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The only time the Oscars ended early

At least on TV

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Emily VanDerWerff

Oct 12 2020

8 min read

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Jerry Wald had a mission. He was going to keep the 31st annual Academy Awards from running over their allotted time slot on NBC.

The veteran film producer (an Oscar nominee himself for producing the films Mildred Pierce, Johnny Belinda, Peyton Place, and Sons and Lovers) had produced the 30th annual awards in 1958, and he saw how easy it was for the bloated broadcast to run well past the time the network had for it. The Oscars had only been televised for six years at that point, with the 25th annual awards in 1953 the first to air on TV, but they already had a reputation for being long, needlessly drawn out, and a little boring. Still, this was one of the best places to see movie stars in their element. What was the public going to do? Not watch? There were only three networks!

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Jerry Lewis is ready to party at the 31st Academy Awards. (Credit: the Oscars’ YouTube channel)

During the 1958 show, Wald came up with the idea of having a rotation of six hosts, who would pop up throughout the evening to keep the audience intrigued. He repeated the stunt in 1959, with Oscars stalwart Bob Hope heading up a group that included David Niven, Mort Sahl, Jerry Lewis, Tony Randall, and Laurence Olivier (the acclaimed funny man). Niven would actually be the only host to win an Oscar while hosting, once he picked up the award for Best Actor for his performance in Separate Tables.

But none of that is why we are here. We are here because of Jerry Wald’s mission to make the Oscars shorter.

Every Oscars producer promises to make the awards more compressed, so the public doesn’t get dreadfully bored and tune out. But only Wald actually went ahead and did something about it, cutting almost everything that wasn’t a brief host segment or a presentation of an award. Musical numbers? Gone. Dance showcases? Also gone. Lengthy tributes to cinema and its stars? Out the window. It was just going to be a tight evening of awards giving and occasional jokes.

It worked impossibly well. In fact, it worked too well.

By the time the Best Picture award had been given out to the musical Gigi (a foregone conclusion at that point, as the film had won all of the other eight awards it was nominated for), the broadcast was left with 20 minutes in its allotted timeslot and no plan by Wald or anyone to fill that time. The program ended with a large collection of nominees and winners up on stage, and then everybody involved was forced to vamp for time.

So good thing Jerry Lewis was one of the hosts, right?

The mark of a good Oscar host is often how they deal with the weird shit that can happen on live television. The high watermark for this in recent years is likely Jimmy Kimmel carefully air traffic controlling his way out of the La La Land/Moonlight fiasco, in which the former believed it was the Best Picture winner for all of three minutes (due to an envelope mix-up), before the latter claimed its rightful prize. Kimmel’s rather awkward performance across the rest of the evening was wiped away in favor of his ability to just run with the absurd situation he’d found himself in.

Lewis, in a similar situation, with lots of time to kill, ad libbed a handful of jokes (his opener — “And they said Dean and I wouldn’t be on a stage together again” — which refers to the acrimonious split Lewis had with former performing partner Dean Martin, fucking kills in the clip above), then decided to, uh, take over the orchestra from the conductor, waving the baton about awkwardly, before imploring all of the stars on stage to dance together.

Pairing off, the stars did just that, as Wald pulled back into a wide shot of the stage and an announcer simply read off the names of all of the winners. NBC, mercifully, cut away to a sports highlight show.

The legacy of this too-short Oscars hung over the awards for their first decade on television, perhaps creating a subtle “length creep,” wherein producers become reluctant to cut anything from the program because it’s tradition. I have no idea if modern producers even know about Jerry Wald’s too-short Oscars, but every time somebody tries to make the show shorter, I think back to these awards and realize that nobody can ever make the show that much shorter, because doing so would require simply focusing on giving out the awards. And we certainly can’t have that.

The too-short Oscars are an amazing curio, a signifier of a time when the TV rules were still being written, when Jerry Lewis could simply take over an awards show and try to run out the clock. I don’t really want to see a repeat of them, but you have to admit the most recent awards would have been improved if everything had ended 10 minutes short and we had to watch Bong Joon-ho dance with Renee Zellweger or something.

What I’ve been up to: I’ve alluded, for years, to a piece I wrote in 2017 about Fox News that was never published, due to its massive length (it was around 6,500 words). I have been slowly but surely repurposing a lot of it for parts, and the biggest chunk of it appeared this week, when I reworked it into a piece on how Fox News takes storytelling strategies from Lost and other shows like it:

What’s always been interesting to me about Fox News (and the many other conservative media operations that travel along in its wake) is how successful it is compared to similar news organizations on the left — both in viewership, where it’s routinely the number one cable news network, and in framing political narratives. Surely partisan news should be popular with people on the other side of the aisle, too, right? And it definitely can be. MSNBC has had some success playing to mainstream liberalism, while leftist podcasts are a booming market. But there’s no left-of-center equivalent to Fox News.


And one under-considered reason for Fox News’s dominance only becomes clear if you watch a bunch of it over time, as I have off and on for the past decade: It’s structured a lot like a serialized puzzle box drama, like Lost or Stranger Things.


Read me: Not to link to myself again, but I recently reread this piece I wrote in 2013 about the rise of Netflix, and, uh, I got a lot of stuff right:

Sadly, in its bid to change the way we consume television—and open itself up as a content provider on the level of those other networks—Netflix has mostly gone the reverse-engineering route. In fact, going by this Salon article by Andrew Leonard, that’s exactly what the streaming site has done. Chasing after distinctive voices isn’t necessary when a site has algorithms that will predict roughly how well any given user will like its product, algorithms it can then use to decide which projects to pick up and which to pass on. House Of Cards didn’t have to be a wild bolt out of the blue to be a success; it just had to be good enough and check off most of the right boxes to draw in an audience. The series has been sold as coming from David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey, but its primary creative voice occasionally seems to be a computer program, rather than showrunner and head writer Beau Willimon, or even the writers of the British original.


Is there anything wrong with this? I honestly don’t know. I wouldn’t give any of the seven House Of Cards episodes I’ve watched higher than a B+, but I also wouldn’t go lower than B-. The show neatly splits the difference between being just good enough and never trying anything risky enough to turn off large portions of its audience. Weirdly enough, it reminds me of a CBS procedural like NCIS, one that knows exactly what its audience is—it doesn’t include me—and goes out of its way to service that audience. I’m distinctly in the audience for House Of Cards, so I more or less like what I’m seeing. But it never pushes too far or tries too hard; it’s a narrative of hyper-competence, where Underwood never truly has to take risks, and that sheen extends to the production of the show itself. Instead, the risk extends to the method in which the show is presented, in offering up the whole series at once and gambling that those who pick up a free trial month to watch the show will be convinced to stick around, thanks to all of the other stuff Netflix has on offer.


Watch me: I’ve become weirdly obsessed with digging through the archives of TV interviews on the TV Academy’s website. There’s so much great stuff in here, and I’ve been hopping around from conversation to conversation like a very happy pig in slop. If you’re a TV fan, it’s terrific stuff.

And another thing… The Digital Transgender Archive is a remarkable collection of news stories from around the world and throughout history that underline just how common trans lives have been in the mass media era. Far from being something that has only recently burst onto the scene, our stories have always been there, if you knew where to look.

This week’s reading music: “Sweetness Follows” by REM

Episodes is published once per week and is about whatever I feel like that particular week. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.

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