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Playing The Big Room: An Oscars Joke-Writer Reflects

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Hollywood's biggest night is in just a few weeks. People tend to focus on the glitz, the glamour and — of course — the gowns. But we thought we'd take a moment to focus on the gags.

Or rather what goes into writing both the jokes that fall flat and the jokes that soar. For a bit of Oscars Writing 101, NPR's All Things Considered turned to Dave Boone, who has written for the Academy Awards eight times.

For those keeping count at home, that's four Billys, two Whoopis, one Steve and one Ellen. Boone has also written for many other awards shows, including the Tonys, the Emmys and the Golden Globes.

He joined NPR's Audie Cornish to talk about his general Oscar-joke guidelines, favorite awards-show moments and why this year's host, Seth MacFarlane, has the potential to take the broadcast to a raunchier place.

Interview Highlights

On why it's important to know the limits of a joke

"I think any time you get too political, it can tend to turn the audience off. What does the public think about Hollywood? They think everybody's very far to the left, and they think that everyone hates anyone to the right, and if you do too many jokes that sort of feed that sensibility, you're gonna just turn people off.

"And you have to also let them know that we get it, that the Oscars are kind of pretentious. You know, there was a year that the statues had been stolen and Billy [Crystal] did a joke about the suspect being 'armed and pretentious,' and that sort of said it all."

Why it's important to know the range of the audience

"People are still talking about Uma and Oprah, unfortunately ... it is a global audience, of course, so you wanna do jokes that people around the world watching the show are gonna get.

"We also try and throw in some jokes that are 'for the room' — jokes about Harvey Weinstein [head of the perennially winning studio the Weinstein Co.].

"You know, Harvey's known as a gruff, big, larger-than-life personality, and he's also a guy who can take a good joke. After Chicago won best picture, he sent us some beautiful cuff links with a note that said, 'If a picture's worth a thousand words, a joke on the Oscars is worth a million at the box office — so thanks."

On why some actors make better punchlines than others

"You go to Jack Nicholson whenever you can because he's the greatest audience in the world. He's a great laugher, he's a huge global movie star, and he's a guy who knows how to laugh at himself.

"The people up front ... it's interesting. Billy once pointed out that the laughter comes from the back of the room — the non-nominees, the family, the friends, the Academy members who scored tickets. They're more willing to laugh than the people up front who are nominated — there's lighting on them, television lighting, which kind of always makes somebody uncomfortable. There's cameras pointed at them.

"That's why a lot of times, you'll hear laughter, but you may not see the folks up front laughing because they're just nervous."

Knowing the host, and writing from backstage

"Understanding the sensibilty of the host is the most important thing, and feeding what we already know about them, giving them jokes that are in their wheelhouse, so to speak. ...

"We're reacting all night long — you know, there's only a certain number of jokes you can write in advance. You can kind of say, 'Well, let's write a lot of jokes in case this movie happens to win a lot,' [and] then you've got something in your hip pocket.

"Otherwise, you wanna be reactive to what's going on. If you were hosting something in your living room and somebody spilled a punch bowl on the floor, you would certainly comment on it.

"If somebody's gonna make an outrageous acceptance speech, you want to say something about it. You wanna gauge the reaction of the audience in the room, and if they are approving, you wanna be the guy who disapproves. If they're disapproving, then you wanna kind of ride that and go, 'Yeah, you know what, you're right.' "

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