Wanted: Writers for awards show jokes. Must be skilled at diplomacy

Will Smith, right, hits presenter Chris Rock on stage while presenting the award for best documentary feature at the Oscars on Sunday, March 27, 2022, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

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In the middle of struggling through the opening monologue of the Golden Globes in January, comic Jo Koy did something unusual, if not unprecedented, for the host of a major awards show: He blamed the writers.


“I wrote some of these — and they’re the ones you’re laughing at,” he said of his jokes, prompting writers across the country to grind their teeth.

Koy, who later apologized, endured some light mockery a week after the show, when his ex-girlfriend Chelsea Handler followed up a successful joke in her monologue at the Critics Choice Awards by saying, “Thank you for laughing at that. My writers wrote it.”

If something positive came from this episode, it’s that a spotlight was put on a corner of the showbiz workforce that tends to remain in the shadows: the joke writers for awards shows such as the Oscars on Sunday.

“It’s a small fraternity, and they always remained anonymous,” said Bruce Vilanch, the best known of this breed, who said his acclaim for the job, which included starring in the 1999 documentary “Get Bruce!,” had spurred resentment among his predecessors. “They were not personalities in their own way. They never talked about this stuff. I think there was almost a code.”

Indeed, two of the three veterans who wrote jokes for the Golden Globes monologue declined to comment for this article, and a third didn’t respond to a request. While the hosts get all the attention, the writers do work that is less understood and equally tricky, requiring skill, self-awareness and even diplomacy.

Not only do writers not get much credit if things go well, they also don’t always get to attend. Megan Amram wrote for the disastrous host pair James Franco and Anne Hathaway at the 2011 Oscars and didn’t get a ticket to the ceremony. “James and Anne didn’t have the same, let’s say, creative taste,” she told me, using the kind of careful language you hear from this class of writers to describe the challenges they face. Those include the balancing act of finding jokes that will kill both in the room and on television, for audiences of vastly diverse demographics.

Amram, who later wrote for host Jimmy Kimmel at the 2018 Academy Awards, likens writing jokes for the Oscars to giving a best man’s speech at the world’s biggest wedding. “You want it to be a little bit edgy, but not so much that it turns off the grandparents.”

Inside the ceremonies, the audiences are tough: self-conscious, nervous and, as the night unfolds and more of them lose, in a souring mood. Robert Wuhl, a comic and actor who wrote for Billy Crystal when he hosted the Oscars, thinks that there shouldn’t even be comedy bits after the monologue. “It stops the show cold,” he said. “It’s not our show. Do the first eight to 10 minutes and get out of the way. It’s already too long.”

Kimmel, who is back as host of the Oscars on Sunday, benefits from bringing his late-night staff, which knows his voice. There are generally two sets of awards show writers: those who work for the host and those who write for the presenters and others on the show, and the two teams rarely intermingle. Compared with the Globes, which used three writers for the host and five overall, there is a small army for the Academy Awards on Sunday — about two dozen.

One of them, comic Jesse Joyce, said he once wrote an entire Tonys monologue for Kevin Spacey by himself despite never seeing a single show on Broadway that year. He said awards show bits demand a more formal style. In late night or stand-up, he explained, you gum up the language to make it seem conversational. “There’s a polish to award show jokes,” he added. “I think it’s a better showcase for sharp, precise jokes, so I kind of admire it on a clinical skill level.”

Renee Gauthier, who was one of two people writing material for presenters at the Globes, said the only person who didn’t have any notes was Oprah Winfrey.

When Koy criticized his writers, Gauthier, who had also submitted monologue jokes, told me her phone blew up with texts from outraged comics. “I didn’t think it was cool for that to be said about writers,” she said. “But as a comedian, I understand. He kind of freaked out and got in his head.” She added: “I forgive him.”

Ironically, part of the problem may have been a failure to listen to writers. Gauthier said they suggested Koy begin with a self-deprecating joke drawing attention to his status as a relative unknown next to Meryl Streep, Martin Scorsese and other major Hollywood figures in the room. Gauthier’s version was something like: “I know you don’t know who I am, but I know exactly who you are.” Echoing many of the writers I talked to, she said he would have been helped by poking fun at himself. “Jo Koy is known, but this is an A-list party. They aren’t all your peers.”

Then again, writers tend to understand their place in the pecking order better than star hosts. Koy might have been unknown to some in the audience, but as a stand-up, he regularly packs arenas. He opened by saying how thrilled he was to be there, then added that it’s “a dream come true not just for me but everybody in here.”

Vilanch, asked what he would have done, said, “The whole monologue would have been: Who am I and why am I here?”

He also expressed sympathy for Koy, pointing to the shots of stars not laughing. “Did he really need the reaction of Taylor Swift to swiftly bring condemnation upon his soul?” he said.

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