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Lucky he’s a Family Guy: how Seth MacFarlane pulled off cake-and-eat-it-too comedy

The notoriously irreverent Seth MacFarlane kept his trademark schtick intact as host of this year’s Oscars ceremony, largely thanks to some nifty comedic sleights.

Seth Macfarlane

When Ricky Gervais rolled out a stream of snarky zingers as host of the 2010 Golden Globes, in turn generating a smattering of controversy and a spike in ratings, organisers of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences would have looked on with intense curiosity. Some said the 51-year-old British comedian’s “give the A-listers a hard time” approach went too far. Needless to say, he returned to the podium in 2011 and 2012.

When Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane was announced as host of this year’s Oscars ceremony, the question was never whether his distinctly irreverent sense of humour would be tempered, but to what extent. Family Guy’s appeal has always been as a fearless hotbed of “went there” gags. Disabled people, fat people, drugs, pedophilia…

Nothing is out of reach in MacFarlane’s comedic universe. If there was ever any doubt, the writer/producer’s big screen directional debut, Ted, the story of a friendship between a grown man and his bong-smoking, hooker-hiring teddy bear, put this to bed on a well-soiled mattress.

A good example why MarFarlane’s shtick so often works was found in this year’s opening Oscars musical number. A weary-looking William Shatner, in Captain Kirk garb, beamed in a video message / conversation from the future warning MacFarlane of the terrible job he was about to perform and the subsequent ‘Worst Host in History’ headlines, which turned out to be deliciously prophetic:

When MacFarlane asked what he did that was so wrong, Shatner/Kirk played a recording of his rambunctious opening song: ‘We Saw Your Boobs‘.

Wrapping the song in a meta context was the perfect way to both pull off the joke and dismantle it. It’s a nifty sleight, similar in a sense to Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat-style approach to characterisation. It’s hard to seriously criticise Cohen’s perverse kinds of baiting because he never meant to be taken seriously. Just as it is hard to criticise MacFarlane, because he beat you to it.

Those who found the song vulgar and offensive are unlikely to change their minds simply because the notoriously un-PC gag-maker packaged it in a self-aware way, but it’s still great cover. The segment tells you that such humour is out of place during a dignified ceremony and makes the point that sexist humour is something to be wary of.

That’s cake-and-eat-it-too comedy: not crossing the line by deliberately crossing it, and bringing that to the audience’s attention. MacFarlane’s ‘Worst Host Ever’ gag similarly insulates him against criticism. When a story (such as the Daily Beast one above) accuses him of such, it only makes the joke better. And labelling the ‘We Saw Your Boobs’ number as “sexist” only enforces why the structure of the joke works.

This thick-skinned approach to postmodern comedy is quickly dished out (Oscar hosts have in total around 10 minutes actual talking time) but a lot smarter than Billy Crystal’s lazy technique of inserting himself into key scenes from Best Picture nominated films because, ho ho, Crystal is now a Hobbit, or on the Titanic with Leo. The closest this year’s button-pushing host got to this edited montage mash-up technique was a hilarious sock puppet reenactment of Flight, which wasn’t nominated for Best Picture but rightly selected as the ripest for parody.

Recruiting the relatively low profile MacFarlane, known as “the gayest straight man in Hollywood,” was a ploy to get younger people tuning into the broadcast, and it worked. He got the balance between irreverence and jokey back-slapping more or less right (bearing in mind his high-octane spray-and-see-what-sticks structure is always a bit hit-and-miss) and was easily one of the most entertaining hosts in living memory.

With any luck the gay straight man will be back.

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  • 1
    Kirke Godfrey
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Ok i think THIS is a TROLL…

    Does it really?

    how META.

  • 2
    Charles Miller
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    Done the right way, a comedian can frame disturbingly nasty humour in a way that gets laughs, while drawing attention to how disturbingly nasty it is.

    If that’s what MacFarlane was trying to do in reducing all those actors performances (at least three of which were references to movie depictions of rape) to frat-boy titillation, he didn’t do a very good job. Because it just looked like he was finding the flimsiest possible excuse behind which he could get away with frat-boy titillation.

    But yeah, we shouldn’t complain because it’s a joke. Like on Top Gear.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7CnMQ4L9Pc

  • 3
    Johnfromplanetearth
    Posted February 27, 2013 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Seth Macfarlane is way too talented for this Hollywood night of nights. They might as well have just given the hosting job to Renee Zellweger who was smashed out of her mind and the audience would’ve related to it far more. Macfarlane was on a hiding to nowhere here at the Oscars. It’s the worst gig in show business and i hope Tina Fey has the good sense to refuse any offer that might come her way to host next year? Just hand the things out and head to the bar, Renee will meet you there!

  • 4
    cassandra.richardson
    Posted March 1, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think he did (or should) get away with it. If boobs are the punchline to every joke, why aren’t I falling about laughing every morning when I have my shower? It’s lazy and disrespectful – the fact that he did the whole post-modern ‘meta’ thing is just his way of intellectualising his misogyny. Amirite, guys?!

  • 5
    ladystardust64
    Posted March 1, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    A few para’s into this piece I had to check the url. Yep, it actually was Crikey. To say that Seth MacFarlane ‘got away’ with this dross is an excuse masquerading as an honest to god I have no idea what you were smoking when writing this article. We Saw Your Boobs? Seriously? This is where we want the bar set in 2013? Sad, sad men.

  • 6
    ladystardust64
    Posted March 1, 2013 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    @Johnfromplanetearth. Is it really necessary for you to make yourself feel better about Seth’s conduct by slandering Renee Zellweger? Seth’s performance was scripted and performed for the world to see. I am confident that not a single word came out of Seth’s mouth that he did not personally approve. But you are fabricating gossip based on something you probably read once while standing at a supermarket register. Can you see how the two don’t quite mesh up?

  • 7
    Johnfromplanetearth
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Nobody has slandered Renee Zellweger, she was off her face while presenting with Richard Gere who looked very uncomfortable standing next to her, he didn’t know whether to read out the winner or get ready to catch Zellweger if she happened to take a tumble. Youtube ‘Renee Wasted At The Oscars’ and it’s all there to be seen. As for McFarlane I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.

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