Seth MacFarlane’s performance as an Oscar host last night was a perfect advertisement for MacFarlane’s brand of humor. He opened with a number about the fact that he—and we as audiences—have seen female Academy Award nominees’ breasts. It was a bit that could have been a perceptive riff about the fact that women are asked to get naked, and to get naked in different ways, than their male counterparts, and could have tweaked the 77 percent of Academy voters who are men for voting for those roles, rather than recognizing female actors for performances that are non-sexual. Instead, he went in an entirely different direction that made for a faster, but not nearly as deep joke, bringing in the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. A comedic sensibility that goes to Boobs + Gay Men Who Don’t Like Boobs = Hilarity may be commercially viable, but it’s as fleeting as adolescence.
From there, MacFarlane dug in as hard as he could have on one of the few comedic lanes he’s capable of working in. He used Quvenzhané Wallis, who is nine, to make a joke about George Clooney’s fondness for dating younger women, then tossed him a drink as if to reassure one of Hollywood’s most powerful and respected actors that he’d never actually make a crack at Clooney‘s expense. He suggested that Jennifer Anniston is hiding a past as a stripper. He made jokes about actresses throwing up to fit into their dresses. He thought it was funny that Javier Bardem has an accent. I’m no Chris Brown fan, but even MacFarlane’s joke about Brown was badly constructed, saying “Django is a movie where a woman is subjected to violence, or as we call it, a Chris Brown and Rihanna date movie,” ignoring the fact that Django is a movie where a woman of color is subjected to tremendous violence by white men and saved by a heroic black man who is taking on a chivalric role that was previously specifically reserved for white men.
What bothers me more than anything else about these jokes is how boring they are. I’ve heard variations of them countless times from people who think they’re hilarious, and act as if no one has ever unearthed such comedic gems before, and they’re always wrong. They are the scraps of humor actual comics left on the table a decade earlier in their careers after they learned that playing to people’s dumbest, most stereotypical assumptions is not actually the same thing as joke-making. But the laziness of MacFarlane’s brand played particularly poorly at the Oscars given the movie industry’s very real problems with both women and derivativeness, in a celebration of what’s supposed to be Hollywood’s best, the things that the profits of things like The Avengers make it possible to keep in production.
And in turning the show over to MacFarlane and letting him showcase both his comedic brand and his desire to be a Rat Pack-style crooner—he’s recorded a standards album—the Academy revealed precisely how insecure it is about the appeal of its best. Rather than choosing a popular figure who would appeal to a younger, more male audience, while retaining the ability to translate—and maybe even to sell them on—movies they might not have seen, the Awards ended up with a host who, despite his stated penchant for classic movies, appeared not to be familiar with the substance of much of what he was presenting. Is it worth pulling in more people to that vaunted billion-person audience if they walk away sniggering over boob jokes, rather than excited to see new movies?
The ceremony ended up being the equivalent of the running gag in Knocked Up, where Ben (Seth Rogen) and his friends while away their days compiling a database of when famous actresses get naked in movies, only to find out that not only have they been beaten to the task, the website Mr. Skin has done it better. If the Oscars think that naked ladies and self-deprecation—the only remotely winning thing about MacFarlane’s performance—are what it takes to get people in the seats, at least get Louis C.K. to do those topics with a modicum of craft, self-examination, and enough courage to punch up when he takes aim at the audience, rather than reaching far below the belt.