Chris Rock was the funniest Oscar host I ever saw.
Mind you, I’m not talking about the performance this year’s Oscar emcee gave on the 77th Academy Awards in 2005, the only other time he’s hosted the show.
I think he was pretty good on that show, with a sharp opening monologue that offered a good mixture of political humor and show-business jokes and paved the way for ruder hosts like Ricky Gervais on the Golden Globes several years later.
The most famous moment, of course, was Rock’s riff on how Jude Law was omnipresent that year: “Even the [movies] he’s not in, if you look in the credits he made cupcakes or something.” The routine notoriously prompted a deadly earnest Sean Penn to answer Rock’s onstage query “Who is Jude Law?” with a dour, “He’s one of our finest actors.”
But the jokes I remember from that year were the ones that didn’t make it on the air. They began in his first press conference, when he replied to the question, “What are you bringing to the Oscars that other hosts might not?” with a succinct, “Weed.”
I also sat in on all the rehearsals for that year’s show, during which an unfettered, off-the-cuff Rock prowled the stage before the cameras were turned on.
“What’s up, you bitches?” was his opening line at his first Kodak Theatre rehearsal, and his completely inappropriate remarks kept the audience of stand-ins and staffers in stitches as much as anything I’ve seen in two-and-a-half decades of observing Oscar shows.
A little while later: “A couple of years ago, she won and Oscar and was a big star. What the f— happened? Ladies and gentlemen, Gwyneth Paltrow!”
And when he spotted the seat card that marked where Orlando Bloom would be sitting, he wondered aloud who Bloom was. Told that the actor was a star of the “Lord of the Rings” movies, Rock scoffed, “The star of that movie was the Lord and the ring — not you, Bloomie.”
The presenters, to be sure, were not in the house when he did this, and Rock insisted, “I do this out of love — like Don Rickles.” He also threw in lines like, “‘Catwoman’s’ so bad, it made me hate pussy,” so perhaps it wasn’t surprising when the ABC staffer assigned to man the five-second-delay button complained of stomach pains and had to be taken to the hospital.
(The network’s head of standards and practices took over, and never had to use the button.)
Will that Rock show up onstage at the Dolby Theatre next Feb. 28? Of course not — but maybe a little bit of that Rock could sneak into his performance, now that he’s been given another shot at the show. Let’s face it, the Oscars could use a little bit of the “What will he say next?” tension that the Globes always had when Gervais was onstage.
And anyway, even the guy’s harshest onstage critics forgave him back in 2005. When Rock walked offstage at the end of the show, he immediately spotted Sean Penn standing in the doorway to the green room across the hall.
“Hey Sean!” shouted Rock. “It was just a joke, man!” And immediately, Penn broke into a wide grin and wrapped Oscar’s funniest host in a big hug.
A version of this story appeared in the February 2015 issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.