— Seth MacFarlane (@SethMacFarlane) February 26, 2013
If Sunday’s Oscars telecast proved one thing, it’s that the hardest job in the world is not the United States presidency, Secretary General of the United Nations nor Ron Jeremy’s fluffer: It’s hosting the Academy Awards. Entertaining an audience of billions while reverently poking fun (but not too much fun) at members of the world’s most notoriously touchy trade union is a balancing act worthy of Nik Wallenda.
I’ll admit that I’m not a Seth MacFarlane advocate—I think Family Guy is as clever as it is smugly self-satisfied—but the snickering vocal chameleon behind Stewie Griffin et al, the protestations of advocacy groups and the Twittering classes notwithstanding, did the seemingly impossible: He kept the longest three-plus hours in television riveting. From the genius Shatner-reporting-from-the-future gambit (which provided MacFarlane plausible deniability, for instance, in singing about boobs) through to his closing duet with Kristin Chenoweth saluting Oscar’s “losers,” MacFarlane didn’t open his mouth without lobbing a barb in someone’s direction. Maybe that’s why so many people are ruffled by his performance (though you really can’t accuse him not spreading the digs around).
There is, of course, a camp that believes that the Oscars should be a hallowed ceremony to recognize the best of the best (and I’m not talking about acting) and ought thus be, above all else, executed with extreme reverence. These people would sign a sycophantic suck-up like Billy Crystal to a lifetime contract and watch as the ratings shrunk along with the universe of people who find Crystal amusing.
And therein lies the rub: More often than not, comedians are tapped for this gig, but the ones who do actual comedy (your Stewarts, your Lettermans), who take pride in the work, the kind who push the boundaries of what’s in good taste and, god forbid, throw some elbows in the ribs of the honored guests, tend to not get invited back. MacFarlane did good, edgy stuff, eliciting laughs and, occasionally, that rarest of joke responses, the gasp of shock and disgust.
One of the most common critiques of MacFarlane’s night, that his jokes tended toward the misogynistic, is not without merit, though expecting MacFarlane to refrain from the frat-house humor that’s made him famous is a little like asking Andrew Dice Clay to cut out the nursery rhymes about fellatio.
There’s been a lot of chatter about whether MacFarlane was funny or not, and that’s not a question we can answer here. I don’t think all of MacFarlane’s jokes landed, and whether you find the ones that didn’t hit offensive for enforcing stereotypes, or daring for forcing us to confront them, involves some heavy psychic calculus I’m not equipped to parse.
Maybe the real source of the hand-wringing about MacFarlane’s hosting gig is what it says about the audience. Maybe Hollywood types are less worried that MacFarlane’s doing jokes about boobs and accents and ethnic women’s facial hair between his more pointed material, and more concerned that their television audience ate it up.