Yesterday, the Motion Picture Academy of America announced that Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane would be hosting this year's Oscars. This was flabbergasting news, to say the least, and it took us a day to process it. We decided to talk it out, so that when we were done, it might actually make some sense. Here is The Grierson & Leitch Discussion: Seth MacFarlane, Oscar Host.
All right, Grierson, now, you and I have always spent a lot more time thinking about Oscar hosts and Oscar telecasts than either one of us should or would like to admit. So I dunno about you, but when I heard that Seth MacFarlane was going to host the Oscars, I was apoplectic in a way that's, frankly, embarrassing. (Right after it was announced, I actually emailed you and Mark Lisanti, our old colleague at The Projector who's now at Grantland, "[cocks revolver] [shoots self]"
But I'm not sure why exactly I'm so upset about it. I mean, first off, it's a stupid awards show; they're always terrible, no matter who hosts, and even if they weren't terrible, they're stupid award shows that are becoming more and more irrelevant with every The Artist romp and Michael Fassbender omission. But also: Why is it that Seth MacFarlane repulses me so? I've only seen a few episodes of Family Guy—which I find so slack and ramshackle that it barely musters up the energy to exhale its weed smoke; I understand that experienced viewers have similar reactions—but I have no particular enmity toward it. I thought Ted was terrible and almost offensive in its sloth, but that shouldn't make a difference—About Cherry is one of the worst films I've ever seen, but I'm not retroactively booing James Franco about it. And his SNL appearance was obnoxious, but who cares? (People spend WAY too much time talking about that show, even when it's good.) Yet for some reason this felt like an affront, like inviting a drunk frat guy to some sort of celebration that your grandparents are having that you know is silly but also know is so important to them that you want to just let them have it. All the people out there, and they pick this dope? Just because he can sort of sing and his last movie made a lot of money? I have to think that Affleck is somehow behind this. New Englanders.
I dunno: I shouldn't care, but I sort of hate this.
Yeah, I'm also trying to figure out precisely why the MacFarlane announcement bothers me so much. I can't stand Family Guy and I really disliked Ted, but that's not it.
Here's what I think it is for me: As someone who actually roots for the Oscars to be good, the MacFarlane pick feels like a rejection of what the show is supposed to be about. As corny (and inaccurate) as it may be to say, the Academy Awards are meant to reflect the best of the motion picture industry, and no matter what you feel about Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, Anne Hathaway, James Franco, or Bob Hope, they're parts of that industry. The hosts who weren't in movies—David Letterman, Ellen DeGeneres and Jon Stewart (who constantly jokes about his pathetically short-lived and inept acting career)—at least had talk shows where we saw them often. MacFarlane had his biggest successes on television, but we never actually saw him on the screen. And sure, he made the sixth-biggest movie hit of the year, but, again, we don't even see him in it. The Oscar producers are essentially hiring a funny voice and hoping people will like the guy around it.
Plus, I get the sense that MacFarlane is supposed to be an "edgy," game-changing Oscar host. MacFarlane's humor is built on offending sensibilities and making his detractors seem stodgy. Simply by getting this worked-up about the selection of MacFarlane, you and I are playing right into his hands: Ha ha, they don't get it. So the Oscar producers want to grab that younger demographic that doesn't care about the Oscars at all. But if he alienates everybody else in Christendom in the process, I'm not sure how that helps.
It's possible that our annoyance comes down to something as basic as that: Seth MacFarlane is stupid, and we like to think of our Oscar hosts as people who are not. The central tension of people like Letterman, and Stewart, and Chris Rock, and even Eddie Murphy, when they were hosting, was to see how these intelligent, legitimately different voices are able to marry their sensibilities with the 95-year-old gaseous beings that run the Academy Awards. (That is something sort of amazing about the Oscars: It's difficult to think of any other existing, even thriving, institution that is so immediately associated with old age. Even 60 Minutes has Anderson Cooper.) There is a sense that you earn it, that you hone your craft for years and years and then, if you're ready for the biggest global stage, you get to see if you can essentially be Johnny Carson: personable but funny, and enjoyed by millions without losing your soul. (You can actually track the degradation of Billy Crystal's soul by his Oscar appearances. By the end, as Deconstructing Harry knew, he was the devil himself.) MacFarlane hasn't done that. MacFarlane got the gig because Gil Cates heard him sing on SNL, saw the opening grosses for Ted and heard his spoiled grandson imitating Stewie's voice one time.
When you think of all the options out there—from Conan O'Brien to Stephen Colbert to Neil Patrick Harris to my pick Tina Fey—that MacFarlane is the pick is particularly depressing. Show business, at its best, rewards work. And that has always been the polar opposite of what MacFarlane has been about. His has been the path of the least resistance: He doesn't have to meld his "style" with the Oscars' because there is no style. This reminds me of the old line about Jimmy Fallon: "He's an old person's version of what a young person is like."
Also, in that New Yorker story, he gets a spray tan while his Family Guy writers are working in the room. Warrants mentioning.
I've been thinking about that New Yorker piece a lot since watching MacFarlane host SNL. I actually thought he wasn't bad on the show, but it was interesting how much the writers (and MacFarlane himself, presumably) tried to minimize his mega-smug persona. (The only bit that approached the meanness of Family Guy was his Ryan Lochte impression, which was funny.) His SNL stint reminded me of how he comes across in Claire Hoffman's piece, which is to say that he seems to understand that a lot of people can't stand him, and so he tried to be somewhat self-deprecating about his popularity and noxious personality. Some people call this charm.
Why the change in MacFarlane? It's right there in the tagline for the New Yorker profile: "Seth MacFarlane has success. Can he now get respect?" That seems to be MacFarlane's 2012 strategy: He wants us to take him seriously. He's not just a insolent brat—he's a legitimate entertainment mogul. So in retrospect, the SNL appearance really seems like it was a PR move to get us past seeing him as the dude who does silly voices, which then results in everybody being pleasantly surprised when he's not as obnoxious as we feared. (Even I did this after SNL: "Wow, he wasn't that insufferable. He did pretty good!") But that puts him in a bind for the Oscars: The producers are going to want Smug MacFarlane, right? Honestly, the most intriguing aspect of next year's show may be how MacFarlane balances his need for respect with the demands of a fan base that covets cruel jabs at minorities. And if that really is the most intriguing aspect of next year's show, I'm sorry I ever complained about the possibility of Fallon hosting.
You know, this is another problem with MacFarlane: His almost total lack of a Q rating. Like, I honestly can't say I'd seen his face more than 10 times in my life until the SNL appearance, and I write about entertainment and diversion for a living. When Stewart or Letterman or Rock host—heck, even James Franco—they have fans and distinct personas. Seth MacFarlane may be trying to get out of animation, but he hasn't yet: He's just this new person who is suddenly being thrust in the public's face. He has zero goodwill to work with as a public performer. This is perhaps what I find most strange about it: Whom exactly are they trying to win over? I mean, I know (theoretically, anyway) that Family Guy has fans. I just don't know if they're going to rush to the Oscars to see the guy who does the voices of their favorite characters stick it to Hollywood, man. Unless I missed that late-night talk show Dan Castellaneta hosted. So are they hoping he, a relative unknown in the public eye, really, can just charm everyone on his own? Yeah, good luck with that.
So: They'd have been better off with Ratner hosting, is what I'm saying. (Bruce or Brett, doesn't matter which.)
That's clearly the Academy's gamble this year. They're betting that older viewers are so loyal that they'll watch the Oscars no matter the host, and that younger viewers will watch if the host captivates them. As a result, they went with someone who makes more sense as the emcee of the MTV Movie Awards, although I'm sure they're hoping MacFarlane brings a dash of the perceived danger that Ricky Gervais lends to the Golden Globes, the Oscars' drunken, crass, "fun" cousin. As much as I'm annoyed with the Academy's decision, I'm more annoyed with the reality that the show has embraced. To stay relevant, they have to go young, even if that means announcing to the world that they think that the creator of a bunch of animated TV shows is far hipper than anyone in their own industry.
Thanks for the chat, Will. Just think how funny this will all seem in five months when it turns out MacFarlane was the best Oscar host in 30 years.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.