By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Comic and talk show star Ellen DeGeneres returned as Oscar host on Sunday, bringing a deadpan affability, and free pizza, to the Academy Awards show while still poking fun at Hollywood royalty.
The star of her own daytime TV talk show, DeGeneres earned an Emmy nomination for her first Oscar hosting stint in 2007 although some critics complained she was too playful for the traditional decorum of the Academy Awards.
But DeGeneres showed she was apparently unfazed by such criticism, foraying into the audience again on several occasions on Sunday.
She handed a faux consolation prize - a pair of lottery tickets - to supporting actor nominee Bradley Cooper; took a "selfie" snapshot with a group of nominees that was swiftly re-tweeted more than 1 million times; and even ushered a pizza delivery guy into the auditorium to hand out slices to the stars, then called on producer Harvey Weinstein to pay the tip.
"No pressure, only a billion people are watching, whatever you feel is right," she shouted.
While mostly veering away from the ribald streak that marked Seth MacFarlane's widely panned stint as emcee last year, DeGeneres showed she was not above making fun of the movie industry's biggest stars.
She zeroed in on supporting actress nominee, and last year's best actress winner, Jennifer Lawrence, recalling that the star famously tripped on the stairs to the stage on her way to accepting her Oscar in 2013.
DeGeneres also alluded to how Lawrence, 23, nominated for her role in "American Hustle," stumbled again on the red carpet on Sunday.
"If you win tonight, I think we should bring you the Oscar," DeGeneres dead-panned, as the audience, including Lawrence, erupted in laughter.
Turning to June Squibb, whom she noted was the oldest performer ever nominated for an acting Oscar at age 84, DeGeneres congratulated Squibb for her role in "Nebraska." She then raised her voice to directly address Squibb as if the nominee were hard of hearing, saying, "I'm telling everyone that you were wonderful in 'Nebraska.'"
She joked that long-haired actor Jared Leto, a candidate for best supporting actor for his role as a transgender woman in "Dallas Buyers Club," was "the prettiest" nominee of the evening. Moments later, Leto was declared the night's first winner.
But in perhaps her most cutting jab of the night, DeGeneres recognized the presence in the audience of veteran actress-singer and Oscar winner Liza Minnelli by calling attention to "one of the most amazing Liza Minnelli impersonators I have ever seen in my life."
As the camera cut to Minnelli, and back to DeGeneres, the host added, "Good job, sir."
Minnelli, 67, who was honored later in the evening in a tribute to her mother's movie, "The Wizard of Oz," lit up social media site Twitter on red carpet earlier on Sunday, looking shaky, with a blue streak in her hair, and apparently bra-less under her blue silk pants suit.
In another pithy moment, DeGeneres declared two possible scenarios for the final outcome of the Oscar race: "Possibility No. 1, '12 Years a Slave' wins best picture. Possibility No. 2, you're all racists."
Her most sexually explicit gag of the night came when she referred obliquely to Jonah Hill's masturbation scene in the film "The Wolf of Wall Street" and her own sexual orientation.
"You showed us something in that film that I have not seen for a very, very long time," she told Hill, adding, "Get it?" as the laughter faded.
DeGeneres, 56, made broadcast history in 1997 as the first openly gay lead character on U.S. prime-time television. She made her debut as an Oscar host in 2007, becoming only the second women to fly solo as emcee, after Whoopi Goldberg.
Her second turn as Oscar emcee comes a year after MacFarlane, the creator of the animated sitcom "Family Guy," drew critical groans for a provocative performance that included jokes often aimed at the biggest stars in attendance and a musical tribute to female frontal nudity called "We Saw Your Boobs."
(Reporting by Steve Gorman, editing by Jill Serjeant)