Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Short Guide to Bad Oscar Hosts

Seth MacFarlane hosted a slow-motion catastrophe of an Oscars broadcast Sunday night. His terrible performance immediately sparked two internet conversations: one about what a terrible Oscars host Seth MacFarlane was, and a second about who had, if anyone, been an even more terrible Oscars host. Many people were insulted by MacFarlane's sexist hostility. And I was, too. But I was also insulted by MacFarlane's obvious laziness and lack of professionalism. MacFarlane's shtick is built on contempt, which is why he's so witlessly insulting. But it was his obvious lack of effort, his confidence that his bush-league material was good enough for the likes of us, that betrayed his total contempt for the audience.

Many of MacFarlane's apologists bring up the awful James Franco/Anne Hathaway show of two years ago. But that's a different question. Franco and Hathaway failed because they are not comedians (which is no more an insult than it is to point out that they are not acrobats). They simply do not have the skill set that hosting such a program requires; they could not have succeeded no matter how hard they tried. MacFarlane does have the requisite skills. It's clear that he has sufficiently effective comic delivery and he has a long track record as a head comedy writer. He knew his job. He just didn't bother to do it. That is insulting.

Don't get me wrong: hosting the Oscars is a nightmare gig. The host has to perform roughly 30 to 45 minutes of original and completely untested standup material, in front of both a national television audience and nearly every power broker in Hollywood. Most stand-up comedy that you see on TV has been tested and tweaked in dozens, or often hundreds, of live club performances. Any comedy bit that hasn't already been performed in front of a live crowd is at best a hit-or-miss proposition and at worst a bomb that can blow up in your face. (The few minutes of standup by the hosts on late-night shows are untested material of this kind, which is why those jokes are so uneven.) Doing half an hour or more of completely untested material in front of Steven Spielberg is terrifying.

Add to that the problem that you have two very different audiences to please, neither of them easy, and each with very different tastes: the room full of Hollywood luminaries in front of you and the vast TV audience somewhere beyond. To succeed, you need to bond with both audiences. Playing exclusively to one instead of the other is automatic death. And worse yet, the last ten or fifteen years have set up an expectation that the Oscar-night host will fail, which can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Potential hosts know this: Queen Latifah was asked before the show if she would consider hosting, and replied that the organizers would have to both "back up the Brinks truck" and get her the world's best publicist to repair her image after the show.) So all in all, an ugly seven-headed monster of an assignment.

But if you're going to accept that terrible gig, there's no excuse for giving less than your best effort. Sometime after 11 Eastern, MacFarlane was waving off his own bits with excuses like "It's late." But that's a lie. The material was not weak because MacFarlane was tired (at something like 8:15 local time). That could only be true if MacFarlane were making up the material as he went. The material was weak because MacFarlane, given months to prepare, had prepared a script full of weak and threadbare material. "It's late," is really MacFarlane saying, "I did not bother to put together enough quality material for an entire show. So you're just going to have to take whatever I give you from here on out."

This particular expression of contempt for the audience went unnoticed among MacFarlane's more blatant expressions of disregard for women, gays, Jews, ethnic minorities and people with mild Spanish accents. But all of MacFarlane's contemptuous misbehavior is rooted in that basic act of contempt for the audience, his refusal to put in the effort required to create enough A-level material.

The boorish "I saw your boobs" song actually might have been funny if it had taken only ten seconds. A lightning-quick snippet of MacFarlane singing "I saw your boobs," would be a perfectly good joke, and harmless because it would come at MacFarlane's expense.  (The context for the I-saw-your-boobs song was a "warning from the future" that MacFarlane was going to be disastrously offensive. If the audience then saw and heard him singing the words "I saw your boobs," just once, they would get the point: MacFarlane is an ignorant churl. It didn't get funnier the second time.) Instead, MacFarlane stretched that single, weak joke into a couple of minutes of material, requiring him to actually be a boor and then double and triple down. He didn't need the routine to be so long; it was pre-taped, so he could show as much or as little as he liked. But MacFarlane was trying to fill time, getting three minutes from a premise that only had one joke. He did the same thing with his next bit, stretching out a sock-puppet re-enactment of Flight to excruciating lengths. MacFarlane consistently tried to milk single jokes into longer sequences, because otherwise he would have had to come up with more jokes.

What he did write was lazy. The offensive lines weren't just politically incorrect. They were comically incorrect. Several of them were badly constructed. All of them were based on cliches. (A female CIA operative didn't get over 9/11 because "women never give up on anything?" Really? That's all you've got?)

Saying that MacFarlane was too "edgy" is absurd. MacFarlane is not an edgy comic. That was not Pryor, Carlin, or Lenny Bruce up there. There are comedians who can get away with material far more transgressive, and subjects far more taboo, than anything MacFarlane dreamed about. MacFarlane wouldn't have the stomach to do any five minutes of Bill Hicks's act, or Sarah Silverman's. Even Robin Williams, who all-too-desperately wants the audience's love, is far more of a painful truth-teller than MacFarlane. But all of those comedians get around the audience's inhibitions by breaking down cliches. Listening to them is liberatory, not because the material is difficult but because the execution is original. MacFarlane, who is lazy, prefers to build his act on as many cliches as possible. Of course, that's easier. It just doesn't work.

If someone tells you MacFarlane's detractors are being uptight, remember that MacFarlane got major blowback from a joke about John Wilkes Booth. That is not cutting-edge material. People have been telling jokes about the Lincoln assassination for many decades. ("Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln ....") But MacFarlane actually managed to offend people with that moldy chestnut of a premise, because the joke he told was constructed so poorly. The punch line wasn't set up strongly enough to feel natural, so MacFarlane sounded like he was straining to drag in Lincoln's murder. It's the strain that made the joke off-putting. That's a spectacular failure of technique. He could have gotten away with a Booth joke, easily, if he had taken the effort to write a better joke. But then, that would have required work. And MacFarlane had clearly decided that none of us were worth that much effort.

cross-posted from Dagblog

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