Friday, March 01, 2013

Oh the irony: Seth MacFarlane's satirical approach to hosting the Oscars misunderstood

The reaction for Seth MacFarlane's performance as host of the 85th annual Academy Awards was, as expected, a mixed bag. Reviews ranged from high praise to outrage at his supposedly tasteless and offensive jokes.

MacFarlane, the creator of such popular shows as "Family Guy" and "American Dad" and co-writer and director of last year's hit comedy "Ted," is known for humor that pushes the boundaries of what is considered appropriate.

Those who are most vocally attacking MacFarlane's material at the Oscars seem to be missing what he was doing. There's a satirical and ironic tone to MacFarlane's jokes that may be flying way over people's heads.

One Lincoln joke in particular seems to be rubbing many the wrong way, but that was the point.

"The actor who really got inside Lincoln's head was John Wilkes Booth," MacFarlane dryly joked promptly receiving a massive groan from the audience, which was entirely expected. MacFarlane quickly retorted "Is 150 years too soon? If you don't like that, I've got some Napoleon jokes to tell you."

This was the real punchline. MacFarlane was commenting on a society that has become overly sensitive and politically correct. Many jokes followed this same formula including this quip about the use of the N-word in "Django Unchained": "I'm told the screenplay was loosely based on Mel Gibson's voicemails."

Once again there was grumbling from the audience. MacFarlane swiftly responded with "Oh, so you're on his side."

These two jokes point to the possible overarching theme of the evening: to get people to not be so uptight. As a society, we have created many sacred cows, subject matters that are deemed as off bounds for comedy. MacFarlane ventured into one such area with a joke about Chris Brown's 2009 assault of Rihanna.

"['Django Unchained' is] the story of a man fighting to get back his woman, who has been subjected to unthinkable violence. Or as Chris Brown and Rihanna call it, a date movie."

This rather dated joke caused quite a bit of backlash as if MacFarlane was the first to ever tell a joke about Rihanna and Brown when in fact this has been fodder for late night hosts for years. But perhaps it is a joke that should not have ever been told in the first place.

Amy Davidson in the New Yorker wrote, "Relationships are complicated, and it can take a woman more than one attempt to leave an abuser. But if any woman who goes back is told that she has forfeited sympathy and can be written off with mockery — that the whole thing is now an amusing spectacle — then we'll end up with more dead women."

Does making light of domestic violence, in a way, make it more acceptable or make it harder for victims to be taken seriously? Perhaps, but, in another light, issues like domestic abuse rarely get discussed in public forums. MacFarlane's joke forces the subject into the spotlight and gets it discussed even if it is only to say, "How dare he make that joke?" From that starting point, there can be more a serious debate.

Many comedians trade in gender and racial humor. If a joke is merely perpetuating a stereotype, that is when it begins to simply be offensive. It is hard to know where the line is between something that is genuinely funny and something that is just blatantly sexist or racist. Comedians are constantly testing where that line is and crossing it, which isn't necessarily a bad thing if the line is crossed to make a larger comment or observation.

Joking about Daniel Day-Lewis' well documented method acting in which he was always in character as Lincoln, MacFarlane asked the actor: "If you bumped into Don Cheadle on the studio lot, would you try and free him?"

This joke could be construed as racist, but, as with a lot of humor, it is the context that saves it. The joke is not about race or slavery, but rather about Day-Lewis' commitment to his craft. MacFarlane takes that commitment to an amusingly absurd level.

I could see regular Oscar host Billy Crystal telling this joke with no one batting an eye at it. Much of the negative reaction to MacFarlane may simply have been predetermined for many people because of the type of humor he's associated with. If someone is adamant that they will not like something, then they'll make certain they don't.

Of course, some jokes are simply silly for the sake of being silly such as MacFarlane's "We Saw Your Boobs" song. The bit is so goofy it is hard to imagine anyone being offended by it and, yet, it did ruffle feathers. It is admittedly entirely juvenile, but, hey, sometimes we need a bit of that in life, especially at an often self-important award ceremony.

Certainly, not every joke MacFarlane told hit the mark. Some truly were wince worthy, but, more often than not, his material delivered. Yes, he played around with sensitive subject matters, but what MacFarlane's Oscar-hosting gig reminds us is that political correctness is the death of comedy. So, lighten up. Learn to laugh. After all, life is too short not to.

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