Of the Mbird readership who watched the Oscars last year, about one-fifth of us decided not to watch them this year. So say the Nielsen numbers, anyway, which showed a 19% decline in the show’s broadcast over previous years. I like to think that’s because of the growing popularity of Sunday evening church services, but alas, we all know that’s not the case. The growing trend of limited release passion projects (who in Ebbing, Missouri, would ever watch Three Billboards?), the expected and deserved victory lap over Harvey Weinstein’s exile, cord cutting, you can pick your favorite poison for this year’s ratings dip.

Despite the show’s declining viewership, the jokes still made it on the internet. The best joke this year was, of course, Jimmy Kimmel’s Jet Ski. At the show’s outset, Jimmy Kimmel promised a luxury Jet Ski to the award winner whose speech went the shortest that evening. Said $18,000 Jet Ski was paraded out on stage, featuring Helen Mirren doing her best Price-Is-Right showgirl impression. It was a great gag to poke fun at the Oscar’s tradition of long-winded acceptance speeches. At the show’s conclusion, Phantom Thread costume designer Mark Bridges took home the jet-ski with a lightning quick 36 second acceptance speech.

It was a gag of course, but it’s also a fun social experiment. How might one reduce the length of Oscar speeches, should the Academy choose to do so? Over at The Verge, Angela Chen breaks down the cost-benefit analysis of a short speech versus a long speech:

What is the value of a short speech? Winners who are brief are better at keeping the audience’s attention. They don’t get the embarrassment of being interrupted and played off. They don’t look boring or disorganized. And this year, they might have won an actual prize and some extra laughs for receiving it.

What is the value of a long speech? The Oscars is an exceptional case, and it’s clear that the incentives for a longer speech far outweigh the short ones, Jet Ski be damned. So few people, even in Hollywood, truly get a moment in the spotlight like the Oscars provides. This type of attention is rarer than currency… Besides, there’s a long-standing tradition of winners thanking the crews that supported them and made their projects possible, and anyone who neglects that tradition risks looking self-absorbed and egotistical.

It’d be remiss if we didn’t add to the equation a favorite cultural bugaboo of late, virtue signaling. It’s an issue we addressed in 2016 that certainly hasn’t gone away. It arguably started in 1973 when Marlon Brando famously declined a Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather, sending in his place Sacheen Littlefeather, an activist for respectful Native American portrayal in the media. A few years later, in 1978, actress Vanessa Redgrave stirred the pot over Israel/Palestine tensions, and was called out that very same night by screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. Despite the applause that day, the Academy has not stuck with Chayefsky’s vision of the awards. The clip is remarkable- check it out here:

Again, it’s just a gag, but there is no way that something as paltry as a Jet Ski could “stop the signal“. It begs the question- how might the Oscars reduce virtue signaling and tighten up those speeches? Chen suggests that if the Academy was to really reign its broadcast in, the Academy would put in place a set of consequences instead of incentives. Speeches would be much shorter if the consequence for breaking a time limit was disqualification from next year’s nominations, but that’s in poor taste. It’s bad for brand when winners are penalized because ABC needed to run Tide Ads.

Perhaps the academy would consider a more dastardly plan- if an actor’s speech is under an allotted time limit, the Academy will donate a large sum of money to a cause of their choice. It would be very hard to go over a time slot when it means a schoolhouse won’t be built in Africa. It’s like the Saw movies, but for charitable work.

Whatever the case, it begs the question: how big does the gift need to be for us to stop justifying ourselves? Is there a cash sum that would make you remove a political bumper sticker from your truck? What gift might convince you to take down the activist meme on your Facebook wall? What carrot and stick would incentive me (warning: incoming humble-brag) to chill out about my super-cool new homebrewing hobby?

At the end of the day, righteousness earned is among the most valuable accolades one can receive. That’s true, whether it’s the golden statuette or the Jet Ski, the plaque on the wall or public good will, a parade of social media affirmations, or the approval of a role model. But the righteousness market falls out when somebody starts giving it away for free. What good is it to fight for the Jet Ski when there are mansions in heaven that are acquired through zero good works.

To paraphrase Dr. Luther, the quest for this kind of works righteousness can never be satisfied, it must be extinguished. In the kingdom of heaven, there’s no need for long winded speeches. There’s no stopwatch with promises of Arizona lakes and Days Inn overnights. Someone else has won all the awards, and shares the ridiculously overpriced luxury items in the gift bag with people who didn’t qualify for party invitations.