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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Political satirist Jon Stewart returned as Oscar host on Sunday with a slew of jokes about the bitter Hollywood writers' strike that had threatened the show and the grim, violent themes of many of the films.
"Tonight we look beyond the dark days to focus on happier fare -- this year's slate of Oscar-nominated psychopathic killer movies," Stewart dead-panned, adding "Does this town need a hug?"
He then ticked off the titles of several of this season's bloodier Oscar contenders.
"'No Country For Old Men,' 'Sweeney Todd,' 'There Will Be Blood. All I can say is: Thank God for teen pregnancy," he joked in a reference to the only comedy vying for best picture, "Juno," a story of unexpected motherhood.
The introductory monologue by Stewart, making his second appearance as Oscar host, was notably shorter than his opening performance in 2006, owing to production constraints posed by the Hollywood writers' strike.
The 14-week walkout officially ended on February 12, giving Oscar producers just 11 days to write material for a live telecast that normally takes many weeks to prepare.
Early reviews of the Oscar event and Stewart's performance noted that the rush to produce the show was evident in the large number of video montages and clips.
Daily Variety critic Brian Lowry said Stewart "played it pretty safe" in his opening routine but "earned his keep by maintaining a playful, irreverent tone throughout the night."
A review by Frank Scheck in the Hollywood Reporter said "Stewart was relaxed and funny, even if his opening monologue was more notable for its brevity than its one-liners."
For weeks, the Oscar show also was threatened with the possibility that stars might boycott the event in support of striking writers rather than cross picket lines.
"These past 3-1/2 months have been very tough," said Stewart, whose own nightly cable TV show was thrown into reruns by the labor dispute. "I'm happy to say that the fight is over. So tonight, welcome to the makeup sex."
One of Stewart's biggest laughs came as he mentioned the cancellation of the annual Oscar party hosted by Vanity Fair magazine, "out of respect for the writers."
"You know another way they could show respect for the writers? Maybe one day invite some of them to the Vanity Fair Oscar party," he joked. "Don't worry. They won't mingle."
Turning his humor on his favorite comic targets, Stewart used a number of Oscar references to segue into jabs at the candidates running for president.
"Julie Christie was absolutely amazing in 'Away from Her' ... a moving story of a woman who forgets her own husband," he said. "Hillary Clinton called it the feel-good movie of the year."
And in a reference to the presumed Republican nominee, 71-year-old John McCain, Stewart noted that "Oscar is 80 this year, which makes him now automatically the front-runner for the Republican nomination."
Stewart also took a veiled crack at the Iraq war policy and rhetoric of President George W. Bush and McCain as he joked about the anemic box office performance of several Iraq-themed movies in recent months.
"I am telling you, if we stay the course and keep these movies in the theaters, we can turn this around," he shouted. "Withdrawing the Iraq movies would only embolden the audience. We cannot let the audience win."
Editing by Dean Goodman and John O'Callaghan