Seth Be Not Proud

I’m not necessarily a huge Seth MacFarlane fan; it’s easy to feel indignant about a guy who’s made a gazillion dollars by essentially writing Simpsons fan fiction.  So I was expecting not to be impressed by his work as the Oscars host.  Okay, fine: I was looking forward to not being impressed by his work as the Oscars host.  I’m not proud of it, but there it is.  I was eager to get my reserves of Schadenfreude topped off, basically.And I wasn’t too impressed by his work, but not for the reasons you’d think.  I thought his comedy during the telecast was carefully and intricately crafted, attentively honed, and expertly delivered.  The only problem with most of it was that it wasn’t funny, but then most comedy is both unfunny and poorly crafted, so at least he was getting something right.  I was also surprised – watching it after the reviews had started coming in – that I didn’t even find most of it to be that sexist.In context, the much-reviled “We Saw Your Boobs” number, for instance, was constructed not to find humor in the fact that women take off their shirts in the movies, but in the idea of the Oscars, a celebration of cinematic accomplishment, being hosted by someone so boorish and clueless that he would build an elaborate musical number around women taking off their shirts in movies.  The fact that most of these movies were serious, even grueling pieces of art that don't eroticize their subjects thus underlines that cluelessness.  I knew ahead of time that was ostensibly the premise of the number and I went in expecting that framing device just to be a flimsy excuse for leering jokes about famous women’s boobies, but nope – the joke was, from beginning to end, about the crass oafishness of this Oscar host.  The bit went on way too long, obviously – it might have landed if it had been even more elaborate and abrupt in its brevity – but not knowing when to cut things off seems to be something that MacFarlane and the Oscars have in common.So if the “Boobs” number wasn’t really about women, or boobs, then why was it still problematic?  Because it was all about Seth MacFarlane.  The entire interminable opening routine with William Shatner was all about Seth MacFarlane, Oscar host, and his performance anxieties about being the Oscar host[1].  And there was literally only one person in that room who cared about Seth MacFarlane and his performance anxieties.  (Hint: he rhymes with Beth BacFarlane.)  A comic like Kathy Griffin makes her routine all about herself because her audience cares, rabidly, about her.   Seth MacFarlane doing a live, globally broadcast twenty-minute routine about himself and his legacy at the Oscars, by contrast, is the equivalent of forcing a billion people to watch your kids’ ballet recital on Youtube.  Nevertheless: complaining about the song for essentializing women requires that you ignore the entire context of the joke.Most of the lines that drew criticism were similarly defanged by context, by MacFarlane’s design.  The joke about Quvenzhané Wallis wasn’t about her sexuality; it was about George Clooney, and it was about arithmetic, and it wasn’t that funny, but it was a pretty standard-issue movie-star gag.  The joke about Rihanna and Chris Brown wasn’t endorsing or trivializing domestic violence; it was a familiar ripped-from-the-headlines ba-dump-bum punchline and it wasn’t that funny but anything that’s offensive about it can pretty much be pinned on Chris Brown.  The bit where MacFarlane mixed up Denzel Washington with Eddie Murphy was, again, about the pretended unenlightened cluelessness of Oscar host Seth MacFarlane, and it wasn’t that funny, but… you get the idea.I thought his joke about Zero Dark Thirty ("The film was a triumph and also a celebration of every woman's innate ability to never ever let anything go") was particularly interesting because it got reprinted a lot as an example of the show’s insensitivity to women.  On paper that line is particularly irksome in its reductivity: antediluvian Borscht-belt stuff about the female's predictably unstable temperament.  But in MacFarlane’s deft delivery it’s something else: as he puts it out there, his eyes widening in weary frustration, he fleetingly embodies a character who’s so preoccupied with his own troubled romantic relationships, and so convinced of his blamelessness in those troubles, that it subsumes everything else, even globally coordinated Seal Team Six operations.  For the duration of that joke, he is that guy, and that guy's blinkered worldview – not Those Darn Women – is what we’re meant to be laughing at.  It’s a comic technique that Steve Martin used to use a lot in his stand-up, and I actually thought MacFarlane’s construction and deployment of that particular joke was pretty masterful.Meanwhile, the Sound of Music bit was pretty much the funniest thing I’d seen on the Oscars in a long time.So, yeah: overall the show wasn’t great, and it wasn’t funny enough, and that thing with Mark Wahlberg and the bear was pretty awful.  But I went looking for sexism and didn’t find it – or, at least, I didn’t find any beyond all the usual piles of it that one always finds at red carpet Hollywood events.  I’m not habitually an apologist for this kind of stuff – let’s make an appointment to get together and rag on Daniel Tosh, I’d love to, anytime – but I do think comedy, well-wrought, is a vastly more intricate and complicated instrument than people credit it with being, and lifting lines from their conceptual contexts and ignoring variables like delivery and timing is typically a recipe for missing the point.

[1] All that second-guessing metacommentary and walking back of bits that MacFarlane did – “I thought we cut this joke,” “Oh no, that’s what we were afraid he was gonna do” – was also a part of this relentless self-absorbed self-awareness.  It reflected an anxious lack of the courage of his convictions, which is understandable but problematic, and it kept the focus of the comedy unremittingly on him and his performance, which is just not what the rest of us were interested in.