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Jimmy Kimmel expects no slaps hosting the Oscars; just snarky (not mean) jokes

Jimmy Kimmel hosts the 95th Oscars Sunday night.
Matt Sayles
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ABC
Jimmy Kimmel hosts the 95th Oscars Sunday night.

Jimmy Kimmel knows at least one thing when it comes to his third stint hosting the Academy Awards Sunday: Nobody's going to slap him for telling an off-color joke.

"If (anyone) does, it's going to turn into Benny Hill, because I'm just going to run around the theater and he's not going to catch me," Kimmel says, laughing. "But you know what I'm really going to do? I'm going to make a couple of jokes about it — but it's not like we're going to recreate it...Will it make me gun shy about what I say? Not in the slightest."

Kimmel is taking the stage to lead the Oscars one year after Will Smith slapped Chris Rock during the last ceremony, and raised a host of expectations about what we might see this time around.

But the late night host – who has somehow, over the last two decades, become a bit of a showbiz institution himself, with stints hosting the Emmys, the American Music Awards and the ESPYs in addition to the Oscars — has a pretty specific idea of what his duties are Sunday.

And it all comes from his early days working as a wedding DJ. Really.

"You know, the wedding's not about you, but you're there to facilitate it and make it fun," Kimmel says. "You have a responsibility to the people for whom this is the biggest day of their lives. The kid who plays Elvis, Austin Butler, is from Orange County. He's totally overwhelmed by the fact that he is now in this position. And I'm not going to be the guy to ruin this night for him."

Poking fun without being mean

So does that mean he's not going to be making fun of celebrities this year? "I am going to make fun of people," he insists. "It's not that I don't enjoy roast-y kind of stuff, like the Comedy Central roasts. I love all that stuff. But this is not that. It's the Oscars."

Over more than nine decades, the role of the host has changed significantly at the Academy Awards, from the coolly urbane wit of old school hosts like Johnny Carson and Bob Hope to the unpredictability of David Letterman, the bombast of Chris Rock and the historic trio of hosts who led the show last year, Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes and Regina Hall — the first group of three women to hold the job.

Kimmel's hosting strengths include his quick wit, honed by years of hosting what he calls the "C- and D-level" awards shows like the American Music Awards ("There were times where, like, Missy Elliot just wasn't there...and you go onstage, nothing planned, and you have to get a laugh."). And he has an ability to be snarky with a naughty edge without crossing the line into being mean.

Kathy Griffin poses with her Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program during the 2008 Creative Arts Emmy awards
Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Kathy Griffin poses with her Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program during the 2008 Creative Arts Emmy awards

Kathy Griffin is a comic who has done her own share of hosting — from the Billboard Music Awards to the Creative Arts Emmys (she calls them, lovingly, "the Schmemmies"). Griffin says hosting the Oscars has become a "thankless job" due to all the criticism which can come from cracking the wrong joke about powerful and popular celebrities.

"You have to remember when you're hosting one of these events, you're not hosting it for the celebrities that are being honored," she says, advocating for the idea of roasting big names who are successful enough to handle a little public ribbing. "You're hosting it for the people watching primarily. And I think people have forgotten that when a comedian is making fun of these fabulously wealthy celebrities, whether it's the Kardashians or Jude Law or any of the people at the Oscars, you are punching up. And we have really lost that nuance."

Kimmel as the perfect host for the moment

Griffin says Kimmel is the perfect person to take on that challenge in this media moment. "Even if he, quote, gets in trouble, quote, he can go right on his show the next night or the night after and explain it," she adds, noting how Kimmel's producers cooked up a sketch for her on Jimmy Kimmel Live two days after Elon Musk kicked her off Twitter, to lampoon what happened. "He's kind of the best person to do this because he has that outlet and we can watch him give context to certain things."

Ask what his plan is for this year's Oscars and Kimmel can say exactly what he's going to do. "I'm going to get up onstage and do about 25 jokes...do a series of short breaks with jokes throughout the night," he adds. "And if something weird happens, I'll be onstage commenting about it."

The last time "something weird" happened while he was hosting the Oscars was back in 2017, when presenters mistakenly announced La La Land as the winner of the Best Picture award instead of the film which actually won, Moonlight.

"I was actually sitting in the audience next to Matt Damon, who had one more bit to do, and there was some confusion on the stage," says Kimmel. "The stage manager was in the [camera] shot, which seemed wrong. And Matt turned to me and said, 'I think you need to go up there.'"

Ultimately, it seems presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty got confused after they were handed the wrong envelope. Kimmel jokingly yelled at Beatty, "Warren, what did you do?" after saying "I blame Steve Harvey," a comic who mistakenly announced the wrong winner while hosting the Miss Universe pageant.

Kimmel expects his talent for improvising in the moment and cracking jokes that walk right up to the line of propriety will serve him well.

"I don't know how to quantify or explain it," he says. "My mom was the class wit at her high school in Brooklyn; I was reading her yearbook once and it said, 'Somehow you/re able to say very mean things in such a nice way.' And I thought, 'Oh yeah, I guess that's what I do, too.'"

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.