Among the Springfield faithful, MacFarlane’s Family Guy is chastised for having borrowed, referenced, or outright stolen a great deal from the denizens of Springfield. He’s criticized among the diehard fans of the show for being tasteless, lazy, and self-indulgent. Suffice it to say, as an avowed Simpsons nerd, he’s not my favorite person in the world.
But he was a great Oscar host.
A good Oscar host can make the room a little uncomfortable. A good Oscar host can laugh at himself. A good Oscar host is versatile. A good Oscar host knows how to put on a show. A good Oscar host knows how to deliver a comic aside. A good Oscar host can bring something unexpected.
And Seth MacFarlane’s ability to do all of those things is why he was great at the Academy Awards. He threw out a fair share of barbs while surrounded by Tinseltown’s elite. He channeled the clever, if raunchy, feistiness, that gave Family Guy its initial cult following. He harnessed his love for Old Hollywood with his crooning, vaudeville-style repartee, and song and dance routines. He tempered it all with healthy doses of self-effacement to soften the blows in both directions.
And that’s what you want in an Oscar broadcast. Because the Oscars are a show that has to be all things to all people. The bigwigs behind the curtain are looking to appeal to all demographics. And in the current era of television you can do that one of two ways.
The first is to pick an inoffensive host. This is the host who’s making a calculated attempted to try to please everyone. This host will, by definition, be solid, unobjectionable, but also unremarkable. They’ll do enough to move the party along, but not much to leave a mark on the proceedings. The problem becomes that this host will not prompt much opposition, but no one really affirmatively likes them either. That leaves you with the Nickelback problem.
Several years ago, Nickelback firmly established themselves in the bulging middle of the rock and roll genre. They weren’t hard enough to be lumped in with Metallica; they weren’t punk enough to tour with Green Day, and they weren’t Southern enough to ape Lynyrd Skynyrd. Instead, they hovered in the middle as a sort of neutral, flavorless brand of rock and roll, offering radio-friendly singles that never really ventured into musical or lyrical territory that would make you stand up and take notice, but which also weren’t enough to make you get up and change the station either.
Then eventually, it was that seemingly deliberate genericness that did make people take notice. Thus began the backlash.
In Nickelback’s defense, they’re not bad; they’re just not appreciably good either. People grow to despise the things in art and media that intentionally fail to challenge them in some way. The things that are dull are ignored. Things that are aggressively dull, purposely mediocre, and wholly unadventurous earn our contempt. That’s why I’d take a hundred experimental pairings like Anne Hathaway and James Franco over yet another middle-of-the-road Master of Ceremonies.
To that end, the other option is to pick a host who’s going to put on a show that will receive, by definition, a mixed response. It’s a show that will give everybody something to love and also something to roll their eyes at. In the end, I think that’s what Seth MacFarlane provided. It’s a delicate balancing act, but I think MacFarlane offered something for everyone, instead of trying to offer up everything, but for no one in particular.
That is, without a doubt, something of a gamble. You risk alienating all parties in the attempt to ensure everyone has something to like. What’s more, the Oscars are a consistently stuffy affair, and it’s hard to marry the grand pomp and circumstance of the occasion while simultaneously attempting to keep the average viewer entertained for three and a half hours of industry self-importance. The humor is the glue that holds the whole thing together. And for the first time in several years, it didn’t just fade into the woodwork.
To wit, the Oscar telecast generally features some gentle ribbing from the host, but it tends toward the playful gags of a church social rather than a true feather-ruffling directed at the assembled movers and shakers. MacFarlane managed to strike a balance. He absolutely owned the excesses and ridiculousness of the occasion while managing to roast it at the exact same time. He was able to be both in the moment, with his traditional song and dance routines and nods to Old Hollywood, and outside of it, with edgy quips, off-the-wall sendups, and his own meta-commentary.
And that’s the difference between MacFarlane and someone like Ricky Gervais, who made for an entertaining Golden Globes, but who also seemed “above it all.” It’s also what differentiates him from other outsiders like Jon Stewart and David Letterman who admitted they didn’t necessarily feel at home hosting the Academy Awards because, “deep in our hearts, we think it’s stupid.” MacFarlane was clearly more than happy to note the absurdity of the celebration while at the same time reveling in his role in it.
Part of that came from the laughs at his own expense. Whether it was his hilariously self-aware opening or his running commentary on his own gags and miscues, MacFarlane gave a clear message: “I am going to make no end of fun of this thing, and I am also firmly a part of its ridiculousness.”
And he did. From a delightfully vaudevillian welcome of Meryl Streep that started with “the following presenter needs no introduction” and ended with MacFarlane immediately bolting off stage, to an inspired callback to The Sound of Music when introducing Christopher Plummer, to his his introduction of the cast of Star Trek as “the future spokesmen for Priceline.com, MacFarlane went all in on both his comedy and his genuine affection for the pieces of Hollywood’s past.
At the same time, he was certainly edgy, and that was bound to upset the surly and staid of the entertainment industry. But again, if he was going to put together a show that strove to be something more than the Applebees of presentation, easily digestible but largely lacking in flavor, there were going to have to be parts of the show that appealed to some and not others.
For example, I was nonplussed by Barbara Streisand’s mumbled rendition of “Memories” that felt like the leftovers of an insincere Las Vegas lounge act, or as has been said of MacFarlane’s performance, an SNL parody of one. Yet this has been repeatedly cited as highlight among the older viewers like Tom Shales. To paraphrase a man who was himself honored (and ribbed) at the ceremony, you can please all of the people some the time, or some of the people all of the time.
On the other side of the spectrum, the edgier moments of the show rubbed many people the wrong way: from references to Chris Brown and Rhianna, to a John Wilkes Boothe punchline, to a final song celebrating the evening’s “losers,” I think the academy both knew what they were getting and got they wanted. To my mind, it was a welcome change from the typical milquetoast Oscar routines that wouldn’t feel out of place on Leno.
The “We Saw Your Boobs” song, the gag involving Don Cheadle, and the his comments about “making the Oscars even gayer” are understandably and admittedly, a bit trickier. But for those who took offense, all I can do is encourage you not to take the humor seriously. I’m sensitive to the concerns about bigotry, and MacFarlane’s television shows certainly have a track record to raise a few eyebrows on these sorts of issues, but it was all done in a lighthearted spirit and there was nothing so patently offensive or outrageous as to warrant a hue and cry.
They were just jokes — fairly tame by MacFarlane’s standards and generally harmless. Obviously the Oscars are a different atmosphere than the Comedy Central Roasts that MacFarlane has emceed, but I don’t think the broadcast was worse for wear because of a couple of envelope-pushing routines.
And they did break through the ceremony’s usually staid exterior. It was far from a perfect show. The presenters’ patter was off. The show dragged in spots. Even as someone who greatly enjoyed another maligned Oscars host, the inimitable Hugh Jackman, the musical tributes became too much at some point.
But MacFarlane shined. He was unique, he was self-deprecating, and he shook things up in a broadcast that has been grasping for relevance in recent years. I hope he’s asked back, because he put on one of the best Oscar telecasts in recent memory, and he deserves the chance to do it all again, whether everyone liked him or not.