By early 2006, Jon Stewart, the irreverent host of The Daily Show, a fake television news program on Comedy Central, had seen the ratings for his show jump dramatically as a result of its coverage of the 2004 presidential election. The show spawned a popular spin-off, The Colbert Report, starring Daily Show regular Stephen Colbert, and a best-selling parody of a social studies textbook, America (The Book). On March 5, 2006, however, Stewart took on his highest-profile gig to date–hosting the 78th annual Academy Awards ceremony at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles.
In preparation for the Oscars, Stewart enlisted a team of writers from The Daily Show led by Ben Karlin, a former editor of the satirical newspaper The Onion and the then-executive producer of both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. After the stars swanned down the red carpet, the ceremony began with a filmed segment suggesting Stewart was the last possible choice for the hosting gig and showing a series of former hosts refusing the job.
While Stewart’s deadpan humor might have had audiences laughing at home, his constant poking fun at Hollywood and the stars themselves seemed to meet with a less friendly reception from the Kodak Theatre audience. Jokes about Scientology and Hollywood’s liberal politics fell flat, but the audience did warm up to Daily Show-style fake ads mocking Oscar-campaigning tactics and Stewart’s ad-libbed running joke about the exuberant acceptance speech given by the rap group Three 6 Mafia, who won an Oscar for Best Song for “It’s Hard Out There For a Pimp” (from Hustle & Flow).
In the post-show media analysis the next morning, the consensus seemed to be that Stewart struggled; his hosting performance and its reception by the audience was compared with less-successful hosts from the past, such as David Letterman and Chris Rock, as opposed to Oscar favorites like Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg. He was praised, however, for poking fun at the bloated, self-important nature of the Academy Awards ceremony itself, with its often-overdone production numbers and political posturing by the stars themselves. Stewart earned a second Oscars hosting gig–and better reviews–in 2008, in the wake of Hollywood’s writers’ strike and in the midst of the presidential campaign season.
The 78th annual Oscars were also memorable for the surprising upset victory of the ensemble drama Crash in the Best Picture category. After the Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee took home the Best Director Oscar for Brokeback Mountain, that film’s string of awards seemed to have given it the front-runner’s momentum to win Best Picture, the last statuette of the night. The New York Times called Crash’s selection as Best Picture a “stunning twist” to the evening, while Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times observed that some Academy voters may have been uncomfortable with the subject matter of Brokeback Mountain, which starred Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as sheepherders who fall in love while working in Wyoming in the early 1960s. Acting awards went to Rachel Weisz (Best Supporting Actress for The Constant Gardener), George Clooney (Best Supporting Actor for Syriana), Reese Witherspoon (Best Actress for Walk the Line) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Best Actor for Capote).