While it was nice to see the first ever RISD grad hosting the Academy Awards, Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar hosting turn was not really a triumph for humor. The woman-bashing element, in particular has come in for endless (and deserved) criticism. As I suggested earlier, of course it was no surprise that the creator of Family Guy would come out with tasteless, demeaning humor—that’s his schtick. The show had big ratings, particularly among younger audiences, proving that putting an edgy host under 40 in charge would draw a younger crowd. I can see the Hollywood suits analyzing it with wonder now: “The kids like kids!” Amazing.
And of course lots of people enjoyed it and laughed along. What does surprise me is many of his defenders claiming that MacFarlane was delivering clever satire. Here’s a typical note:
Anyone complaining in these comments ever heard of satire. I think MacFarlane’s humor is satire and is meant to provoke. Seems pretty effective to me.
Provoking, yes—like a blunt instrument. Satire is meant to take one thing and examine it through a humorous lens, usually in a critical way. MacFarlane’s humor often doesn’t have that object at all—it’s one-dimensional shock humor.
Let’s take the most obvious example: “We Saw Your Boobs.” The set up is William Shatner as Captain Kirk slingshotting back in time to warn MacFarlane not to do the horrible tasteless things he’s about to do and thus earn the label of worst Oscar host ever. To show what’s about to happen. Shatner cuts to a video of MacFarlane singing a song called “We Saw Your Boobs” where he names actresses and the films in which they appeared sans shirt.
Now, if the object of the humor was actually MacFarlane and his penchant for ribald attack humor, a simple 15-second cutaway—much like those on Family Guy—would have gotten across the point…and the humor. But no, it goes on for nearly two minutes—the point is to name and shame, say the word boobs and turn actresses into dehumanized objects yet again. I have a dream that someday women will be judged by the content of their character and not the content of their Maidenforms, but that day has not come for MacFarlane. In his world, if you’re a woman and doggedly track down the worst terrorist the world has ever known, you’re not a hero—you’re just another woman who’s mad at being stood up on a date.
Now of course, there is often pop culture satire on Family Guy, but the humor is as much aimed at the helpless as at targets that need to be taken down a peg. It’s the mocking humor of the powerful, not social critique. This is backed up by the show’s structure as a prototypical interaction of id, ego, and superego—Peter, Brian and Stewie—all voiced by MacFarlane, reinforcing the one-dimensional viewpoint.
And for those who say it’s all an act, well, in his New Yorker profile, MacFarlane was asked about his penchant for dating starlets, and he replies he isn’t looking for an intellectual equal, pointing to his own parents, saying his father wanted someone who was exciting. “My father and my mother were not…intellectual equals by any means.” Maybe his mum was a dimwit, but it takes a tough man to call her one in a national magazine.
I’m not a fan of MacFarlane’s humor, but I see why people laugh. And he has worked hard to go from a schlubby animator to a handsome song and dance man. (Looking at his unvarying smile, and smooth 39-year-old visage, one might guess some of the work included botox.) He’s the highest paid comedy writer in the world, has had a Grammy-nominated album of him singing classic songs, a #1 movie, and a lot of that success is admirable. But a great satirist? Nope, not this time.