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.