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A Short Guide to Bad Oscar Hosts

Seth MacFarlane hosted a slow-motion catastrophe of an Oscars broadcast Sunday night. His terrible performance immediately sparked two internet conversations: one about what a terrible Oscars host Seth MacFarlane was, and a second about who had, if anyone, been an even more terrible Oscars host. Many people were insulted by MacFarlane's sexist hostility. And I was, too. But I was also insulted by MacFarlane's obvious laziness and lack of professionalism. MacFarlane's shtick is built on contempt, which is why he's so witlessly insulting. But it was his obvious lack of effort, his confidence that his bush-league material was good enough for the likes of us, that betrayed his total contempt for the audience.

Many of MacFarlane's apologists bring up the awful James Franco/Anne Hathaway show of two years ago. But that's a different question. Franco and Hathaway failed because they are not comedians (which is no more an insult than it is to point out that they are not acrobats). They simply do not have the skill set that hosting such a program requires; they could not have succeeded no matter how hard they tried. MacFarlane does have the requisite skills. It's clear that he has sufficiently effective comic delivery and he has a long track record as a head comedy writer. He knew his job. He just didn't bother to do it. That is insulting.

Don't get me wrong: hosting the Oscars is a nightmare gig. The host has to perform roughly 30 to 45 minutes of original and completely untested standup material, in front of both a national television audience and nearly every power broker in Hollywood. Most stand-up comedy that you see on TV has been tested and tweaked in dozens, or often hundreds, of live club performances. Any comedy bit that hasn't already been performed in front of a live crowd is at best a hit-or-miss proposition and at worst a bomb that can blow up in your face. (The few minutes of standup by the hosts on late-night shows are untested material of this kind, which is why those jokes are so uneven.) Doing half an hour or more of completely untested material in front of Steven Spielberg is terrifying.

Add to that the problem that you have two very different audiences to please, neither of them easy, and each with very different tastes: the room full of Hollywood luminaries in front of you and the vast TV audience somewhere beyond. To succeed, you need to bond with both audiences. Playing exclusively to one instead of the other is automatic death. And worse yet, the last ten or fifteen years have set up an expectation that the Oscar-night host will fail, which can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Potential hosts know this: Queen Latifah was asked before the show if she would consider hosting, and replied that the organizers would have to both "back up the Brinks truck" and get her the world's best publicist to repair her image after the show.) So all in all, an ugly seven-headed monster of an assignment.

But if you're going to accept that terrible gig, there's no excuse for giving less than your best effort. Sometime after 11 Eastern, MacFarlane was waving off his own bits with excuses like "It's late." But that's a lie. The material was not weak because MacFarlane was tired (at something like 8:15 local time). That could only be true if MacFarlane were making up the material as he went. The material was weak because MacFarlane, given months to prepare, had prepared a script full of weak and threadbare material. "It's late," is really MacFarlane saying, "I did not bother to put together enough quality material for an entire show. So you're just going to have to take whatever I give you from here on out."

This particular expression of contempt for the audience went unnoticed among MacFarlane's more blatant expressions of disregard for women, gays, Jews, ethnic minorities and people with mild Spanish accents. But all of MacFarlane's contemptuous misbehavior is rooted in that basic act of contempt for the audience, his refusal to put in the effort required to create enough A-level material.

The boorish "I saw your boobs" song actually might have been funny if it had taken only ten seconds. A lightning-quick snippet of MacFarlane singing "I saw your boobs," would be a perfectly good joke, and harmless because it would come at MacFarlane's expense.  (The context for the I-saw-your-boobs song was a "warning from the future" that MacFarlane was going to be disastrously offensive. If the audience then saw and heard him singing the words "I saw your boobs," just once, they would get the point: MacFarlane is an ignorant churl. It didn't get funnier the second time.) Instead, MacFarlane stretched that single, weak joke into a couple of minutes of material, requiring him to actually be a boor and then double and triple down. He didn't need the routine to be so long; it was pre-taped, so he could show as much or as little as he liked. But MacFarlane was trying to fill time, getting three minutes from a premise that only had one joke. He did the same thing with his next bit, stretching out a sock-puppet re-enactment of Flight to excruciating lengths. MacFarlane consistently tried to milk single jokes into longer sequences, because otherwise he would have had to come up with more jokes.

What he did write was lazy. The offensive lines weren't just politically incorrect. They were comically incorrect. Several of them were badly constructed. All of them were based on cliches. (A female CIA operative didn't get over 9/11 because "women never give up on anything?" Really? That's all you've got?)

Saying that MacFarlane was too "edgy" is absurd. MacFarlane is not an edgy comic. That was not Pryor, Carlin, or Lenny Bruce up there. There are comedians who can get away with material far more transgressive, and subjects far more taboo, than anything MacFarlane dreamed about. MacFarlane wouldn't have the stomach to do any five minutes of Bill Hicks's act, or Sarah Silverman's. Even Robin Williams, who all-too-desperately wants the audience's love, is far more of a painful truth-teller than MacFarlane. But all of those comedians get around the audience's inhibitions by breaking down cliches. Listening to them is liberatory, not because the material is difficult but because the execution is original. MacFarlane, who is lazy, prefers to build his act on as many cliches as possible. Of course, that's easier. It just doesn't work.

If someone tells you MacFarlane's detractors are being uptight, remember that MacFarlane got major blowback from a joke about John Wilkes Booth. That is not cutting-edge material. People have been telling jokes about the Lincoln assassination for many decades. ("Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln ....") But MacFarlane actually managed to offend people with that moldy chestnut of a premise, because the joke he told was constructed so poorly. The punch line wasn't set up strongly enough to feel natural, so MacFarlane sounded like he was straining to drag in Lincoln's murder. It's the strain that made the joke off-putting. That's a spectacular failure of technique. He could have gotten away with a Booth joke, easily, if he had taken the effort to write a better joke. But then, that would have required work. And MacFarlane had clearly decided that none of us were worth that much effort.

You wrote this blog as if Seth acted alone. There was a group of writers and producers calling the shots, like how long the Boobs song would go on. He was just one contributor.

Your opinion of Seth Macfarlane's host performance as well as the rest of the uptight critics is frivolous. The way he performed is exactly what the AA's needed. When you have a legendary host like Billy Crystal, according to nielson' rating draw less viewers then the network and the shows producers couldn't be happier. Just because witless people don't understand this brand of humor you bloggers and critics attack and defame Mr Macfarlane by calling him lazy, anti semitic, racist, misogynistic, etc. Are people so ignorant to think a comedian with all these character flaws would pick an audience of millions of people to display such flaws. It is those people who take such offense to JOKES and afraid to laugh that may need to take inventory of their own character flaws.

Struck me very much as Bob Hope reincarnated for the 21st century. Same exact type of humor and presentation (very lame in both cases, mho), adjusted only slightly for more risque times. Those who don't think so haven't been subjected to enough of Bob Hope's performances as an emcee of various shows (also mho, of course.)

It was kind of strange and sad that in a year that Hollywood seemed to have finally gotten its act together as far as furnishing some innovative contemporary pop culture choices for everyone (and not just the 16-21 yr. old male demographic, ) that the Academy show producers felt it was time to make a statement about vaudeville never dying.....

I certainly agree that it was a mistake to go with a  juvenile and down-market MC in a year when grown-up film was having a triumph. This was they year that the Academy could point to a whole raft of high-quality and basically thoughtful nominees, most of which were making whole rafts of money.

As for Bob Hope ... I recall being baffled by him when I was growing up. Why was this person famous? Why was this considered funny? Only later when I saw some of his very early work did I realize what a sad thing it was that he had let his original, ferocious talent turn into... whatever that was.

So television's Seth "Family Guy" MacFarlane was too crude for the take-themselves-too-seriously Oscar's.  Who could have possibly predicted that.

Well, me, I guess ... even though I cannot recall ever being able to watch either show straight through.  There is their different mediums, of course.  Television versus film -- not simply movies, mind you,  film.  But really all you have to look at is their respective demographic audiences to see the mismatch.

 

You make some excellent points.  I think McFarlane seemed nervous and unsure of his material, and then expected to get over the weak stuff by counter-punching, that is, he expected not to get laughs from the material so much as from his reaction to the material not going over.  I thought the Lincoln / Booth joke was a good example of that; the joke itself was mediocre, but designed to get a reaction, just so that he could do the 'too soon?' comeback, which he thought would be the real laugh-line. 

You're right too that he has the necessary comedic skill-set, heck, he can even sing!  But the material and his commitment to delivering the material just wasn't there.   

 

 

I watched maybe 45 minutes of the Oscars. I did see the Lincoln joke, and Conan told a milder form of the same joke a few days ago. I groaned both times. Was it too soon? Yes, it will always be too soon for me. 

I went back and watched the Shatner bit online. I do agree that the opening bit could have been tightened up. I didn't object to I Saw Your Boobs because Hollywood has been all about playing peek-a-boob for a long time. If Jennifer Lawrence had shown her boobs while tripping, no one would remember what MacFarlane did.

I didn't see the Conan joke, so I can't comment on what went might have misfired there. As far as "too soon" goes: I've seen comedians get successful laughs out of the Kennedy assassination, which is a much rawer wound, and something that happened in living memory. But they sure as hell aren't sloppy with how they put jokes about that together.

  Your's is definitely a minority opinion. Both of MacFarlane's Oscar gigs have been widely praised.

Both?  When was the first one?

  Ya got me, Ramona; he only did it once. I must have confused him with somebody else.

smiley

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