Feb 28, 2013

Does Irony Excuse Tastelessness?


By Paul Krueger


Seth MacFarlane’s blood is in the water.  MacFarlane’s used to the sensation of piranhas nipping at him; a week hasn’t gone by where one of his animated series wasn’t being decried by one media watchdog or another.  This time, though, it’s the press that’s after him.  His hosting of the Oscars this past weekend was characterized by all of his trademarks: jokes that veer way past edgy, 70’s and 80’s pop culture references, and splashy song-and-dance numbers.  MacFarlane included jokes in his routine about being the worst host ever; if the Hollywood press corps’ version of the story is to be believed, then he’s made a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Before I get to the meat of what this article is about, I just want to say to those that are shocked by MacFarlane’s conduct: what on Earth did you think he was going to do?  The man has three TV series and a movie in wide release, plus who-knows-how-many animated shorts floating around on the internet.  Every single one of them provides a vivid picture of the man’s sense of humor.  Anyone who’s genuinely surprised by the content of last Sunday’s show is either an idiot, or hasn’t heard of Seth MacFarlane. 

That said, what I actually want to examine is the content of Mr. MacFarlane’s performance, particularly his opening number.  Among other things, he presented a clip of a musical number, “We Saw Your Boobs,” in which he lists off actresses and the movies in which audiences got to see them topless.  This and several other envelope-pushing bits had the benefit of a framing device: William Shatner, in character as Captain Kirk, trying to prevent MacFarlane from being a bad host, with these video clips held up as examples of poor hosting.

Whether one likes it or not, it’s a clever conceit, essentially allowing MacFarlane to do some of his more offensive schtick without actually doing his offensive schtick.  The question here is, to what end is that cleverness deployed?  Is it all meant to be a some send-up where the entire thing’s a joke on MacFarlane himself?  Or is it just a Patronus to put between himself and Dementors’ Kiss of critical scorn?

I’ll give MacFarlane credit: I’ve heard a lot of excuses for poor performance, but he’s definitely broken new ground with, “The bad bits don’t count because they took place in an alternate timeline.”  But couched in irony as it is, it nonetheless conveys to the audience a specific point of view, and a troubling one at that.  More deft comedic hands than MacFarlane’s have been able to make borderline sexist, racist, or anti-Semitic work in their favor because they used it as a means to an end, rather than the end itself.  MacFarlane, to the surprise of no one who’s seen any of his work, doesn’t seem interested in any message beyond, “Boobs and Jews, guys!”

So, is there any way that MacFarlane could have worked blue material without landing himself in hot water?  Yes, though probably not at the Oscars.  For the past few years the show has been struggling for relevance, trying to hit the 7-10 split of “edgy” and “elegant” and ending up with what could be charitably called “a series of unfortunate events.”  MacFarlane is that dissonance personified.

I think it’d be wrong to consider MacFarlane genuinely prejudiced.  He’s expressed in a variety of outlets a very open and accepting mindset, to the point where he was named Harvard’s Humanist of the Year in 2011.  But there’s a gulf between the man’s point of view and the one espoused in his work.  It’s a variation on “actions speak louder than words.”  A comedian can cry irony all he wants, but he will still bear responsibility for the things he says.  Some accomplished comedians out there are able to justify dredging up touchy topics, using them to make a greater point about the way we think, or maybe about prejudices we don’t even know we harbor.

As for MacFarlane...well, at least the man can sing.

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