Kelly Clarkson, Alicia Keys & More Who Prove That Awards Show Hosts Still Matter

Kelly Clarkson, Keith Urban, Alicia Keys
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From left: Kelly Clarkson, Keith Urban and Alicia Keys

Keith Urban was just announced as a first-time ACM Awards host.

The Oscars may have acted like hosts are expendable, going hostless for a second year in a row, but other shows still make finding the right host a priority.

The Academy of Country Music announced last week that Keith Urban, their reigning entertainer of the year, will host the 55th annual ACM Awards on April 5. Urban is well-qualified to host the show: He's a 15-time ACM winner and a TV star, thanks to his four-year stint as a judge on American Idol from 2012-16. Urban takes the hosting reins from Reba McEntire, who hosted or co-hosted the ACMs a record 16 times.

The Grammys have found a winning host in Alicia Keys, who, like Urban, is both a widely respected musician and a big winner at the show she is hosting. Keys has won 15 Grammys over the years, including best new artist and song of the year for her 2001 breakthrough hit "Fallin'." Keys is also a TV star, thanks to her three-season stint as a coach on The Voice. Keys has hosted the Grammys the last two years running. If she takes the job again, which seems likely, she'll surpass two-time hosts Ellen DeGeneres (1996-97) and Rosie O'Donnell (1999-2000) to become the top female host in the show's history.

Kelly Clarkson, who has amassed 10 top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, will host the Billboard Music Awards on April 29 for the third year running. Clarkson has been on TV her entire career, from winning the first season of American Idol to being a coach on The Voice since 2018 and hosting her own syndicated talk show since 2019. And her many hits give her credibility as the BBMAs host.

The Golden Globes have announced that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler will host their January 2021 show. Fey and Poehler, who hosted the Globes from 2013-15, just may be the all-around best hosts of our time -- what Oscar hosts Bob Hope, Johnny Carson and Billy Crystal were in theirs. They are personable and witty, with a light touch that allows them to get away with even hard-edged zingers, such as Fey's razor-sharp Gravity-themed joke in 2014: "It's the story about how George Clooney would rather float into space and die than spend one more minute with a woman his own age."

Ricky Gervais, who hosted the Globes in January for the fifth and, he says, final time, is more polarizing. You either enjoy his "I-don't-care-if-you-like-me" style or you don't. It's hard to imagine anyone not liking Urban, Keys, Clarkson or Fey & Poehler. That's what an awards show producer wants in a host: someone who comes without baggage, attracts an audience and doesn't turn anyone off or away.

The CMAs had a great run with Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood as hosts for 11 straight years, from 2008-18. Again, the two earned the right to be there by virtue of being top country stars. Paisley was named CMA's entertainer of the year in 2011 and won male vocalist of the year three times. Underwood has won the equivalent female award five times. And they had great chemistry. Their friendship was evident, even when they were ribbing each other for comic effect, a la Sonny & Cher or Donny & Marie.

Last year, the CMAs sidelined Paisley and paired Underwood with two female country legends: McEntire and Dolly Parton. Underwood has since said that she won't return for a 13th year as host. The CMAs haven't announced their plans for this year. They have their work cut out for them following last year's female power trio and countering Urban on the ACMs. But that's healthy: The competition between awards shows keeps everybody on their toes. They try to outdo each other just as they try to top themselves.

Other shows that have had hosts in recent years that were exceptionally good fits include Neil Patrick Harris on the Tony Awards in 2009 and again from 2011-13; Pitbull on the American Music Awards in 2013-14; and Black-ish stars Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross on the BET Awards in 2015-16.

The ACMs have a long history of booking former entertainer of the year winners to host their show. Roy Clark, Loretta Lynn, Mickey Gilley, Mac Davis, Alabama, George Strait, Parton, McEntire and Luke Bryan all hosted or co-hosted the show after they won the top prize.

Keys isn't the first Grammy host who is an all-time leading Grammy winner. Paul Simon, who has won 16 Grammys, including a record three record of the year awards, hosted the show in February 1981.

Likewise, Clarkson isn't the first host of the BBMAs who is a prolific hit-maker. Phil Collins, who hosted the show in 1992-93, has amassed 14 top 10 hits on the Hot 100 (and that doesn't even count seven top 10 hits he notched with Genesis). 'N Sync co-hosted the 2000 show less than nine months after they set a new first-week sales record (2.4 million copies) with their sophomore album, No Strings Attached. LL Cool J, who hosted the 2005 show (and went on to host the Grammys five times) has notched eight top 10 hits. Ludacris, who hosted or co-hosted the BBMAs four years in a row from 2014-17, has amassed 17 top 10 hits.

A good awards show host serves as a magnet who helps pull in an audience. The best of them have a light comic touch. Carson, the gold standard, opened the 1979 Oscars with this witty (and all-too-true) line: "This is the 51st Annual Academy Awards -- two hours of sparkling entertainment spread out over a four-hour show."

In a three- or four-hour live show, sometimes things go awry. A good host can save the day. At the 1992 Oscars, film pioneer Hal Roach, then 100, was introduced in the audience and was supposed to just stand and wave. Instead, he spoke at some length, unmic'd and inaudible to anybody more than a few rows away. Everyone felt bad that the moment was ruined. Crystal brought relief with an inspired quip: "This is perfectly fitting since he got his start in silent films."

The Grammys were fortunate to have LL Cool J as host in 2012 when Whitney Houston died the afternoon before the telecast, and to have Keys in place this year when Kobe Bryant died the morning of the telecast. Both were able to handle the moments with sensitivity.

Or an awards show can do what the Oscars did and go hostless—even though that usually looks like the show couldn't get any of the hosts they wanted, and didn't want any of the people who were available. The Oscars had their lowest ratings ever this year. Would a good host have prevented that embarrassing news item? It sure wouldn't have hurt.