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Why Jimmy Kimmel needs to make the Oscars political

It’s more than glitz and golden statues

68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards - Show Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Late night host Jimmy Kimmel confirmed in a recent interview that he wasn’t going to make the Oscars overly political.

Speaking to Variety ahead of the biggest award show of the year — the third most-watched special event from last year — Kimmel said while acceptance speeches from actors were sure to get political, he didn’t want to come out attacking President Trump or the controversy surrounding his executive orders for 10 minutes straight.

“I don’t think it will be very political,” Kimmel said. “There will be some element of that to the show. A lot of it depends on what happens.”

Kimmel’s attitude toward the monologue and the way he’ll approach the biggest stories of the day is a direct contrast to the way award shows have been playing out this year, and also how last year’s Oscar host — Chris Rock — handled his own monologue. This year, the SAG Awards opened with a statement from emcee Ashton Kutcher about Trump’s ban on immigrants and refugees from seven majority muslim countries from entering the country, condemning the decision. The rest of the night showcased multiple speeches from award recipients calling out the president for his exclusionary order and the theme of speaking out against Trump became a theme for the evening.

The main difference, of course, is that neither Rock or Kutcher work for the networks hosting the award show. ABC and NBC clearly have a point of view they want to stick with and as employees of the network, hosts like Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon have to abide by those rules. They networks rely on advertisers, and most companies tend to be reluctant to attach a brand name to a heavily politicized show because they don’t want to alienate a potential customer. As such, Kimmel and Fallon — public faces for both the networks — have to act as representatives, and may not be allowed to get away with more.

That being said, it’s clear in this political climate networks like NBC and ABC are okay with their comedians going in on the president. NBC’s Seth Meyers makes it a point to call out Trump at length on his own show almost every single night and his ratings have greatly improved. That means the network can ask advertisers for more money and increase its revenue. More often than not, the politically earnest and heartfelt comments or jokes that arise from an award show end up being positive news for the network, as seen this pat January.

At the Golden Globes, just prior to the SAG Awards in January, actress Meryl Streep made headlines by using her time on stage while accepting a lifetime achievement award to talk about the president, and remind others within the acting community they should use their platform and audience to call out injustice.

“We have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility and the act of empathy,” Streep said at the end of her five-minute speech, much of which she spent calling out the president for terrible acts that he had committed like the mocking of a disabled reporter.

Leading up to the Oscars, groups like United Talent Agency (UTA) have cancelled its annual party, donating $250,000 to the ACLU instead to help in its fight to provide legal service for those affected by Trump’s ban. Revered Iranian director Asghar Farhadi issued a statement confirming he would not be attending the Oscars in the wake of Trump’s order, which lists Iran as one of the banned countries from which the United States would refuse refugees and immigrants.

Kimmel’s approach, much like Golden Globe host Fallon, is to lightheartedly make fun of Trump, but without actually holding the president accountable. It’s not too surprising; Fallon and Kimmel act similarly on their late night shows, especially in contrast with Meyers’ and Stephen Colbert’s straight-forward and blunt hosting styles. Being a network's golden boy doesn't mean you should avoid the hard stuff.

Last year the Oscars brought in 34.4 million viewers. While that’s technically on the lower side of ratings for the annual award show, that’s still more than almost any other show or event manages to secure — outside of touchstones like the Super Bowl. It’s a sizable, captive audience, and the monologue provides comedians with approximately 10 minutes to talk about whatever they want without interruption.

For Chris Rock, that meant addressing the biggest news of the day, which at the time was the lack of black nominees. Rock spent his entire monologue talking about how exclusionary the Oscars remain. He didn’t take it easy and he didn’t mind the awkward moments, much like Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes. He talked about an issue that meant something to him, and he used his time on stage to ensure no one would interrupt him as he heavily emphasized each point.

Being political and addressing the controversies of the day doesn’t mean Kimmel couldn’t be funny. On the contrary, Rock proved through his monologue that issues including race and discrimination could get laughs, but would still have a message.

Comedy should start conversations. Having more than 30 million people listening to you means hosts should do more than just entertain. They should also eave people thinking about what they see and experience. Award shows are largely fluff: It’s a night for celebrities to get together and congratulate each other on being celebrities. But in between the glamor, red carpet and golden statues, there’s a 10-minute block for real discussion to happen, and Kimmel is wasting it by focusing on poking fun lightheartedly at celebrities.

The Oscars are a cornerstone of popular culture and popular culture has always been political. It seems like a bad idea not to be now.