In Defense of Seth MacFarlane: Comedy is in the Eye of the Beholder & Peeling Back The Onion

Seth MacFarlane OscarsFirst, some context: we are not especially devoted Seth MacFarlane fans. For a time we watched Family Guy semi-regularly and certainly were a part of that groundswell that helped resurrect the show from its premature grave. But do we consider ourselves MacFarlane evangelists or advocates? Not at all. We still haven’t seen Ted, and are not exceptionally eager to do so. We rarely watch American Dad and we can’t say for sure that we’ve ever caught an episode of The Cleveland Show. We were, however, impressed with his performance hosting the SNL premiere, and it demonstrated that not only could he do funny voices and write an off-color (and oft-humorous) joke, but he could also perform, and perform live, which is not always second nature for a writer-producer-voice actor. Did that mean we were thrilled to learn he was tapped to host this year’s Oscars? No, not really. We thought it was somewhat a knee-jerk, ill-advised decision (probably due, paradoxically, to his mess-up when presenting at the 2012 Emmys). But we knew, at least, that he could hold his own on stage, singing, dancing, cracking wise, and thinking on his feet. Was he going to offend some people? Probably. But that would come with the territory. Wouldn’t that be by design? If you wanted someone with only a love of musical theater and a flair for singing and dancing, then wouldn’t you just turn to Billy Crystal for a record 74th time? So, with Seth MacFarlane, that’s the package, that’s the deal (a faustian bargain, depending on your point of view): some dick and fart jokes and some mildly anti-Semitic and racist humor mixed with some sprinkles of old Broadway.

So were we surprised that MacFarlarne’s hosting turn this past Sunday night was met with a mix of disappointment and outright scorn? No, not at all. That was to be expected. But, after seeing the show, we were taken aback at the amount of criticism leveled at MacFarlane because, frankly, for someone who trades in abortion jokes and greased up deaf guys, we found his material relatively mild. It was almost as if we were watching a different show, different from the one that so much of the (tweeting) public found so repugnant, so misogynistic  and racist and base. And, to our surprise, we found ourselves in MacFarlane’s corner. Not because we found his turn especially remarkable. But because it wasn’t that bad. And, more importantly, it wasn’t that vile.

We could extrapolate temporaneously, but for the sake of streamlining the argument we’re going to respond point-by-point to a recap posted by BuzzFeed yesterday entitled 9 Sexist Things That Happened at the Oscars.

[note: we mean no offense or insult to the author or the site, we’re just using this specific post as a springboard and certainly respect their views and opinions]

1.  This Boobs Song Happened 

Yes, this happened and it was silly and fun and it was done in the context of “this is exactly the kind of thing Seth MacFarlane would do and subsequently be anointed as the worst Oscar host of all-time.” It was as if everyone who was watching forgot that this performance was basically in quotes, a parody of a typical MacFarlane gag. Now, sure, there are those who will argue that the context is irrelevant, that this is something that a childish mind like MacFarlane finds amusing, and that he has an infantile obsession with breasts, but we would disagree. It’s our society that has an obsession with breasts and at the same time has created this incredible taboo surrounding them (we can’t have Katy Perry on Sesame Street because she shows a little cleve, but Jennifer Lopez can wear things like this). The song was meant to be dumb and sophomoric and mock those very things that MacFarlane is accused of being. Also, we can’t talk about or allude to boobs, but we can honor films that feature torture (Zero Dark Thirty),  assassination (Lincoln), prostitution (Les Mis), and about 300 utterances of the N-word (Django Unchained)? Also, pretty sure some of those movies contain boobs too. C’mon, grow a pair (balls, not boobs. But, hey, why not boobs too? We’re all for equality). By the way, here’s Billy Crystal doing a dog balls joke:

2. The Prospect of George Clooney Getting with Quvenzhané Wallis Was Discussed

Okay, maybe the worst, ickiest joke of the night, and made worse by its association with a particularly incendiary Onion tweet (as if this line from MacFarlane was responsible for a tweet posted two hours earlier, but more on that later), but we don’t buy that the joke implies that George Clooney wants to have sex with Quvenzhané Wallis or any under age girls. It’s important to remember the target of the joke is Clooney, Wallis is really just the MacGuffin. And we don’t believe it means that Wallis IS young enough for Clooney, just that she’s still nineteen years away from being too old.   She could still be seventeen years from being old enough. Reading too much into this joke, granted a pretty weak one, does no favors. Also, Clooney dates beautiful, sexy, young women and is the most handsome man in the world,* so he’s probably not sweating it.

3. There Was a “Joke” About Domestic Violence

McFarlane said of Django Unchained: “Django is a movie where a woman is subjected to violence, or as we call it, a Chris Brown and Rihanna date movie.”

Well, maybe it was appropriate to use the word joke in quotation marks there, because it was more like a statement, something that needs to be said. We think this is the opposite of a sexist, women-hating, pro-domestic violence joke. It’s castigating both Chris Brown and Rihanna for their roles in their relationship. Hitting a woman is unacceptable, and so is legitimizing that kind of violence. It’s an appropriate and unnecessary joke for that forum and that audience, we admit, but it doesn’t trivialize or condone domestic violence. If you’re going to act callous or belligerent towards women then you should be called out for your revolting behavior. The blame is on Chris Brown here, not Seth MacFarlane (again, we’re reacting to the fact that this line does not support or encourage domestic violence, not saying at all that it’s a very good joke).

4. Jennifer Aniston Got Called a Stripper

MacFarlane introduced Aniston and Channing Tatum by saying “of our next two presenters, at least one is honest about being a former exotic dancer,” the idea here being that we know that Tatum is a former exotic dancer – he made a movie about it – but that Aniston might be hiding something from her past. This is just typical, lame introduction patter. And it’s important to keep in mind that MacFarlane probably wrote none of these type of presenter preambles, and it could have just as easily been written by Bruce Vilanch. And, really, doesn’t this objectify Tatum more than Aniston, suggesting that he’s nothing more than a slice of beefcake who used his good-looks and ripped torso to break into the industry? Moreover, if you want to follow the line of logic, Tatum never goes full-frontal in Magic Mike (much to the dismay of many ladies and men, we’re sure), so perhaps, if this whole scenario is true, Aniston merely has a secret history as a burlesque dancer. No big, we’ve all been there. 

Also, Aniston does this in Horrible Bosses: 

5. Seth MacFarlane Made Fun of Women for Dieting

Well, here he didn’t so much as make fun of women for dieting as much as for purging and starving themselves so they can squeeze into their dresses to look good on the red carpet. And maybe they should be derided for that kind of behavior, and it would naive to think that none of those actresses are guilty of such dangerous practices. Perhaps, more blame should be directed towards the emphasis on fashion and looking fabulous than on MacFarlane for explicitly calling out such values (more on that later).

6. He Also Said “Zero Dark Thirty” Was Evidence That Women Are Difficult

This just seems like nitpicking. Can someone look at some old Everybody Loves Raymonds and find about three dozen similar quotes? We’re sure they’re there. If we’re going to attack this joke, we’re also going to need to call about seventy years of sitcoms to the stand.

7. And Then He Talked About the Kardashians Having Facial Hair

Okay, this one is really offensive. But only because it’s so cheap and lazy. However, if you listen, it worked! Apparently, the only thing that the Academy Awards audience can get behind is a good (well, pretty standard) Karshian joke. And, in MacFarlane’s defense, upon noticing the joke in the prompter he expresses his surprise that it was not cut, so even he wasn’t very high on it. Also, this reminds us that not all those jokes were his creation, and while he deserves some of the blame for being the one to recite them on stage, any disappointment or anger has to be parsed among the writers and producers as well.

8. There Was this Questionable Joke About Jack Nicholson’s House

During a segment featuring Mark Wahlberg and his fictional friend Ted, there was some joking about an orgy that would take place after the ceremony at Jack Nicholson’s house. Many have pointed out Roman Polanski was accused of raping a woman at Nicholson’s house, so some have taken this as a deliberate reference. It could, of course, have been unintentional, but of all the celebrity homes to choose, it seems odd to randomly pick Nicholson’s.

Okay, this was in bad judgement. And if Nicholson was chosen specifically because of that dark history then this is truly the one bit that crossed the line, as it alludes to actual rape of an actual minor. But this shows that the remark about Wallis and Clooney is a less egregious crime because it doesn’t make light of someone’s disgusting actions and another’s tragic experience. Again, we think this was a matter of taking a shot at an easy target, but in not considering that infamous incident it was incredibly irresponsible.

9. MacFarlane Said It Was Fine That No One Could Understand Salma Hayek, Because All They Want to Do Is Look at Her

Well, if anything this is less sexist than it is prejudice and ethnocentric. For the record, MacFarlane does include Javier Bardem in the statement, and there was basically a whole SNL sketch with Sofia Vergara offering a very similar premise (with the wonderful and, yes, pretty Kate McKinnon portraying Penelope Cruz, the other good-looking Latin star mentioned by MacFarlane). Sure, we don’t want to diminish anyone’s worth, and imply that their looks are more important than their character and what they have to say (although, again, the fashion aspect of the show kind of contrasts this), but can we not offer compliments on physical appearance anymore? And can we not push the envelope when the time calls for it? Isn’t that what humor is about? Not being deliberately mean or caustic or disrespectful, but taking jabs at everyone, because can’t we all just laugh at each other every once in a while?

And don’t us started on the backlash to MacFarlane’s Lincoln joke. In our opinion, 150 years is not too soon, and it was actually a pretty clever line. For better or worse, we ascribe to the Michael Scott school of comedy:

Yes, there were certainly some other off-color, borderline racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic cracks as well. But hey, Billy Crystal has done that too.

Truly though, it’s baffling to be angry with MacFarlane for doing what he’s known for doing, and for, really, only doing it at about 75% intensity. Compared to some of the things they get away with on Family Guy (they’re already making 9/11 jokes; no wonder he thought he could slip in a Lincoln gag), we found his material, on the whole, rather tame, even less provocative than Ricky Gervais’s work on the Golden Globes. So all the negative, passionately vitriolic reaction began to make us wonder if the reception stemmed from preconceived notions about MacFarlane, and that it wasn’t so much the words that were coming out of his mouth, but the mouth that the words were coming out of. Certainly, there have been many avowed MacFarlane fans who have denounced his performance, so that can’t be the only explanation. But we just can’t help considering if those jokes would have played any differently – if the response would have been any more positive – if it was someone more mainstream, more widely accepted in the Hollywood community delivering them. Someone who wouldn’t dare try something different in the monologue, who would stick to the script and pay homage to the industry. Then again, maybe our sense of humor isn’t as refined and nuanced as we hoped.

Finally, about that Onion tweet, it’s important to remember that everything they say is in quotes. It’s wasn’t Everyone else is afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhané Wallis is a kind of a cunt, right?, but Everyone else is afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhané Wallis is a kind of a cunt, right? It was in the fashion of the type of soulless, vapid, media parasite who does say or least intimate these things about a lot of (not nine-year-old) Hollywood actresses (Kristen Stewart comes to mind). Now, we agree, not everything can hide behind the veil of satire, and if something goes too far, whether it be The Onion or the The Daily Show or this blog, they should be called out and be held accountable. But the important thing is that they’re held accountable for the right transgression. Unfortunately, it seemed to us that The Onion was being assailed for calling Wallis that word, when that’s not really what they did. Anyone who is familiar with their style of comedy knows that. A bunch of Ivy League educated liberal white kids know better than that, why would they ever have any reason or inclination or desire to truly call a nine-year-old a cunt? They wouldn’t. This wasn’t Rex Reed referring to Melissa McCarthy as a “female hippo,” a very mean, deliberate, genuine attack. It was a reference to abhorrentvacuous comments like that. But the joke wasn’t as good as they imagined, and it wasn’t nearly clever enough or satirical enough to compensate for the outrage it caused. But really what they’re guilty of was not launching a deplorable slur at a child, but exceedingly poor judgement in publishing an ill-conceived joke. 

However, what was particularly infuriating about this situation was how it ballooned, and made the controversy bigger than it ever needed to be. Some were dismayed that Wallis would likely learn about the C-word because of this tweet. But we have a feeling that had there not been such a public outcry she might have been completely clueless to the situation. But when you have so many people on notable websites and Twitter accounts demanding apologies, then the story becomes too big to ignore, too impossible to shield from the sweet, innocent girl. And when the E! Network runs a blurb on its news ticker noting that The Onion called Wallis a sexual slur, without providing any indication that it was used in a satirical form, losing all context, the story has spun out of control.

Should The Onion have apologized?  Doing so damages to their ability to live on the edge – it opens a Pandora’s box of sorts – but we’re not sure they had much of a choice. We just kind of wish they didn’t capitulate so greatly, as if they had meant what the tweet said. They reserve the right to apologize for their judgement, but they also need to preserve their right to be provocative. Just be smarter about it next time. Some tweets are better left untweeted.

Finally, we wonder what’s more dangerous and insulting towards women: a few coarse jokes and a poorly conceived tweet or six hours of red carpet fashion coverage? What will really do more damage to nine-year-old girl? A mean, dirty word and a bad joke about dating an older man or a culture that rewards and demands unattainable physical beauty? None of those, really, are desirable. They all create an unfair situation for women, young and old. But if we’re going to level criticism at comedians and fake news sites for inappropriate jokes, we should also take a look at the whole story, at the big picture. We need to peel back the layers of the onion.

*With the possible exceptions of Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling, obviously.
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Filed under Analysis, Fashion Show at Lunch, In defense of:, Lists, Other people's stuff, The Big Screen

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