Winning Way With Awards Shows

Jan 27, 2008  •  Post A Comment

She’s a talk show phenom, a groundbreaking sitcom star and, yes, an awards show host. Since she co-hosted the 1995 Genesis Awards with Ed Asner, Ellen DeGeneres has carved out a niche as a popular host for awards shows as diverse as the VH1 Fashion Awards and the Grammys and as prestigious as the Primetime Emmys and the Academy Awards.
Producer Don Mischer recalled the first time he hired Ms. DeGeneres to co-host the Emmys, with Patricia Richardson, in 1994. “Ellen’s show had only been on the air for six episodes, and I took a lot of heat for that,” Mr. Mischer said. “But [publicist] Pat Kingsley showed me a lot of things Ellen had done, and I met with her and had a gut feeling that she would do a great job. She scored. The night after the Emmys, no one was asking me why we hired her.”
Mr. Mischer said he was wowed by some of Ms. DeGeneres’ bits. “She went to the top row of the Shrine Auditorium and asked the couple up there who they knew to get those seats,” he said. “She did bits in the aisles. She was fabulous.”
Ms. DeGeneres’ spontaneity and down-to-earth humor made an impression on Mr. Mischer. “Award shows are hard shows to produce,” he said. “Much more can go wrong than can go right. It’s impossible to plan 12 segments on a live show and have any more than eight or nine at the most go right. Ellen had irreverence, but underneath it she was happy to be on stage, she felt comfortable there. You could tell she loved TV and respected the Emmy Awards.”
It was the 53rd annual Primetime Emmys in 2001 that played a crucial role in Ms. DeGeneres’ path as a host. She had agreed to do the show in April, recalled Mr. Mischer, and meetings began in the summer. Planning for the show was light-hearted—when Anne Heche came out with a book talking about communicating with extraterrestrials, they thought about having Ellen hover down to the stage in a spaceship.
Then came Sept. 11, and everything changed. The awards show was immediately postponed. After weeks of soul-searching, the show was rescheduled as a bicoastal event with Walter Cronkite and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Then that show was canceled at the last moment when the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan.
When, on Nov. 4, the scaled-down show was ultimately broadcast, Ellen’s mix of irreverence and humor was a huge hit. “She was quick on her feet, which you need to be as an awards show host,” Mr. Mischer said. “She was funny and unpredictable, and her humor was never mean-spirited or at the expense of someone else. It was the kind of humor people needed.”
Indeed, in her opening monologue, Ellen most memorably said, “We’re told to go on living our lives as usual, because to do otherwise is to let the terrorists win, and really, what would upset the Taliban more than a gay woman wearing a suit in front of a room full of Jews?”
“I had written two other totally different monologues,” Ms. DeGeneres said. “And it could have been morose. But it was still important to wear the Bjork swan dress to try to lighten it up. We didn’t want to be disrespectful, but we still wanted to celebrate people’s hard work and people wanted to laugh. So I was very proud that it turned out the way it did.”
“She was the right person at the right time,” Mr. Mischer said. “There aren’t a lot of people who could step up and do this.”
The awards community agreed, and offers to host award shows poured in: the VH1 Divas Las Vegas, the 54th Primetime Emmy Awards, the 57th Primetime Emmy Awards and, ultimately, the big one: the Academy Awards. Producer Laura Ziskin had seen Ms. DeGeneres host the 2001 Primetime Emmys and was impressed with her performance. “She was phenomenal,” she said. “She killed. It got filed in the back of my brain and I thought, if I ever did the Oscars again, I would be interested in her.” When the 2007 Oscars rolled around, and Ms. Ziskin was set to produce, she called Ms. DeGeneres.
“Hosting the Oscars was up there with the moments in my life that I’ll never forget,” said Ms. DeGeneres. “Just walking out on stage was a huge moment.”
From Ms. Ziskin’s point of view, the results were spectacular. “Ratings were very good, and we went way up with women,” she said. “Ellen is very real, and yet she’s quite unpredictable. A star always has a quality of danger, but she’s not going to hurt you. She’s a good human and that comes across, so people relax and feel comfortable. She’s so game, and I had a spectacular time working with her. What more could you ask for?”

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