Uma, Oprah, oh no.
David Letterman was a late-night juggernaut when he was asked to host the 1995 Academy Awards. The former Late Night host was a ratings success with his two-year old Late Show at CBS routinely besting Jay Leno, who had taken the gig many (including Letterman) thought he would gotten after Johnny Carson retired in 1992. Still, Letterman was nervous. “I started to get scared realizing, ‘Maybe I don’t belong here,’” he told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this year of preparing for the gig, a night he described as an “explosion of excrement.”
Letterman’s performance is most remembered for the moment he “introduced” Oprah Winfrey to Uma Thurman (and Keanu Reeves). The bit that fell flat on arrival, but the host continued to call back the bit throughout the evening—a decision Letterman doesn’t recall making in the moment. “Well, see, now this is interesting, because I had forgotten the subsequent references. Did I do it continually?” he asked THR’s Scott Fienberg. “I was trying to save myself. ‘If you have an extra life raft, throw one to me!’ That’s what I was trying for. But I had forgotten that—I thought it was just one and out. It must have been pure survival instinct.”
Letterman may not remember the details of the evening, but The A.V. Club’s managing editor Erik Adams certainly does—and he joins editor-in-chief Patrick Gomez on today’s episode of The A.V. Club’s podcast Push The Envelope to discuss the entire performance. “I don’t think I had enough of a context to understand what was successful and what was unsuccessful in terms of the Oscars stage,” Adams says of being 10 when the ceremony aired. “I thought it was hilarious.”
Above, you can listen to the whole episode of Push The Envelope, which includes a discussion about how the ’95 Oscars pitted Baby Boomers against Gen X, as well as an interview with Tom Green. And here’s a brief excerpt of the Letterman conversation.
ERIK ADAMS: It doesn’t help that the joke wasn’t something that was written far in advance. That was something that his longtime producer, Rob Burnett, just kind of pitched when they were almost going to air. And for a production of this scale, there’s a certain amount of planning and preparation that has to go into it—and it is absolutely devastating to any element of improvization that a performer wants to introduce into it.
PATRICK GOMEZ: [He’s said] there just wasn’t enough preparation there for him to even know where they were seated in the audience. So, you know, he was trying to find them, and that was stressing him out. There was a lot going on. That just gives me anxiety, just thinking about it.
EA: It it plugs into a very basic, primordial kind of sense of humor, which I think is pretty frequently underlining these types of Letterman bits where he’s just amused by the way that certain sounds and words work. There’s there’s a reference to hakuna matata in that cab driver [video segment]. I can kind of see being like having the same roots as the Uma, Oprah, Keanu bit.
EA: It’s just this interesting testament to what you can and cannot take the piss out. Letterman is the ultimate at deflating showbiz puffery, and he couldn’t do it on show business’ biggest night.
PG: It is interesting to to look at the trajectory of the ratings.... Because if you ask him, he says that he doesn’t think it had anything to do with it, but after that point, it started to become the era in which Leno kind of overtook things in the ratings. But by solidifying that [Uma-Oprah] moment in our brains, I think Letterman goes down as one of the most memorable Oscar hosts. So at least there’s that.
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New episodes of Push The Envelope are released every Thursday.