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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