By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Making his much-anticipated comeback as Oscar host after an eight-year absence, comedian Billy Crystal poked fun on Sunday night at his own reluctance to return as he paid light-hearted tribute to leading nominees for the 84th annual Academy Awards.
In his ninth appearance as Oscar master of ceremonies, Crystal, 63, opened the show with one of his signature film montages, inserting himself into footage from the biggest and most-honored movies of 2011.
For the very first clip, from a scene in the silent-film homage "The Artist," Crystal is seen strapped into a chair while evil scientists send bolts of electricity into his head, and he shouts, in subtitled dialogue - "I won't host it, I won't host it, I tell ya."
In a subsequent scene from "The Descendants," and one of the clips that drew the biggest laughs, George Clooney bends over Crystal, lying in a hospital bed, and kisses Crystal on the lips, telling him softly, "Wake up. We're all ready for you to come home where you belong."
As Crystal's eyes flutter open, Clooney implores, "You have to do it, Billy. The academy's got you the youngest, hippest writers."
At the end of the clips, walking onto the stage in tuxedo and tails, Crystal delivered the briefest of opening monologues before segueing into another of his Oscar traditions - a parody song medley that lampooned each of the nine films nominated for best picture.
"This is my ninth time ... hosting the Oscars," Crystal declared to warm applause from the star-studded audience in the theater formerly named for the now-bankrupt Kodak film company.
"We're here at the beautiful Chapter 11 Theater to celebrate a tradition that not only creates memories for the ages but also breeds resentments that last a lifetime," he dead-panned in a sardonic nod to the evening's theme of celebrating movie memories.
"The movies have always been there for us. They're the place to go to laugh, to cry, to question, to text," he continued. "So tonight, enjoy yourselves because nothing can take the sting out of the world's economic problems like watching millionaires present each other with golden statues."
Crystal, who last presided over the Oscars in 2004, was recruited for a comeback after the original host-designate of this year's show, fellow comic-actor Eddie Murphy, withdrew in November in the furor surrounding a gay slur uttered by producer Brett Ratner at a screening of a movie that starred Murphy.
Ratner stepped down as producer of the Oscars, and Murphy followed suit the next day.
Crystal first hosted the Oscars in 1990 when "Driving Miss Daisy" was named the year's best movie, and the awards program was still topping a U.S. average of 40 million viewers, making it the second-most watched TV program annually behind professional football's Super Bowl.
But viewership of the Oscar telecast has fallen below the 40 million mark in five of the past six years, rising above that benchmark in 2010 when 3D action-adventure "Avatar" was among the most nominated movies.
After last year's attempt by producers to draw a younger audience with a show hosted by James Franco and Anne Hathaway fell flat with critics and the ratings, organizers this year appeared to be going for a return of comfort and predictability with Crystal.
But producers, and Crystal himself, obviously remained very much aware of young viewers, as they demonstrated in a parody clip from the Woody Allen-directed film "Midnight in Paris," in which Crystal appears momentarily with Canadian teen pop heartthrob Justin Bieber.
"I'm here to get you the 18-to-24 demographic," Bieber says. "So how long do you want me to stay here for?"
"A couple of seconds, I think, will do it," Crystal replies.
(Editing by Sandra Maler)