Chris Rock, who previously hosted in 2005, dispensed with any cute musical numbers introducing the nominated movies, and he wasted no time tackling what is now known by the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. Taking the stage after a clip compilation of the year's major movies, he said, "I counted at least 15 black people in that montage."
What followed was a sharp, clever standup set that managed to:
1. Nicely tweak the issue. Rock, 50, said he wasn't going to boycott the show and forfeit being host: "The last thing I need is to lose another job to Kevin Hart."
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2. Spin the issue off into inspired absurdities. Riffing on Creed, he said: Rocky takes place in a world where white athletes are as good as black athletes. Rocky's a science-fiction movie."
3. Yank the issue, at least once, in the wrong direction altogether. Blacks, he said, have suffered worse things in the past: "When your grandmother's swinging from the tree, it's really hard to care about best documentary foreign short."
4. And hit the issue right bang on the head. "Is Hollywood racist? You're damn right Hollywood is racist. But it's not the racist you've grown accustomed to. Hollywood is sorority racist. It's like, 'We like you, Rhonda, but you're not a Kappa.' "
This was followed by a funny segment imagining black stars inserted into nominated films, notably Saturday Night Live's Leslie Jones subbing for the famous CGI bear in The Revenant.
And then came one of the strangest gags I've ever seen on the Oscars, or anywhere: Out from the wings came actress Stacey Dash, an opponent of the Oscars boycott and, for good measure, an opponent of Black History Month. Introduced as director of the Academy's minority outreach program, Stash smiled out at the audience and announced, "I cannot wait to help my people out. Happy Black History Month!" Then she left.
Here, for a moment, we crossed from satire into flop sweat. It was like having Ann Coulter as the featured comedy act at the White House Press Correspondents Dinner. Or something.
But then Angela Bassett narrated a Black History Month Minute that, at first, seemed to be a tribute to Will Smith but ended up being a salute to Jack Black. Silly, flippant, but it put the show back on track.
On top of all that, Louis C.K. introduced the nominees for documentary short – which you usually wish could be awarded at a separate luncheon or pancake breakfast – on a note of genuine dignity and moral gravity, something I don't recall any previous Oscars accomplishing. "These people will never be rich as long as they live," he said. "So this Oscar means something, because all they do is tell stories that are important. … This Oscar is going home in a Honda Civic."
Suddenly I could see a Louis C.K. Presidency.
And Lady Gaga sang her nominated song, "Til It Happens to You," sounding like Piaf in a cyclone – wild vibrato and thundering notes.
None of which kept the night from going on forever. But the night always goes on forever. Oscars longa, vita brevis.
Someday, one hopes, #OscarsSoWhite will be #OscarsBackThen, and no one will need Rock to come out and do such a smashing job. For now, thank you.