Why Seth MacFarlane Did A Beautiful Job (At What He Was Asked To Do)

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

My Twitter-feed was a sputtering of fury last night, as Seth MacFarlane let loose a series of offensive jokes.  How dare he make a song about the number of Oscar winners in the audience who’ve gone topless on film?  Jokes about slavery?  Sexual jokes about nine-year-old nominees?  What the fuck?
But there’s two things to remember:
1)  Should my Twitter-friends decide to all watch an episode of Family Guy together, they’d fury-sputter in pretty much the exact same way.
2)  Seth is part of a plan that does exactly what the Academy wanted to do, and he executed perfectly.
First off, I loved last night’s Oscars, but that’s because I love watching train wrecks.  And Seth MacFarlane imploded hideously (as you can see from his dwindling presence as the Oscars went on).  There’s a big difference between making a joke at a celebrity’s expense that they can laugh off, and one that they actually feel bad about.  Billy Crystal, as boring as I find him, is a master of knowing how to take an affectionate poke…
…but think of it this way.  You’re a woman sitting in the theater, waiting to see if you win one of the greatest honors of your life.  This has been your lifelong dream – you’ve dedicated your life to acting, and now after years, all of your peers and fans have thought that you – yes, you – were worthy of getting the greatest honor the industry literally has to offer.  This is Hollywood history.
To be an actress is to be rejected.  You get rejected all the time, sometimes for maddening stuff – you’re not tall enough, your nose is too big – and sometimes for vague reasons that no one ever explains because they don’t have to.  You’re just not right for the part.  So all you can do is double down, try harder and try to get better, and after a decade of clawing your way through constant failure, you get to bask in the night that tells the world that yes, you’ve made it.
Then Seth MacFarlane reduces you to a pair of tits.
That’s why Oscar hosts have such a treacherous job; too toothless, you fail to entertain the audience.  But too sharp, and you make the nominees feel awful on the night they’re trying to celebrate in a way they can’t shake off.  And yes, a lot of those Hollywood guys are prickly and egotistic and thin-skinned, but it’s not a roast.
Seth MacFarlane took a lot of shots that bit deep.  And while I appreciate the funniness of deconstructing these fat cats, it’s like watching Chris Rock rip into Jude Law during his Oscar turn; I think, dude ain’t being asked back.
Your main job is to tweak the stars, gently.  Seth drew blood.
Plus, there’s the problem that Seth MacFarlane can actually construct a good joke.  He’s got a firm grip on the mechanics of comedy; he just thinks making fun of broads and gay guys and black people is hysterical.  And yeah, he hits every target eventually, which is a kind of saving grace, but he tends to focus on the stuff beer-sodden frat boys find really funny.  So you’re gonna find a lot of transgressive humor that hits weak targets (AH HA SPANISH PEOPLE SPEAK FUNNY OH WHO KNEW THAT, AM I RIGHT?).  Which isn’t really funny a lot of the time, at least not to the people who watch Oscar films because they believe in the beauty of the human spirit.
Yet that’s exactly what he was brought in to do.
Was last night’s Oscars an episode of Family Guy?  Family Guy, one of the most popular shows among a young audience?  The very audience that barely watches the Oscars, that the Academy is desperately trying to appeal to?
Yes.  They’re trying.  Just like they tried with Anne Hathaway and James Franco’s misfire a few years ago – hey, what do young kids like?  Can we put that in there?  Shit, if this many young kids ignore us, then in thirty years we won’t be able to get this on network television any more.  We gotta think towards the future.
So they crossed their fingers.  They knew Seth was a risk, and would definitely offend, but maybe he’d bump the demographics enough to save the franchise.  And he made the Oscars into pretty much everything people thought it would be, and if you like Family Guy you probably loved it and if you hate Family Guy well, they knew they were gonna lose you.  But could he walk that fine line between “offensive jokes” and “being mean to the celebrities”?
Nope.  Fell right off.  Look at the stone faces behind Seth when he’s talking to Captain Kirk.  They don’t even give him a laugh for the pretty funny line of “What if I’m the first Oscar host to ever get a bad review?”  He lost them, and never came back.
So next year, they swing back.  Get someone safe so they don’t piss off their established audience. Ratings will be higher this year, but that’s because people actually saw the movies, and probably little to do with Seth himself.
But in a bizarre way, the Oscars are sort of an inverse of comics.  Comics are struggling to stay relevant because yes, much of the industry seems to realize that it’s become a sinkhole of misogyny and stale plots, and all of the people who might write stuff that’s interesting have fled to webcomics.  Some of them want to change.  But they have this core audience – the majority of their remaining sales – who really want to see attractive women stuffed into refrigerators, and you have to satisfy that base while you wildly experiment.  You might try wildly on the sidelines to create a hit that appeals to people who are not mouth-breathing dateless dudes… but that’s a rough thing to do, because you’re trying to craft a hit so big that it appeals to people who don’t read comics, reigniting the industry and creating a whole new genre that saves your business model.  And while you’re trying that, you need to serve up the same dreck to an unthinking audience.
The Oscars are the opposite – they’re staid, stodgy, not all that fun to most of the younger generation, who don’t like the movies they choose, and don’t like how every ceremony goes on frickin’ forever.  So the Academy is trying to be crazy wild, doing things The Kids love, but then they piss off their celebrities (who they need to come back, as watching celebs is the only draw the Oscars have), and they piss off their older viewers.  So they snap back and hey, Billy Crystal.
So.  Seth’s another wild shot in the dark.  They hired him to make it into a Family Guy episode, and that’s what he did.  I bet many of them were holding their nose at the idea.  They were just hoping that, somehow, it would work.

2 Comments

  1. Guthrie
    Feb 25, 2013

    Wait…
    …did you just liken Seth MacFarlane’s turn at Oscar-hosting to Stan Lee deciding to depict Ben Grimme wearing a Beatles wig or the Original X-Men frequenting a coffeehouse (or Spider-Man facing a glaringly-contrived Prince/Gloved One analog) in the hopes of capturing the youth market?
    Just checking. Love you, kid.
    -G.

  2. Amy McDonagh
    Feb 25, 2013

    I love this review, and completely agree. I found it amusing, was actually surprised by how much humor there was, but at the same time felt a twinge of compassion for his humor-victims, many of whom were women in the audience. The last song about “losers” was just ridiculous; even getting nominated means you’re in the top of your field. It was rather counter-intuitive of all of the humble thanks and respect that the winners expressed to their fellow actors during many of the acceptance speeches.
    Regardless, I enjoyed watching the Oscars this year, though granted, this was mostly for the stunning musical performances by Adele and the cast of Les Mis, as well as the fact that I actually SAW the movies this year. Maybe someday they will find a host with a happy balance.

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