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Column: Keeley's Corner

Crossing The Comedic Line At The Oscars

Arts & Review Editor

Published: Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 23:02

This Sunday’s Oscar ceremony had plenty of surprises, for those who were counting. Michelle Obama appeared via satellite to announce that Best Picture went to Argo, a movie that wasn’t even nominated for Best Director, while Ang Lee upset perennial favorite Steven Spielberg in that category. The six major awards went to six different movies, Jennifer Lawrence took a tumble while accepting her award, and there was even the unusual occurrence of a tie in one category.

Still, when all was said and done, most of the online world wasn’t talking about the awards. No, they were talking about the unseemly spectacle of Seth MacFarlane doing a musical number about seeing actresses’ boobs.

That bizarre piece of showmanship was one of the weirder moments of a telecast that didn’t lack them. In context, the joke was poking fun at the excesses of MacFarlane’s own crude persona, with William Shatner warning him “from the future” that people would be offended at a crass musical number he would perform, and voila, there it was. But many commentators, from The New York TimesA.O. Scott to The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson, saw it as the beginning of an Oscar night unusually full of misogyny and sexism. (One joke targeted the abusive nature of Chris Brown and Rihanna’s relationship, while another asked when nine year-old Quvenzhane Wallis would be too old for George Clooney).

I admit that my initial gut reaction to all this outrage was, well, get over it. Like it or not, it’s in the very nature of comedy to shock and provoke. It’s an art form whose very basis lies in subversion and offending sensibilities. That’s exactly what MacFarlane did on Oscar night, and I initially enjoyed the way he punctured the bubble of self-importance that so often arises over awards shows. More importantly, he made me laugh, repeatedly. I’m no fan of Family Guy, but as a host I found MacFarlane agreeable enough. I even liked the Lincoln assassination joke that so many people found tasteless.

On reflection, though, I realize that there is something of a nasty streak running through MacFarlane’s humor that is worth questioning. I’m no prude—it’s not the language or the focus on bodily functions that’s offensive. Comedians like Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, and Louis C.K. are far more vulgar than MacFarlane, but they are vulgar with a purpose. The thrill of Pryor and Rock’s comedy isn’t just that they tell good jokes—it’s how they lace the comedy with an incisive look into race in America, defusing very real tensions with the disarming power of laughter. Louis C.K. does a similar feat with his show Louie, which finds humor in the sad life of a schlubby 40-something divorcee. These men understand the deeper essence of good comedy.

It’s not just making people laugh—it’s having those laughs mean something, having them trigger a greater societal recognition.

MacFarlane’s jokes may cause instinctual laughter, but does that mean they’re good comedy? They’re predicated on glibness and snideness, the equivalent of a TMZ commentator’s catty comments about a celebrity. In fact, it’s hard to think of a better exemplar of the spirit of those trashy gossip rags than “We Saw Your Boobs.”

Yes, you can argue that MacFarlane was actually satirizing such publications, but that’s probably giving him too much credit—and there’s no doubt he’s also indulging in their attitudes. The same is true of the now-infamous tweet from The Onion that the fake news publication sent out during Oscar night, and has since deleted and apologized for. Referring to the 9-year-old Best Actress nominee, it read, “Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhane Wallis is kind of a c—t, right?” Now, the joke there clearly lies in the ludicrous discrepancy between Wallis’s sweet and innocent persona and the idea that someone could say something so nasty. In that sense, the joke is less about the actress and more about the extremes of mean-spirited vitriol that ceremonies like the Oscars engender.

Still, there comes a point when enough is enough. It’s easy to hide behind a comfortable veneer of irony and say that nothing is off-limits to humor, but when a 9-year-old is denigrated with such a loaded slur, a line is drawn in the sand. And when Seth MacFarlane does an entire song that reduces women to their chests, or says that Zero Dark Thirty is about how women are never “able to let anything go,” we should get offended—and not because it’s politically incorrect, but because it’s lazy comedy. MacFarlane’s brand of humor betrays no greater impulse than that of a giggling teenage boy, and truly provocative comedy is so much more than that.

On that note, can we get Louis C.K. to host the Oscars? One can only dream.


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