For the 91st Academy Awards, the producers relied on a series of self-referential dunks to get through the first telecast in 30 years without a host — and the result was solidly entertaining.
The show opened with Queen, led by former American Idol contestant Adam Lambert, giving a somewhat awkward performance that met with a lukewarm response. But the real opening came from comedians Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Maya Rudolph, who started the awards segment by presenting Best Supporting Actress. Fey, Poehler, and Rudolph — longtime friends and collaborators since working on Saturday Night Live together — pulled no punches addressing the elephant in the room.
“We are not your hosts, but we’re going to stand here a little too long so that the people whoa get USA TODAY tomorrow will think we hosted,” Fey joked.
Their routine — which included terrible puns, a quick rendition of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s “Shallow” from A Star Is Born, and some dunks on this year’s nominees, was adorable, charming, and exactly the type of self-aware comedy that this year’s ceremony needed to smooth over the awkwardness of the hostless situation.
That kind of self-aware, relatively gentle humor continued throughout the night. Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry stepped out on stage in absurd costumes while presenting the award for Best Costume Design. Their routine poked fun at the Oscars’ legendary excessive seriousness, while having fun with the subject matter.
These little host-esque moments from various presenters happened alongside some of the sweetest moments in recent memory. Samuel L. Jackson hugged his longtime friend Spike Lee on stage after the latter received his first non-honorary Oscar, for BlackkKlansman. Comedians John Mulaney and Awkwafina nervously bonded and high-fived over their first experiences with presenting awards. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper delivered a swoony, intimate performance of the Best Song winner, “Shallow,” from A Star Is Born.
And then there was every second of Olivia Colman’s clearly overwhelmed, thrilled acceptance speech after she won Best Actress for her portrayal as Queen Anne in The Favourite. The speech started with Colman calling her win “hilarious,” and ended with her looking at Lady Gaga and yelling, “Ah!”
Tonight’s show suggested that the Oscars don’t really need a host after all — there’s enough talent to carry the show without someone paving the way with occasional barbs and jabs at the proceedings. The show felt fleeter than usual — the 190-minute run time made it shorter than most recent Oscar telecasts — and the attention wasn’t on a provocative comedian like Ricky Gervais (who hosted the Golden Globes for numerous years), or on big dance performances or comedy songs about the Oscars, as performed by actors like Neil Patrick Harris or Seth MacFarlane. The ceremony didn’t take on an overt political message, as hosts like Jimmy Kimmel have done in the past, but the notable number of women and actors of color among the presenters was a reminder that the Academy isn’t ignoring the modern climate, either.
There were some surprises this year, notably Green Book winning Best Picture, in an environment that considered Netflix’s film Roma the odds-on favorite to win. But the real surprise is how easy it was to forget that the ceremony didn’t have a host this year. By the end of the night, it was easy to forget the lack of a host had ever been an issue.