“They don’t recognize comedy, and you don’t see a lot of black people nominated, so why should I watch it? Where’s my in?”
That was Chris Rock, talking about why he rarely tunes into the Academy Awards, in a 2005 interview with Entertainment Weekly before hosting the Oscars for the first time. A couple of months after that hosting gig — which was criticized by some who thought the comedian’s jokes were disrespectful — Rock was asked by David Letterman if he would ever consider hosting again.
“Yeah,” Rock told his fellow former Oscar emcee. “If there’s a lot of black people on it, I will do the show again.”
Fast-forward 11 years and here we are, about a week away from Rock’s second turn as the host of an Academy Awards show that, as it turns out and has been repeatedly established, will not have “a lot of black people on it.” In 2005, during his opening monologue, the future Top Five star referred to the ceremony as “the Def Oscar jam” because there were four black nominees that year in the acting categories — technically five if you count Jamie Foxx twice, since he was nominated as both lead (for Ray) and supporting (for Collateral). This year, with a slate of nothing but white acting nominees and all the controversy that has come along with that, the Academy Awards ceremony looks more Downton Abbey than Def Jam.
Given the state of the conversation about the Oscars and race in Hollywood, it seems like Rock is being teed-up pretty perfectly to slam down the comedy hammer when he walks onto the Dolby Theatre stage a week from Sunday. Since “bringing the pain” is Rock’s thing, I’m guessing his approach to the Oscars won’t depart radically from what he did before. But what has been different is the way the second Rock Oscars have been promoted. I also suspect that his Oscar night jokes may be received differently as well.
In 2005, the country and the FCC were still recovering from having seen Janet Jackson’s naked breast for maybe half a second during the 2004 Super Bowl broadcast. The possibility that Rock might say a swear word or something else that would qualify as the oratory equivalent of bare nipple was something that ABC — eager to capitalize on the Oscar TV ratings boost it had gotten the year before, during the reign of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King — attempted to use to its advantage. Promos for the show emphasized the idea that anything could happen during an Oscars with Chris Rock in charge; as Frank Rich noted in a New York Times column, one spot that aired during the then-heavily watched Desperate Housewives featured Rock “fondling the Oscar statuette (in all its gold nudity) and declaring, ‘You won’t believe the halftime show!’ ” In the blitz of press before the ceremony, Rock also said some things that generated chatter, in particular about the Academy Awards’ audience. “What straight black man sits there and watches the Oscars?” he rhetorically asked Entertainment Weekly‘s Josh Wolk. “Show me one.”
This year, the marketing of Rock has been much more subdued. After the #OscarsSoWhite furor prompted some to suggest that he should step down as host, Rock, ABC and the Academy have kept things pretty chill. Rock has done few interviews and the promos have been pretty standard. This”Let’s Do This” Oscar teaser, for example, hints that he plans to come out with his gloves off, but doesn’t exactly confirm that he plans to throw punches.
His more recent Shonda Rhimes-themed Oscar commercials are designed to draw in viewers who regularly watch Scandal or How to Get Away With Murder; a smart approach, but hardly controversial.
Maybe Oscar planners will crank up the volume about Rock in the coming days but for now, their promotional strategy is the opposite of what it was last time: all calm, no firestorm. It almost feels like they’re setting no expectations so that Rock can easily exceed them. Or, perhaps after all the lack-of-diversity chatter, they’re just trying to lay low so that Rock can make maximum impact.