An insider's guide to the jokes at the Oscars

Host Alec Baldwin, right, and Steve Martin on stage at the 82nd Academy Awards Sunday, March 7, 2010. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Host Alec Baldwin, right, and Steve Martin on stage at the 82nd Academy Awards Sunday, March 7, 2010. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill) Associated Press

It's a few days before the Academy Awards, and I'm deep in the bowels of the Kodak Theater (which has miles of bowels) in a cramped space temporarily named the Writers' Room. The show writers, of whom I am one this year, are sitting around a conference table strewn with papers, Starbucks cups and the wrappers of long-deceased snacks. Also at the table are the co-hosts we're writing for, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. We're going over the monologue they'll deliver at the start of the show (which is actually a dialogue, but everybody calls it a ``monologue'').

The monologue has been under construction for a couple of months now, via a process that's both serious, because it's for the Oscars, and funny, because it's basically a bunch of comedy writers sitting around thinking up jokes. The early writers' conferences took place in Los Angeles. I participated by phone from Miami, which was not ideal because (a) I could hear only about every third word, and (b) I was in a room with my dog, Lucy, who often barks violently to alert me if she sees something alarming outside the window such as a leaf. So from my perspective, the writers' conferences went like this:

WRITERS IN CALIFORNIA: What if we did a joke about (garble garble) Woody Harrelson (garble garble) refrigerator (garble garble) kangaroo. (Laughter.)

STEVE MARTIN (into phone): Dave, what do you think?

ME: I didn't really . . .

LUCY: Bark! Bark! Bark!


The writers' meetings produced several hundred ideas for jokes, bits, skits, etc., which got winnowed down to a few dozen and arranged into a rough draft of the monologue. Now Steve and Alec are going over the jokes in the Writer's Room, trying them out, critiquing them, tweaking them. The hosts have very different styles. Steve is reserved, analytical, dry, almost professorial. He's also a perfectionist who will spend 20 minutes dissecting a single element of a joke, trying to determine the absolute best way to word something. He's a joke scientist.

Alec is more like a humor fullback. He's a big, physical guy, charming and charismatic; wherever he goes, the men want him to like them, the women want him to make love to them, and the cattle want to provide him with steaks. He's also very funny, and tends to dominate the Writers Room, launching into stories, delivering lines, doing accents (he's an excellent mimic). Usually he decides quickly whether he likes a joke or not, then wants to move on; whereas Steve will want to consider it 15 or 20 or possible 53 more times before he's sure.

Despite their different styles, Steve and Alec like and respect each other, and as they go through the monologue they're able to reach agreement on which jokes they'll keep, and which ones they'll kill. We writers take notes, looking outwardly calm and professional, although we're mentally cheering or despairing depending on what happens to the jokes we personally wrote. At least I do that. If they keep one of my jokes, inside I'm going ``Yayyy!'' If they kill one of mine, I'm ``Noooo! Not that one!'' But I force myself to maintain my calm facade, trying not to listen to the screams of my joke as it is marched away to the joke death camp.

Jeremy Renner's family celebrates Hurt Locker victory

Now it's the night before the Oscars, and we're gathered in the theater for a full dress rehearsal. This is a chance to hear how the monologue goes over with an actual audience, consisting of technical people (of whom there seem to be thousands) and the stand-ins who go through the motions of presenting and receiving awards, including giving tedious thank-you speeches. For rehearsal, the movie stars in the audience are represented by large cardboard photographs placed in the seats where the stars will be sitting. Thus when Steve and Alec do a joke about George Clooney, they talk to a photograph of him. (As it turned out, the photograph responded to the joke better than Clooney did.) The rehearsal goes until around 11 p.m., after which Steve and Alec huddle briefly with the writers to go over the monologue yet again, making some changes while we take notes (``Nooo!''). We all go home and enjoy a restful seven to eight minutes of actual sleep, then return to the Kodak Sunday morning for yet another run-through of the entire show, which includes more monologue revisions (``Nooo!'') Then we all change into our Oscars attire, which for men means tuxedos and for women means dresses that they cannot go to the bathroom in without the aid of two registered nurses.

Finally it's showtime. We writers spend the show backstage in a narrow, crowded space, watching on a monitor. We listen to the monologue intently, noting which jokes get laughs and which don't. Basically it seems to go well. When Steve and Alec finish, they come back and join us; they seem relieved and happy, although Steve immediately starts studying the script for their next appearance onstage, looking for things they might want to change. This process continues throughout the show. I'm happy when Up wins the award for Best Animated Feature, because we have a joke for that, and I wrote it; but then, for time reasons, it gets cut. (To save it from the joke death camp, I will tell it to you now: ``Up tells the moving story of a bitter old man whose life is transformed by the most powerful force of all: helium.'')

When there's a longish break between Steve-and-Alec appearances, I wander around the vast backstage area, which is inhabited by a surreal, swirling population of technical people, scurrying walkie-talkie minions, musicians, nearly naked dancers -- and of course movie stars, dozens of them, who pass through constantly, usually surrounded by handlers in convoy formation.

The movie stars congregate backstage in the Green Room, a lavishly furnished and catered area guarded by a large man who looks as though he would greatly enjoy lifting you up by your lips. It's extremely difficult to get past this man, but, as one of the writers, I have a special credential that allows me into the Green Room. The reason for this is that sometimes the movie stars want to confer with a writer about their lines, but I'm not one of the writers who do that. If Penelope Cruz asked me a question about her script, I would respond by drooling on her shoes.

Penelope Cruz on Sunday / Associated Press

So I had no real business being in the Green Room, but since I had the credential, I went in anyway. You will never guess who was in there. The answer is, I have no idea. I was so busy trying to appear as though I had a professional reason to be there and was not just a gawking yahoo that I never made eye contact with anything except the buffet table. I strode professionally over to it, helped myself to an hors d'oeuvre -- it was chicken, I think -- and strode professionally back out of the room. So I never really saw who was there, although I did brush past somebody who had approximately the same body mass as a corn stalk, which I believe was Sarah Jessica Parker.

Now, finally, we're nearing the end of the show. It seems to be going well; Steve and Alec are getting laughs, so they're happy, although Steve is still tweaking the script. Finally, approximately 17 years after the opening monologue, the show is over. We applaud Steve and Alec as they come offstage. Then I head out into the theater to find my wife, who watched the show from the audience, sitting dangerously close to George Clooney. I bump into Pete Docter, the director of Up, who's holding his Oscar and looking ecstatic; I shake his hand and tell him I loved his movie, which I did; it is only through great force of will that I refrain from telling him the helium joke.

I find my wife and we head over to the Governors' Ball with Tim Robbins and Stanley Tucci (I am using the word ``with'' in the sense of ``in the same vicinity as''). We eat dinner in a vast room full of famous and important showbiz people, then leave (with Barbra Streisand and Oprah) to catch two hours of sleep before driving to LAX to catch a 6 a.m. flight so we can be home in time to pick up our daughter at school.

I was happy to get back to reality, or at least Miami. But it was fun to work on the Academy Awards. If you watched the show, I hope you enjoyed it; and if you thought it could have been better, please be patient, because I think Steve is still tweaking the monologue.