By LYNN ELBER
AP Television Writer
LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Oscar ceremony has much to prove Sunday, including whether a blockbuster-free field can draw a TV audience and if Billy Crystal's host routine remains a crowd-pleaser.
Brian Grazer and Don Mischer, the show's producers, are laughing off the challenges: "Comedy is the direction we're going in this year," said Mischer.
For Crystal, who returns to the ceremony (8:30 p.m. EST, ABC) after an absence of eight years, that means jokes and patter that were being rehearsed at the last minute to avoid punch line leaks.
The actor also is bringing back two of his trademark Oscar bits: A film sequence in which he appears via CGI in clips from the nine best-picture contenders, and a musical number that pays tribute to the ceremony and nominees.
"It's everything everybody is going to want to see from Billy Crystal," Grazer said. "Billy was born for this job. He loves being the host and he does it with complete zest and enthusiasm. He makes it fun for everybody."
Crystal has help. Presenting team Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis have a "great gag," Grazer promised, with more light moments planned courtesy of co-presenters Tina Fey and Bradley Cooper and, in a group effort, the cast of "Bridesmaids."
There's a chance for controversy in a presidential election year and, with Sacha Baron Cohen invited, for mock political friction. Rumor has it Cohen will come dressed as the character from "The Dictator," his upcoming movie about a faux country's despot.
Although there were hints of motion picture academy uneasiness about the possible stunt, "we're thrilled to have him," Grazer said.
Among the high-wattage presenters for the 84th Academy Awards at the Hollywood & Highland Center (formerly the Kodak Theatre) are Halle Berry, Tom Cruise, Natalie Portman, Michael Douglas, Penelope Cruz and Angelina Jolie. They'll be framed by a stage set evoking a classic movie theater and the evening's theme: the enduring nature of the moviegoing experience.
Nominees in the lead acting categories include Viola Davis for "The Help," Meryl Streep for "The Iron Lady," George Clooney for "The Descendants" and Jean Dujardin for "The Artist."
But the night's starring role goes to Crystal, 63, who acknowledged in a Oscar.com video that "there's so much expected" of his return. He should have the audience's goodwill in his ninth Oscar gig since, in the best Hollywood tradition, he came to the rescue after Eddie Murphy dropped out as host.
Murphy's exit followed that of ceremony producer Brett Ratner, who had drawn fire for using a pejorative word for gay men at a screening of "Tower Heist," directed by Ratner and starring Murphy. Oscar-winning movie producer Grazer ("A Beautiful Mind") jumped in to work with awards veteran Mischer.
Last year's co-hosts aren't a hard act for Crystal to follow. Anne Hathaway and James Franco were picked to appeal to younger viewers but while Hathaway was game, an inert Franco proved ill-suited for the task.
The nominees represent a different challenge for the show. Favorites include "The Artist," a daring black-and-white silent film; "Hugo," an unusual Martin Scorsese work that trades grittiness for charm; and the family drama "The Descendants" with Clooney as a cuckold.
None has soared at the box office. Among the best-picture nominees, only "The Help," based on the best-selling book about 1960s race relations in the South, hit $100 million in ticket sales and counting (it's at more than $170 million.)
Blockbusters were left in the cold. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2," couldn't overcome the academy's resistance to the franchise. Nor, more understandably, could "The Hangover Part II," another 2011 success.
Such snubs tend to produce the TV equivalent of a weak box office: low ratings. When a monster hit like "Titanic" ruled the Oscars in 1998, the ceremony drew an impressive 55.2 million viewers. "The King's Speech," last year's less-mainstream best-picture winner, was watched by 37.9 million people.
There is an effort to boost viewership through social networks. The academy is inviting fans to make awards predictions on its Facebook page and share them with friends, while ABC will use Twitter to reveal the scene backstage and on the red carpet.
At stake are advertising dollars as well as bragging rights in the award show competition. This month's Grammys — riding a wave of interest in Adele's post-surgery comeback and the death of Whitney Houston — drew nearly 40 million viewers to eclipse the Academy Awards for the first time since 1984.
Forget nominee nervousness: Those anxious giggles may just be from Oscar himself.
— — AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen contributed to this report. (Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)