This is the most iconic moment of Ellen Degeneres’ first gig hosting the Oscars: returning from a commercial break to Ellen nonchalantly but apologetically vacuuming the front row was a bit I loved at the time, and still find incredibly charming, as it worked to break the tension at what can at times be an overly self-serious occasion.
The same Ellen returned to host this year’s Oscars, but the culture around her was different. She was still spending time interacting with the celebrities in the first few rows, and she was still building her comedy around bits, but she was doing so in the era of selfies and retweets. The punctuated comedy of the vacuuming bit was replaced by the drawn-out pizza stunt, in which no amount of small moments—like Brad Pitt stepping in to distribute plates—could make up for the fact the bit was going on too long and to no particular end.
Upon seeing Ellen’s hosting style reimagined for an online audience, I was struck by she is basically playing the role of “Oscar Troll.” She’s not there to celebrate the year in cinema, or to simply make jokes about the celebrities in attendance; she is there to actively and consistently disrupt the proceedings. She is not actively vicious toward celebrities (hence why she made peace with Liza Minnelli as soon as possible after her cruelest monologue joke), but like many trolls she combines a clear affective relationship to the event with a desire to mess with it as much as possible.
It’s a choice that was somewhat more difficult to swallow when combined with a product-placed phone and the almost desperate quest for Internet virality oozing from the bits themselves, but I still prefer it to other strategies for hosting. Whereas some Oscar hosts disappear, Ellen’s entire schtick is her refusal to disappear. Even as the show was running long—as it always does—she was there to riff on it, at a time when other Oscars hosts would more likely have been sitting in a green room waiting to shuffle onstage to say “good night!” It creates the sense she never stopped, that during every commercial break she was either changing costumes or making sure there wasn’t any vacuuming that needed done.
Being the “Oscar Troll” has its downsides, and I’m not shocked to see generally negative reviews of Ellen’s performance. However, I would contend it deserves credit for actually registering as a “performance,” as an extended presence working to frame and engage in the event. Although “hosting” might be the wrong word for Ellen’s primary form of engagement, her role as master of ceremonies was indeed an attempt at mastering the event. And despite my cynical rejection of the “OMGz TWITTER” of the appeals to social media, Ellen’s trolling connected with an audience who doesn’t care who wins, or who’s nominated, but rather the experience of “being there” and being part of one of Hollywood’s biggest nights.
Ellen—and the audience through her—was part of that night, in a way that I found impressive even when I wasn’t particularly entertained.
Could have used more vacuuming, though.