Jon Stewart, Oscar Host

Choose your reaction.

Reactions to last night’s announcement that Jon Stewart will host this year’s Academy Awards ceremony seem to fall into three basic categories. Ever since the Envelope, the L.A. Times’ Oscar-beat blog, broke the story Wednesday night, * the comments section of that site has been afire with increasingly loopy debate (all of it shot through with periodic denials that the writer could possibly care about anything so trivial as the Oscars). What’s most striking about the reaction to the academy’s choice of Stewart as host is how intense, and how immediately political, it’s become. It’s hard to imagine such a sustained and feverish discussion of most other likely choices for the gig: Whoopi Goldberg? Ellen DeGeneres? Jay Leno? But apparently, to be a red-blooded American, you must have a strong opinion on Jon Stewart as Oscar host 2006. Here are your three choices:

1. Yay! From theJon-Stewart-walks-on-water school (which includes lefty bloggers and a lot of crushed-out girls on LiveJournal), there is unalloyed celebration: Finally the academy does something right, he will make the show worth watching for the first time in years, etc. Gil Cates, the show’s producer, who’s said he chose Stewart to attract the young audience that’s been abandoning the broadcast in droves (when Steve Martin hosted in 2003, viewership was at its lowest in 20 years), should be delighted to know that this strategy seems likely to work, at least through the opening monologue: A lot of the kids will be tuning in.

2.Jon Stewart has sold out. The blogger Ron Mwangaguhunga, proprietor of the gossip site Le Corsair, accuses Stewart of “lounging at the Chateau Marmont with Scarlett Johannson” and asks why he isn’t volunteering instead to host this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Having attended that bizarrely insular and profoundly unfunny event last year (through some mixup leading to the mistaken belief that I was an actual journalist), I can attest that, even if he were willing to appear on the same stage as Bush & Co., Stewart would be about as welcome there as Squeaky Fromme.

3.The choice of Stewart is proof that Hollywood is a seething vortex of Bush-bashing liberals (read: Jews). The code for this viewpoint is the use of Stewart’s real last name, Liebowitz, which he once told 60 Minutes he dropped because it sounded “too Hollywood.” This joke has now been turned against its teller, as anti-Semitic knuckle-draggers attempt to “out” Stewart for the very Jewishness he’s constantly alluding to on his own show.

Stewart has already expressed his excitement over the glitzy new freelance job. * While I think Stewart is a wit in the true sense, unbelievably fast on his feet, and one of the smartest comedians currently working, for some of those very reasons, he may be temperamentally ill-suited to this gig. As a comic and a pundit, Stewart is inherently unsentimental, and the essence of the Academy Awards—its blessing and its curse—is its unironic embrace of show-business sentimentality. All the show’s successful hosts in the past—Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg *—have had a healthy streak of that quality. Even Chris Rock, who was blasted last year for being “insufficiently respectful” of the industry, has a sappy side (just look at his sweet-natured sitcom, Everybody Hates Chris). Though it’s de rigueur by now for Oscar hosts to poke fun at the self-seriousness of the bloated telecast, they do so from the inside, and Stewart may be too wry an outside observer to hit the right tone.

Still, I’ll be eager to see what Stewart and his writers, who are collaborating on some of his material, come up with for the evening of March 5. He apparently tanked as the host of the 2001 Grammys (at one point telling the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, I just want to say I feel your scorn, and accept it”) but recuperated slightly in the same slot the following year. Maybe even if Stewart fails at the thankless job of trying to toe the line between piety and irreverence this year, he, and we, will get another chance.

Correction, Jan. 6, 2006: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly stated that Stewart would not be able to comment on his new gig until next week since The Daily Show was in reruns. In fact, a new show had aired, and Stewart did comment on it. (Click here to return to the corrected sentence.) The piece also mistakenly claimed that Ellen DeGeneres had hosted an Academy Award ceremony and that the Envelope broke the story on Thursday night. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)