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Neil Patrick Harris and the sunk costs fallacy

You guys, I don’t even know anymore.

With the possible exception of the actual nominees and the people paid to doll them up every year, nobody looks forward to the Academy Awards more than I do. Straight guys (I gather) look forward to the Super Bowl in roughly the same way, with all the lesser awards shows that come before functioning as play-offs of sorts in my book. I know it’s all nonsense, but it’s such pretty nonsense that I sucker myself into a frenzy of expectation season after season.

And boy, it’s getting harder and harder to figure out why.

Yesterday evening, the seemingly invincible Neil Patrick Harris demonstrated that he is all too vincible after all. Whatever spark flickered in his previous hosting gigs, rendering both Emmy and Tony broadcasts not merely bearable but genuinely entertaining, early into last night’s Oscar ceremony it sent up a sad little tendril of smoke and left everyone who’d been rooting for him wondering what the hell happened.

(I’m going to pause to note that the Better Half would likely disagree with all of this. He found NPH much more entertaining than I did, so as always YMMV.)

The show started promisingly enough with a song-and-dance number, a la his usual style. I liked it fine, though frankly I’d have preferred a few more jokes. Good ones. But it didn’t suck and it was a hell of a lot better than Seth MacFarlane’s “We Saw Your Boobs” monstrosity from a couple of years ago, so we’ll call it a win.

And that was it… the high point. From there, it was a series of tepidly amusing puns and gags that failed to raise more than polite laughter from the audience. Some were downright god-awful (let us never speak of “With her spoon” again), and while I found reasons to enjoy the “Birdman”-referencing bit where NPH took the stage in his underwear, it wasn’t because it was so very witty.

But nothing compared in lameness to a bit that failed to land when he introduced it, revolving around a locked box with his own Oscar predictions in it. Poor Octavia Spencer was dragooned into playing along, “guarding” the thing, and neither the set-up nor an excruciating follow-up were amusing at all. Thus it was with howls of dismay that I greeted NPH’s opening the box at the very end of the ceremony to read a series of topical jokes about the show that may have been funny had they been delivered in a timely manner, but had no business drawing out a show that had already lasted until midnight right before Best Picture was announced. Absolutely no one would have missed it, and it’s a shame there was nobody involved in producing the event who had the wherewithal to cut it. All it did was prove that the sunk costs fallacy applies to jokes, too.

As for the rest of the show, it was… fine. Patricia Arquette capped her acceptance speech with a call for equal pay that would have had me rolling my eyes had it come from Susan Sarandon, but since Arquette hasn’t relentlessly trafficked in polemics this awards season felt genuinely stirring. “Everything is Awesome” provided a moment of actual fun, much like Lupita Nyong’o dancing to “Happy” did last year. We finally live in a world where we can use the phrase “Academy Award-winning actress Julianne Moore.” And Lady Gaga reminded everyone that under the meat dress is a mean set of pipes, even though I still can’t figure out the batshittery of that whole “Sound of Music” tribute medley.

But poor Neil. For as affable and charming as he so often seems, last night was a sad let-down. (I’ll forgive his joke about a woman’s dress moments after her acceptance speech in which she talked about her son’s suicide, in hopes he simply didn’t hear it before going back on.) If I were to guess, I’d say that he knew how much good will the audience had for him going in, and relied far too much on it to sell jokes that just weren’t funny enough on their own merits.

Whatever it was, he simply lacked the energy that made his prior hosting gigs so fun. Before last night, I would have put him on a short list of sure-fire winners for the gig (right behind Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, whose triumphant Golden Globes hat trick has shown that hosting really can be done perfectly). While hardly a slow motion disaster along the lines of James Franco (surely you didn’t think I would avoid mentioning James Franco), it was a surprising and disappointing two-footed landing from a performer who’s made it look so easy up until now.

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32 thoughts on “Neil Patrick Harris and the sunk costs fallacy

  1. …but it’s such pretty nonsense that I sucker myself into a frenzy of expectation season after season.

    And boy, it’s getting harder and harder to figure out why.

    So it is exactly like the Super Bowl.

    I didn’t watch it (I don’t think I’ve watched more than a couple minutes of an award show in this century), but I enjoyed the recap.

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  2. NPH bombed? Nah… NPH wouldn’t do that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VGfYX7NmYnU

    I only sort of knew the Oscars were happening. I was texting with a friend and when I asked what she was doing she said, “Watching the Oscars,” and I said, “Oh.” I went to bed having not watched a minute and knowing nothing of the winners. But when she said that NPH was hosting, I thought, “Hmmm… that might have been fun.” I’m sad to hear that it was not.

    I’m curious, though… how much of the jokes come from the host him/herself and how much is written for them? And if they are using a team, is it “their” team or some default Oscars team? This may vary year-to-year and host-to-host but sometimes the front man takes the brunt — if not the entirety — of the criticism when it is often a team effort.

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    • I’m curious, though… how much of the jokes come from the host him/herself and how much is written for them?

      I thought I could tell the parts where he was ad-libbing by the fact that they were much more funny than the rest of the gig.

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      • I forgot to note the ad-libbing.

        Yes, those obviously come directly from the host and are his/hers to claim or flame.

        But I mean the scripted bits… do these folks tend to write their own? Or are they handed a script? Something in between? Delivery, timing, and crowd engagement are on them. But if you are given bad jokes, even the best of the best can only do so much.

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    • Each Oscar telecast has a credited writing staff. Here is the IMDB page from this year. Those with primary writing credits include Greg Bertlandi (Arrow, Flash), Seth Grahame-Smith (Dark Shadows, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), Michael Green(Green Lantern), and Andrew Kriesberg (Arrow, Flash).

      I’m not going to say this year’s crop are bad writers, but I will say that I wouldn’t expect awards shows to be an area of writing strength for them. In contrast, the main writers last year were Kristen Gore (Futurama), Amy Ozols (Late Night w/ Jimmy Fallon), and Jon Marks (Tonight Show w/ Jay Leno). So, people who are actually paid to write jokes.

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    • Well, of course they are. I’ve watched them religiously since the late 1980s, so their nature as gigantic orgies of self-congratulation is not lost on me.

      Yet sometimes they manage to be fun anyway. Billy Crystal (at his best) and Steve Martin both rendered it so. I thought Whoopie was so-so, but generally funny enough. I’ve already mentioned the master class Fey and Poehler have delivered for the past three years, and NPH himself has hosted the Emmys and Tonys multiple times to much better ends.

      It’s not that it was an awards show, from which I know quite well. It was that it was a crappy one.

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  3. I blame mostly the writers (maybe everyone was too busy from the previous 3 weeks work on SNL 40), but Harris’s timing was a bit off from the get go – it seemed there were prompter issues from time to time, too. Even the opening zinger, while sharp and appropriate, didn’t quite land with the full force it should have. (in contrast, the post-citizen four zinger was delivered perfectly)

    The directing was also the weakest I’ve think I’ve ever seen at an awards show in the 21st century.

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  4. Isn’t it a tradition to have high hopes for the Masters of Ceremonies at the Oscar and then be let down?

    I’m a guy who doesn’t really care about the Superbowl or the Oscars. Sometimes the Oscars award really interesting films but often time they don’t and it is very insidery. I liked Birdman a lot and it is certainly a more interesting sweep winner than the usual fair but I have a suspicion it was picked because it allowed the Academy to pat itself on the pack and take a swipe against superhero movies (not that this is bad).

    People seem angry that Boyhood did not win.

    Eddie Redmayne is a very typical and very forgettable pick for Best Actor based on playing Stephen Hawking.

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  5. In general I didn’t think NPH was any kind of disaster. He was pretty funny at times. But yeah, that last bit. Ya gotta cut that. Kolohe’s right – probably not his call. But if he wasn’t asking for it to be cut and got overruled, that is an epic case of misreading the room.

    My big question was what the heck was Terrence Howard’s deal? It seemed like there must have been prompter issues.

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  6. Growing up with an movie-loving mother, the Oscars represented a High Holy Day in our house. We were allowed to stay up late to watxh them and so I developed a love of the pagentry of it. I still watch them every year and genuinely was rooting for NPH last night because I’ve always thought he was a class act.

    The show was…painful. His jokes really fell flat but it wasn’t just that. Most of the presenters were terrible and looked uncomfortable. The songs, always a risk, were mostly forgettable with the exception of Glory (I think all the tears in the audience were genuine). The Lady Gaga thing was actually pretty awesome but way too late in the show.

    I did think NPH’s speech after his musical number was very good. He talked about the power of movies and reminded everyone that it was also about us movie lovers at home. I feel bad for him but I think, as others have pointed out, he was a victim of the format. If he can rock the Tonys and other shows, why is this a bridge too far? People will call for a revamp and maybe someone will finally listen.

    Interestingly, my wife actually said they should bring back Ricky Gervais. I’m inclined to agree. The folks with thin skin can stay home.

    Also, a couple more notes: The In Memoriam was visually beautiful. I really liked it. Leaving out Joan Rivers? That seemed kind of thoughtless.

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      • Not dues-paying, but voting membership is required. AMPAS is a by-invitation-only thing, with a total membership of around 6,000. The full membership list has never been published, although in more recent years they do announce who they are inviting to join. The LA Times once managed to put together a list of about 5,000 known members — on average, it’s heavily old, white, and male. Her work in the allowed media is pretty thin and (with no disrespect) of little note. It seems entirely possible that she was simply never invited to join.

        Now, if the Emmy Awards snub her, that’s a real slap.

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    • Somehow I missed the fact that they missed Joan Rivers, even though the in memoriam segment was one of only a couple segments I was able to catch (was putting the kid to bed for the first half of the show, and fell asleep with disturbing ease upon my return). But now that you mention it…..you’re totally right.

      That failure is utterly inexcusable, and it’s hard to think it was something other than an intentional slight. Its not as if you just “forget” the woman who was essentially the face of the Oscars for the overwhelming majority of the country, especially given that she had no shortage of film credits in her own right.

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    • you might have hit the head on why the Oscars are struggling to remain relevant. The Oscars are a very formal event that was glamorous at the time but seems stodgy and old-fashioned these days. Its probably one of the few places in modern American were black tie for men and evening gowns for women are required. The only other places were I see so much formal wear are really fancy weddings, ballroom dance competitions, and high school proms. The dress codes of the Oscars are so formal that they seem out of place in modern America.

      Another problem is that the acceptable topics of conversation are much more broader now than they were when the Oscars first appeared. The sort of witty innuendo required of the MC is no longer needed. People can be more direct with risque humor.

      Finally, the poly-centric nature of modern entertainment means that the types of movies that win mean less and less for most people.

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      • I disagree on several points. While the overnight ratings for last nights airing indicate its down from last year (and among the lowest of the last decade) it’s still pulling in 30+ million people and a 25% + share. There’s nothing anywhere on TV anymore that pulls in close to those kind of numbers except the NFL, and then, only in the playoffs. So it’s still relevant. Or at least, still significantly profitable. (160K for 4 hours of work is a lot less than anyone who works on the Big Bang theory makes per hour of television produced).

        Plus if anything, the middlebrow love of Downton Abby shows a fascination with playing dress up among many segments of the TV viewing public (a demo I would bet the Levison family fortune significantly overlaps the Oscar viewers to the point of near congruence)

        Oscars are still shown on network TV in early primetime. They can’t go full Girls, or even the Americans. Witty innuendo is needed more than ever for the modern, more jaded audience, inured to hearing a bleep bleep nearly every night not just on Stewart’s show but also on the Fallon/Kimmel/Letterman ones.

        There has also been a significant disconnect between box office blockbuster and critical darling, at least since the era of the ‘modern’ blockbuster circa Jaws. (though there was that weird stretch in the 90s where ticket sales and oscar recognition did go together – e.g. Dances w/ Wolves, Braveheart, Gump, Titanic, but on the other hand, most of those movies have undergone serious critical assessment revision in recent years)

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      • Someone pointed out that the block from 9-10 eastern time was full of the tech awards to possibly give a window for people to bail to Downton or Walking Dead. Also, Downton didn’t pass on the Superbowl nor last week’s SNL special (which was the highest rated show that week)

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  7. Do they even need a host? Why not just cut down on time by cutting those bits out? Have a few different people doing shticks? That way no one is carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders.

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    • I think they actually do need someone to fill the time between as things get set up, etc., to go from one awarding/entertaining to the next. The MC exists to help glide from distinct event to distinct event in what amounts to a variety show.

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  8. I’ll forgive his joke about a woman’s dress moments after her acceptance speech in which she talked about her son’s suicide

    I’m sure it was unintentional, but stage that right and it could be one of the great tasteless jokes ever.

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  9. First time since around 2003 that I haven’t watched it. Zero interest in it this year after they snubbed Selma in the Acting and Directing categories. It was the best movie I saw in the last year, no contest, and I’ve seen several of the other nominees (The Imitation Game, The Grand Budapest Hotel).

    Plus there’s other, less glaring, snubs to films that were popular, creative, innovative, and well-made: in particular to Andy Serkis’ performace in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I don’t care if the title makes you snicker: he has done fantastic things with motion capture, and created a character that’s as emotionally nunanced and appealing as many of the human ones onscreen in the nominated movies. Snowpiercer deserved some recognition, as well, but 90% of the Academy probably hasn’t even heard of it.

    And looking at the choices, Hollywood has chosen (once again, as with “The Artist” and “Hugo” in 2011 – although, granted, I did like “Hugo”) to reward a movie that’s about the act of filmmaking and drama. It’s a trend that feels all too self-congratulatory and self-involved, to me.

    I’m quite happy not to have watched, and it’s good to know I didn’t miss anything.

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  10. Regarding Academy Awards hosts: my favourite was Jon Stewart, because he played to the people at home rather than to the people in the room. The people in the room didn’t much like it, though.

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