follow Hitfix and Oscar.com for all of your Academy Awards coverage needs on Sunday afternoon and evening.