Even the greenest of initiates into the ways of prognostication could foresee the critical backlash against Seth MacFarlane hosting the telecast of the 85th annual Academy Awards. It was inescapable. Even as I read an interview in the Globe and Mail featuring two female science fiction writers with whom I have the pleasure of being acquainted, the headline in the margin read “…MacFarlane keeps up the Oscar trend of terrible hosts.”
The words that followed were no kinder. Mr. McGinn of the Globe accused MacFarlane sexism, racism, misogyny, and elevating the Franco-Hathaway Oscars to “the golden times of Bob Hope.”
And I must admit that as I watched MacFarlane, who tapped none less than William Shatner as his monologue wingman, my thoughts drifted to an episode of Family Guy wherein Peter Griffin, voiced by MacFarlane, punched Jimmy Fallon in the face. Fallon’s crimes: a propensity to smile and sometimes laugh at his own jokes during his monologues. For the first hour, MacFarlane could hardly get through a punch line without grinning at the camera. While it would be unfair to compare him to the likes of say, Marco Rubio, MacFarlane alternated between zingers and awkward anxiety in equal measure, only gradually settling into his performance. Of course, I don’t blame him for this in the slightest.
MacFarlane’s claim to fame is the sort of comedy which walks the line between brilliant subversion and intentionally offensive. For every Brian Griffin mini-editorial deriding the broken nature of American political culture, there’s a dick joke ridden to death and dry humped into the grave. Amid the institution of Hollywood, MacFarlane is a consummate outsider. Where past hosts have demonstrated some level of Oscar credibility (Franco, Hathaway, and Jackman, come to mind) Seth MacFarlane has never been on a course to collect a golden statue for any of the big awards. This brings me to my first question: why all the surprise and, likely ersatz, outrage at MacFarlane doing what he does best? Was it expected that Chris Rock wouldn’t drop a single racial reference when he hosted? Did audience and critics alike not expect Jon Stewart be Jon Stewart when he twice hosted the Oscars?
For as long as I have watched the Oscars, which began the year Angelina Jolie made out with her brother, I have seen two types of Oscar telecasts: the Oscar ceremony and the Oscar spectacle. What we saw last night was the latter of the two.
The Oscar spectacle is hosted by an outsider who by their nature is allowed to call out Hollywood and the Oscar ceremony as the self-congratulatory circle jerk that it is. What other industry makes such a sensation out of celebrating its own financial success? MacFarlane is perfectly on point when he lampoons the paradox of billions of dollars in box office sales met with perpetual cries of poverty.
Certainly, the likes of Saint William of the Crystal would never have sullied his lips by singing, “We Saw Your Boobs” within the opening number – never mind his most famous character was the 1980s answer to Barney Stinson. But here’s a theory, MacFarlane isn’t to blame for a culture of female body commoditization within Hollywood. Sure the song itself is juvenile and possibly offensive to women in the audience, but so what? One does not simply shoot the messenger for looking Hollywood’s elite square in the eye and pointing out their silent consent in a broadly misogynistic industry. In a business powered by liars, cheaters, phonies, image consultants, publicists, and spin doctors, tut-tutting a comedian for using his trade to hold a mirror to his institutional betters is something of a zero sum game.
Such is the nature of comedy, after all. Comedy deconstructs, offers editorials, and shines light on things which are otherwise uncomfortable. Case in point, is it tasteless of Seth MacFarlane to call Django Unchained a date movie for Chris Brown and Rihanna? Only to mindless fans and Paparazzo who claim a false moral high ground as observers of an obviously toxic situation. Who among us would wait for the TMZ photos were one of our friends perpetually relapsing with the likes of Chris Brown? So why is the issue somehow sacrosanct with a celebrity? More importantly why is MacFarlane being tossed under the bus for reminding us of this uncomfortable truth?
Was MacFarlane racist when he “confused” Denzel with Eddie Murphy? Doubtful. Instead I see an invitation into a broader discussion on African American actors within Hollywood. Perhaps we can start with Anthony Hemingway’s Red Tails retconing the Tuskegee Airmen into extras from Good Times, and in doing so playing into half a dozen of the worst stereotypes seen in African American movie characters. Until MacFarlane does something that says, “A black man can spot a sexy white woman from an altitude of two-thousand feet,” you’ll forgive me for giving him a pass on sock puppet Flight, and making the exact same joke at the expense of Salma Hayek’s accent that Tina Fey’s writers did on 30 Rock.
Critics may bemoan MacFarlane for his performance, but in the end I expect ABC and the Academy will have precious few complaints. Youtube content, of both the licensed and illicit variety, will spur conversation about the Oscars well into the summer. People will remember Seth MacFarlane calling out Hollywood on its “dieting” culture in the same way they recall Ricky Gervais’ Mel Gibson jokes at the Golden Globes. Subsequently the cost to advertise during the Oscars will likely go up next year. Meanwhile the powers that be will get a younger audience, as well as their key demographic, watching Amy Poehler and Tina Fey deliver a non-offensive Oscar ceremony, all of which will tie back to Seth MacFarlane. The dignity of the Oscars will be restored until 2015 when Joel McHale hosts, and we begin this cycle all over again.