This Sunday's 78th annual Golden Globes will be a largely virtual affair, with awards for the best in film and TV being presented in some kind of patchwork of remote locations and patched-in video feeds. This kind of format shift would pose a challenge for any awards show, but especially the Golden Globes, which has historically made up for a certain lack of gravitas by being a loose, often half-drunk party at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
That said, it's been almost universally acknowledged that the best party hosts in the game over the last decade are Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who hosted the Globes three years in a row, from the 2013 ceremony to 2015. They're back this year, tasked with shepherding this unruly beast and finding some way to make it fun for both the audience and the nominees. They'll be hosting from opposite coasts, with Amy situated at the Beverly Hilton and Tina at the Rainbow Room in New York City's Rockefeller Center.
The Golden Globes don't really have a long and storied history of great hosts. The show went host-less for years, in fact, running on the rails of a Dick Clark-helmed production machine that churned out presenters one after another and didn't miss a beat even when winners were in the ladies room or Elizabeth Taylor threatened to go off script. But at some point in the 2000s, NBC decided the show needed a host, and so over the years the likes of Seth Meyers, Sandra Oh, Andy Samberg, Jimmy Fallon, and (infamously for some) Ricky Gervais have hosted.
By far, the most acclaimed Globes hosts have been Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. They took over after Gervais' three hosting gigs proved to grate on the celebrities in attendance whom he rather inelegantly and incessantly mocked. Fey, who had been rumored as a possible Oscars host for many years, was teamed up with her SNL pal Poehler, but as popular as the two were, after Gervais had turned the hosting gig into a kind of enemy combatant zone, it wasn't a sure thing that the two women would succeed.
What's cool about how Tina Fey and Amy Poehler went from Ricky Gervais damage control to the two most beloved awards-show hosts of this century is that they didn't exactly pull punches. What they did do was manage to mock Hollywood… better. More skillfully. More slyly. Each of their three opening monologues (or, I guess, dialogues) delivered one joke that managed to knock the entire room down. And while those jokes were buttressed by other punchlines and gags and bits, you could really make the argument that Tina and Amy cemented their place as the best hosts in the business on the backs of those three jokes.
For their first turn behind the podium, Tina and Amy kicked things off with their memorable line about how "only at the Golden Globes do the beautiful people of film rub shoulders with the rat-faced people of television," a bit punctuated ironically by the camera cutting first to Quentin Tarantino and then Sofia Vergara. They hit a few solid doubles with a crack about Les Miserables star Anne Hathaway that wound its way around to a really good porn joke, then a bit where Poehler got real Boston with Ben Affleck ("you're not bettah than me"). But the one that absolutely slayed the entire room was a reference to Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow, whose film had endured some controversy upon its release for its depictions of torture. Said Poehler:
"I haven't really been following the controversy over Zero Dark Thirty, but when it comes to torture, I trust the lady who spent three years married to James Cameron."
The joke was followed by legitimate howls of laughter from the audience. At the Zero Dark Thirty table, Bigelow laughed, while next to her, Amy Pascal lost her mind, and Jessica Chastain's jaw dropped to the floor. It was the perfect joke: a nuclear strike to the ego of a powerful Hollywood man who wasn't even in the room. No awkwardness, just pure release.
Tina and Amy returned in 2014 after earning raves the year before. Emboldened, the hosts mixed it up with fellow comedic actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, nominated that year for both Veep and the indie film Enough Said. Noting that Louis-Dreyfus chose to sit with the movie people, Fey and Poehler ribbed her for being too good for them, and Louis-Dreyfus played along by ignoring them (and seat neighbor Reese Witherspoon) and puffing on her e-cigarette. They also killed with a joke about the film American Hustle, which they joked was alternatively titled "Explosion at the Wig Factory." Any other awards show host would have been fully content with that landing as their best joke. But Tina and Amy would top themselves moments later.
The hosts then turned to another nominated movie, the space drama Gravity, which Fey described thusly:
"It's the story of how George Clooney would rather float away into space and die than spend one more minute with a woman his own age."
Again, a perfect joke, slicing into Clooney's renowned bachelor reputation without going below the belt (he wasn't there that year either, but he probably would have had a laugh at it), giving a nod to Hollywood's screwed up gender dynamics (a recurring theme in all three of Fey and Poehler's openers), but mostly just being damn funny. The room erupted, Sandra Bullock and Julianna Margulies (Clooney's then-current and most notable co-stars, respectively) lost it, and Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul won the Jessica Chastain jaw-dropper award. Another monologue, slayed.
Fey and Poehler's third outing as Golden Globes hosts is probably the least of the three on a joke-per-joke basis, but it was still really good, and it features perhaps their sharpest joke of all three years. Taking place very soon after the whole controversy involving the Seth Rogen/James Franco film The Interview, the monologue kicks off with a lot of jokes about North Korean hacking that were pretty middling (and oddly zero jokes about the leaked Sony emails, which probably would have gone over like a lead balloon in the room, so fair enough). Still, there was a good visual bit about Emma Stone and the movie Big Eyes, and a Bill Cosby joke that was at the very least bracing. But that all ended up taking a back seat to yet another Clooney joke.
Earlier that year, Clooney had made headlines by surrendering his noted bachelorhood and marrying Amal Alamuddin, and that night he was set to be feted by the Hollywood Foreign Press with their prestigious Cecil B. DeMille Award. Fey kicked things off by describing Alamuddin to the audience:
"Amal is a human rights lawyer who worked on the Enron case, was an advisor to Kofi Annan regarding Syria, and was selected for a three-person U.N. panel commission investigating rules-of-war violations in the Gaza strip. So tonight, her husband is getting a lifetime achievement award."
Once again, Fey and Poehler managed to puncture the Hollywood bubble with precision and perspective in a way that let the audience feel in on the joke rather than targeted by it. Clooney was in the room for this one, obviously, and he and Amal both seemed to get a big kick out of it.
Fey and Poehler's Globes gigs were more than just the sum of their best jokes. They were a blueprint for how to host an awards show while being incredibly funny, appropriately acidic, and yet still oddly endearing to the celebs in the room. It's halfway between alchemy and a magic trick, but they've pulled it off again and again.
The 78th annual Golden Globes air on NBC February 28th at 8:00 PM ET/5:00 PM PT.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.