This year’s Oscar ceremony will be remembered because of something out of the ordinary — an incident that has literally not happened in five decades. It’s fair to assume that steps will be taken to make sure a similar mix-up will not be repeated for years.
But while the Academy reflects on that startling twist, it should also consider what has, sadly, become commonplace each year. It would be appreciated by millions of viewers and artists across the globe if the ceremony they eagerly anticipate for months viewed them with empathy and affection. There’s a difference between telling a good joke and being the butt of one.
Much of the three-hour 2017 Oscar ceremony was tarnished by tone-deaf jokes that veered into racism. The blame for that lies mostly with host Jimmy Kimmel (and his writers) — but every year, the Academy chooses a host seemingly incapable of avoiding gags that offend various ethnic identities and cultures.
Here are four ground rules the Academy should follow to avoid these pitfalls for 2018.
- Don’t Joke About People’s Names.
Kimmel’s offenses started early. History was made with the first award of the night as Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim recipient of an acting Oscar in the nearly nine decades of their existence. But the record of this win will be tainted by Kimmel’s crass humor at the expense of Ali’s first name. Kimmel not only joked about its weirdness but also used the name as a baffling and unfunny code-word when the doors opened to the busload of “ordinary people” he had ordered into Dolby Theater.
In the lead-up to this segment, Kimmel implied he wanted to make the evening special for some regular folk. But as they began streaming in, he yet again poked fun at a guest named Ullery. The Oscar may be a “special evening” for Kimmel, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone paraded into an auditorium with smiling celebrities actually wants to be mocked for having a strange name.
On the surface, these may seem like instances of “casual racism,” but here’s the thing: racism can be casual only for the perpetrator, never for the victim. A name is tied to one’s identity as deeply and intricately as a nationality. Names can be the reason behind schoolyard bullying and crude jokes in the workplace. It’s not for nothing that so many Asians and South Asians have an “English” name as well as a traditional one. These are concessions we make every day not for our convenience (why would we?) but for people like Jimmy Kimmel — and no one should have to be reminded of that on the biggest night of their lives.
- Don’t Joke About Ethnicities.
Around the time of the 2016 Academy Awards, the #OscarsSoWhite controversy had reached its nadir. In his opening monologue, host Chris Rock was merciless in his critique of the industry’s racism. However, in a jaw-dropping gag still hard to forget one year later, Rock invited three small Asian kids on to the stage — posing as PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants — and made fun of their math skills as well as Chinese sweatshops.
The Academy apologized for the Asian slurs after an open letter by stalwarts like Ang Lee and George Takei, but their statement’s watered-down language and vague promises of improvement left many unsatisfied. That Chris Rock — who reportedly wrote the gag — didn’t come out with a statement made the fall-out even more frustrating.
The Oscars are intended to celebrate a person’s achievements on the basis of the work alone. On a platform like this, reducing someone to the color of their skin and perpetuating stereotypes about it flies in the face of the Oscars’ mission — as well as common decency.
- Avoid Gags That Turn Audience Members Into Unwitting Punchlines.
Rock’s shocking jabs last year were made worse because they reinforced the stereotype of Asian passivity: It’s hard to stomach the prospect of rewatching those kids standing idly on stage as Rock derided them. That the parents of one kid didn’t even know what their child would be used for makes it all the more heartbreaking.
The same issue arose this year in Kimmel’s tour bus segment. He encouraged the celebrities in the audience to sit still — but, as Daniel Fienberg noted in his review for The Hollywood Reporter, in such gags it’s the “ordinary guests” and their behavior that are on display for gawking eyes both inside the Dolby Theater and living rooms worldwide. It’s to deify the Ryan Goslings and Denzel Washingtons who stand up and be good sports.
Good gags depend upon the participation of their subjects. That’s why Matt Damon’s reaction to being introduced as “guest” was hilarious and, conversely, why Seth MacFarlane’s “We Saw Your Boobs” performance was so heavily criticized. If Kimmel — and the Academy — actually wanted to make “ordinary people” feel special, they should treat them all like they would Matt Damon.
- Hire More Diverse Hosts
In the past 15 years, the Oscar host has been a person of color on two occasions. That person has been Chris Rock. Which means that anyone is capable of making an offensive remark.
But this year John Cho, together with Leslie Mann, was one of the funniest and most charismatic presenters at the Oscars. He’d make an excellent host, as would his “Harold and Kumar” co-star Kal Penn. If someone like Aziz Ansari were hosting, he’d never have made a cheap dig at Mahershala Ali’s name. Cho would never have concocted the gag involving the Asian kids.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the AMPAS’s president, has spoken repeatedly about wanting to diversify the membership of the body. When she ran for reelection last summer, it was with the promise that she’d continue to tackle the implicit white homogeneity of the 6700-strong body — in the hopes that it’d lead to more diverse nominees and recognition of talent.
But those efforts can never reach their full potential so long as the showpiece event organized by the Academy, one broadcast to more than 200 countries, doesn’t reflect their goal.