LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Comedy stars Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, the first duo to share the Oscar stage as co-hosts in the television age, traded punch lines and barbs in Sunday's show as they gently roasted this year's nominees.
Working the room like a pair of Hollywood insider insult comics, Martin and Baldwin singled out many of the assembled Oscar contenders for some light, deflationary ribbing, starting with each other.
After they were lowered to the stage from the rafters of the Kodak Theater on a glittering, circular contraption adorned with showgirls, Baldwin introduced his partner as "one of the most enduring entertainers of all time, Mr. Steve Martin."
Martin reciprocated, sort of, by presenting his co-host: "And this is Alec Baldwin."
Much of the evening's humor continued in that vein, politely irreverent, at times silly and often self-deprecating on an institutional scale.
After one commercial break, Baldwin welcomed television viewers back to what he called "the biggest night in Hollywood -- since last night."
By contrast, the night's biggest Oscar champion, Iraq war drama "The Hurt Locker" -- winner for best original screenplay, best director and best picture -- was deadly serious. Both the director, Kathryn Bigelow, and screenwriter Mark Boal used the occasion to salute members of the U.S. military around the world.
In one emotional high point, comedienne Mo'Nique, accepting her supporting-actress Oscar for playing an abusive welfare mother in "Precious," thanked her husband from the stage "for showing me that sometimes you have to forgo what is popular in order to do what is right, and baby, you were so right."
Otherwise, the evening's tone rarely strayed from upbeat.
In their shared opening monologue, Martin motioned in the audience to Sandra Bullock, who went on to win her first Oscar as best actress for "The Blind Side."
"Who doesn't love Sandra Bullock," Martin asked rhetorically, to which Baldwin answered archly, "Well tonight, we may find out."
The pairing of Martin and Baldwin, seen by some as an odd-couple choice to emcee the film industry's highest honors, was not so unusual given their screen chemistry in the recent film comedy "It's Complicated," about a middle-aged love triangle.
Martin hosted the Oscars twice before, in 2001 and 2003. Baldwin, the Emmy-winning star of the hit sitcom "30 Rock," was once nominated for an Academy Award, for "The Cooler," but failed to win.
One of their favorite targets on Sunday clearly was their "It's Complicated" cohort Meryl Streep, a best-actress hopeful for "Julie & Julia" with a total 16 Oscar nominations to her name, more than any other performer in history.
"Meryl Streep holds the record for most nominations as an actress, or as I like to think of it, most losses," Martin deadpanned, eliciting a hearty laugh from Streep herself.
Turning to the veteran British actress Helen Mirren, nominated for playing Leo Tolstoy's wife in "The Last Station," Martin said, "There's that damn Helen Mirren," drawing a quick correction from Baldwin.
"Steve, that's DAME Helen Mirren."
Martin and Baldwin's grand entrance followed a formal introduction of each of the 10 best actor and best actress nominees, who assembled on stage at the top of the show, followed by a song-and-dance number, "No One Wants to Do It Alone," performed by TV and stage actor Neil Patrick Harris.
Sunday's show was not the first Oscar broadcast with more than a single host. In 1987, the event was emceed by the trio of Chevy Chase, Goldie Hawn and Paul Hogan. Larger hosting teams presided for several years during the 1970s.
The televised Oscars last featured just two hosts during the 1950s, but those shows were split between a Hollywood emcee and a New York counterpart.
Bringing Sunday's broadcast to a close, Martin joked that the 3 1/2-hour show ran "so long that that 'Avatar' now takes place in the past."
Editing by Mary Milliken, Editing by Sandra Maler