I’m not usually a betting man, but if I was, I’d have wagered a lot of money on the proposition that Seth MacFarlane would not be hosting the Academy Awards in 2014. Whatever you thought of his performance as host — I’m one of the rare pop-culture observers who didn’t hate him, and even kind of liked him — the way that the media pounced on his “Look, Ma, no taste!” preening had a definitive, hanging-judge finality about it. In the days following the 2013 Oscar ceremony, the outpouring of indignation from media and entertainment pundits over MacFarlane’s deliberately shameless quips about Rihanna and Jews in Hollywood and Abe Lincoln’s assassination, not to mention the song-and-dance sequence (“We Saw Your Boobs!”) that instantly became the most reviled Oscar production number since Rob Lowe cavorted with Snow White…well, let’s just say that the media, as it so often does, effectively spoke with one voice, and what that voice said is: “You, Seth MacFarlane, have crossed a line that you shouldn’t have crossed. Your hosting gig was a scandalous embarrassment, or at the very least a bombastic and offensive mistake. We know that you stepped over the line, because we’re the people who draw the line. If you want to direct another potty-mouth comedy like Ted, be our guest, but as far as the Academy Awards go, consider yourself excommunicated.”
Well, that was then and this is now. Two months later, the dust has settled on MacFarlane’s Oscar-night crime against humanity, and the rumor — reported as fact in many outlets, from Deadline to Vanity Fair to The Guardian — is that now that it’s official that Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, the producers of last year’s telecast, have been invited back to produce the show again, they have offered MacFarlane the chance to come back as well. Their instincts, of course, are all about numbers: The ratings for this year’s Oscar telecast spiked upward, and the highly coveted demographic that MacFarlane was given credit for tapping into — because that’s the central reason he was hired in the first place — were young males. We can also surmise that advertisers, who are often the first to balk at tasteless content, didn’t raise any major objections to MacFarlane’s performance, thus clearing the way for him to host again. It’s obvious that the Oscar telecast is a hugely profitable evening for its perennial network, ABC. If MacFarlane has proved that he can help boost those profits, especially in an era when the audience for the Academy Awards has been gradually dwindling, then there’s a brutal capitalist logic to inviting him back.
Wait a minute, though. Aren’t the Oscars also the quintessential night of Hollywood branding, and therefore an event in which image transcendently matters, regardless of how much profit a network is squeezing out of it? And isn’t the collective throttling that the media gave MacFarlane for the merry amorality of his drive-by snark proof that as brand, as image, the 2013 Oscars were a bust? (Sorry, no pun intended.) Just three or four years ago, or without a doubt 10 years ago, I certainly think that that’s how it all would have been perceived. The people who run the Oscars would have thrown MacFarlane over the side; there would have been too much bad juju to make a repeat performance worth the risk.
But now, in even flirting with bringing him back, the powers that be — in the Motion Picture Academy, and at the network — are making a very different kind of statement. They have obviously heard the righteous media frothing, and what they’re saying is: That no longer matters. They’re not taking their cue from the media — which is to say, they aren’t buying into the media’s time-honored role as an enlightened representative of the audience. The powers that be are bypassing the media and going straight to “the people” on this one. They’re saying that ratings speak louder than (high-handed) (judgmental) words. Of course, they’re also implicitly saying that controversy sells tickets. If MacFarlane does agree to host the show a second time, it will be like Ricky Gervais’ second stint on the Golden Globes taken to a new level of rubbernecking suspense. What in God’s name will he do this time to piss off the hectoring entertainment-commentariat horde? Or will he make nice? (Maybe, but that wouldn’t be Seth MacFarland. It would be like asking the dirty Teddy bear in Ted to behave himself.)
My own view is that the media outcry against MacFarlane’s naughty-boy clowning was vastly overstated. Because the “We Saw Your Boobs!” number was alleged to be hurtful to women, I got curious and, in the week after the Oscars, engaged in a lot of casual talk with entertainment civilians — most of them women — just to gather up an anecdotal feeling for what people actually thought of the show. And I have to say: In at least 50 conversations, I talked to almost no one, of either gender, who found anything offensive about what MacFarlane did. (I talked to some people who didn’t like MacFarlane, but still weren’t offended by him.) My own sense is that there was a pretty big disconnect between the kind of self-righteous outrage expressed in, say, Amy Davidson’s glorified Marxist English professor rant against MacFarlane on The New Yorker web site and the way that a lot of people experienced the show: as a throwaway lark — Billy Crystal with a touch of Howard Stern — that was almost daring those with feeble funny bones to take it all (too) seriously.
Our movie culture now exists, at least symbolically, in a kind of Red State/Blue State divide. There is the mainstream world of popcorn blockbusters and top-10-of-the-week hits, which I’m calling (in a purely metaphorical sense) Red State Movie Culture. And there is the world of independent film, foreign film, and adventurous studio fare that is, at least by comparison, specialized and even highbrow. These films constitute what you might call Blue State Movie Culture. The Academy Awards work hard each year to celebrate the mainstream, but more and more, they risk coming off as elite, and the telecast itself, no matter how it’s packaged, has become a Blue State Movie Culture event. That’s the reasons its ratings have been going down.
Seth MacFarlane was taken onboard the Oscar ship to bring his fans along for the ride, and those fans are basically Red State Movie Culture die-hards. Not that this stuff is so easy to pigeonhole. A few years ago, I went to a performance of “Family Guy Live!” at — believe it or not — New York’s Carnegie Hall, complete with full symphony orchestra, and the audience members wouldn’t have looked out of place at a Toni Morrison reading. To some of us, Seth MacFarlane isn’t just a bad boy. He’s a scattershot brilliant comic mind who casts an endlessly wide satirical net.
That said, it makes a crude kind of sense that the Academy gurus would now ignore the protestations of those who lambasted MacFarlane’s Oscar-hosting gig. Those critics are basically Blue State Movie Culture watchdogs. And maybe the whole problem with the role of the Academy Awards host these days — the roots of the problem go back nearly 20 years, to when David Letterman and Whoopi Goldberg were being panned for their stints as Oscar host — is that the level of insane irreverence that Seth MacFarlane just about breathes has almost no overlap with the movies that the Oscars exist to honor. When MacFarlane pushed the envelope on that kind of comedy, at least for Oscar night, it begged the question: Do these jokes bear any relation to what our (acclaimed) movies have become? Or is comedy like this now crowding the movies out?
If MacFarlane does host the Oscars in 2014, will he tone down the cheeky insensitivity or will he ratchet it up? Will he try to prove himself an equal-opportunity offender by doing a sequel to “We Saw Your Boobs!” called “We Saw Your Willie!” (it could feature an entire verse about Ewan McGregor), or will he go after a fresh target guaranteed to make good responsible liberals squirm? I suspect that a great many people will tune in to find out. What they’ll discover, though, is that when the host of the Oscars matters this much, maybe it means that the Oscars themselves matter a little less.
So do you think Seth MacFarlane will end up hosting again? And would you want him to? Do you feel, as I do, that the outraged thrashing he received was a bit much? Or do you agree with it?
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman