LITTLE ROCK I’m no fan of Seth MacFarlane.
I’ve only dipped into Family Guy and its spinoffs a few times, just enough to know that there’s not anything I’m very interested in. Were I a seventh-grader, I might love the shows, but would-be clever, supremely smug snark wears me out. I can’t help but sense a cowardice behind all that insulating irony, an unwillingness to genuinely invest in the shabby enterprise of puny humans. I don’t perceive that kind of thing as funny, though there’s plenty of admittedly middlebrow stuff that I do enjoy.
Plenty of smart people like Family Guy and love MacFarlane’s brand, and I don’t suppose there’s anything wrong with that.
And MacFarlane’s movie Ted was OK by the generally low standards of the genre - there were maybe 15 to 20 minutes of genuine inspiration, which is an above average ratio. It was better than I expected it to be, and I thought the worst thing about it was how it defaulted toward traditional rom-com convention in the third act. It was one of those movies that wanted to be sweet and edgy, and the result was something less than either. Ted felt like a glimmer of a good idea, professionally realized but somewhat lazily conceived - and in that lassitude I sensed the same contempt for the audience that mars most Hollywood productions.
It’s fair to say I wouldn’t have picked MacFarlane to host the Oscars - he wouldn’t have been on my radar. But had I thought about it, maybe he wouldn’t have seemed like such a bad choice. He had the right skill set - one of the few things I knew about him was that he was a capable song and dance guy - and he seemed more likely to protect his brand than to fawn over the big-face stars in the audience. Once I thought about it, he didn’t seem like such an awful choice; given that the show’s producers needed to court younger viewers, he even seemed a decent bet.
And then I watched the telecast - in the desultory, half-resentful way I do. I’m no fan of the Oscars either, and I don’t really know what being a film critic has to do with attending to awards shows, but I am expected to have opinions about the Oscars and to be able to comment on them (and sure enough, the day after the Oscars I was on South American television, chatting blithely about whatever it is the Academy Awards are supposed to mean). So I watch them until I turn them off and go to bed. Then I catch up in the morning. (Thank you, YouTube.)
And here’s what I thought of MacFarlane as host: Meh. He behaved about as I thought he would. He pushed on a little longer than necessary - I think the now notorious “boobs” song would have been funny had William Shatner merely alluded to it; we didn’t need to see it realized. Had it stayed an allusion, it would have been clearly perceived as a joke about the idiocy of men who watch films like Silkwood, Monster’s Ball and Mulholland Drive for their titillation power while at the same time serving as a needle to puncture the pomposity of an industry that more often pretends to art than realizes it.
But the small joke - which in an episode of Beavis and Butt-head would be thrown away as an aside - was blown up into a production number, complete with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles and prerecorded cutaway shots to some of the actresses mentioned in the song - because that’s the way they do things in Hollywood; the dominant mode is of overtly obvious overkill. Hollywood treats us all as children, and we accept it because we’ve come to understand that’s what movies are - little festivals of naivete. (Which is why movies like Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Moonrise Kingdom strike some of us as bizarre.)
Someone - maybe Mac-Farlane, but certainly the award show’s producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron - should have realized that the “boobs” number was 90 seconds the three-hour-and-35-minute broadcast could lose.
I didn’t take it as particularly offensive - I just thought it too broad and silly. But some of the criticisms I’ve read of the bit make sense - it is an assaultive bit, and demeaning of the serious work that some women undertake on screen.MacFarlane can’t inoculate himself against criticism by claiming the joke is on the people who are laughing right along with him. That’s his shtick, and no matter how many stuffy folks he irritates, its hardly a courageous stand.
Now I don’t think MacFarlane is racist, homophobic, antisemitic or even misogynistic- but I know he traffics in the sort of humor that people who are racist, homophobic, antisemitic and misogynistic enjoy. And they enjoy it in part because they don’t realize that the joke is on them. (Because they assume MacFarlane is like them. While I assume he isn’t.) But while MacFarlane isn’t evil, he is a man of limited talents - he’s hasn’t got the comedic or intellectual chops of someone like Louis C.K. or even Ricky Gervais. He doesn’t aspire to their artistry; he’s a broader, blunter instrument who - if he’d only dull it up a bit - might make a perfectly acceptable Oscar host. He really wasn’t that far off - he just needed better material.
I’m not making excuses for him. A lot of the jokes on the telecast were dumb, borderline offensive riffs. But that’s what Seth MacFarlane does - that and take cover behind a postmodern wall of irony that allows him to distance himself from his persona. Hell, that’s not unusual these days - I know newspaper columnists who employ the same tactics. A lot of people who complain about creeping “political correctness” in our society are just looking for a license to be cruel.
At the same time, there also exists a sort of person who can be gleefully offended, and in some of the more vitriolic day-after attacks on MacFarlane I caught a whiff of snobbery. It was almost as though some commentators were simply waiting for the chance to unload on MacFarlane, and his tremendously popular suburban middlebrow style of satire. There were pieces on Gawker (Gawker chastising a comedian for being crude and insensitive? Really?) and The New Yorker blog (by the usually impeccable Amy Davidson) that struck me as a little over the top. (Maybe not; some of my Facebook friends seemed a little miffed that I wasn’t as angry as they were with MacFarlane.)
But what do I know? I don’t hate the Oscars, but I understand that they are basically a self-congratulatory Chamber of Commerce dinner, and the working assumption is that these celebrities are somehow engaging in some enterprise nobler than mere entertainment work. I thought MacFarlane was a mediocre host squarely in the Old Showbiz traditions that Hollywood valorizes. And that was the main thing wrong with him.
MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 03/01/2013
Print Headline: MacFarlane? Meh. That’s Hollywood