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American Dud: Seth MacFarlane’s Awkward Oscars

The prolific cartoon creator may have drawn young dudes to the Oscarcast, but he didn't translate well to live-action figure

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Host Seth MacFarlane backstage during the Oscars held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on Feb. 24, 2013

In the run-up to Sunday’s Oscars, ABC promoted the broadcast as: “Finally! An Oscars the guys can enjoy!” What did that mean, exactly?

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Judging by the ABC commercial (below): butt shots of hot actresses, a show featuring the guy-friendly fare like The Avengers, and the comedy of show host Seth MacFarlane, writer and creator of young-male-magnet cartoons like Family Guy and American Dad and the dirty-teddy-bear comedy Ted:

Time for me to turn in my Guy Card, I guess. I’ll give ABC credit for taking a chance. But where James Franco and Anne Hathaway were inept two years ago, and Billy Crystal was fine-but-dull a year ago, MacFarlane was uncomfortable, smarmy, unfunny — and not even bad in any memorably creative way.

MacFarlane, who’s known to fans of his shows but perhaps less so as a nonanimated entertainer, was a risk for the Academy, and must have known he was coming in with a target on his back. So he delivered an opening routine that was all about inoculating himself against bad reviews, with William Shatner as James T. Kirk returning from the future to warn him against a disastrous performance, including a song directed at Hollywood women called, “We Saw Your Boobs.”

See, it wasn’t a drawn-out, obnoxious Oscar song; it was a joke about doing a drawn-out, obnoxious Oscar song!

The problem — and the problem with his whole table-setting performance — is: first, a metajoke about telling an unfunny joke is still an unfunny joke.

And second, the Oscars are not about the host. People watching the Oscars care about being entertained. They care, maybe, about what movie will win. They care whether MacFarlane will make them laugh. But they’re not, unless they are MacFarlane’s agent or family, wondering “Is Seth MacFarlane going to get good reviews in the morning?” I should be biased toward any Oscar performance that pretends TV critics are that important in the larger scheme of things, but even I can’t fool myself about that one.

As Family Guy proves, MacFarlane can make up for quality with quantity, and there were some decent bits in the opening, especially a sequence that re-created the movie Flight with sock puppets. But the opening, overall, was tentative and filled with dead spots that a more practiced comedian might have gotten past.

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His comedy also had a nasty streak, especially concerning women. Zero Dark Thirty’s dogged CIA agent, played by Jessica Chastain, was a tribute to “every woman’s innate ability to never, ever let anything go.” After Adele sang, MacFarlane joked that movie critic Rex Reed — who recently called Melissa McCarthy a “hippo” — would be on in a moment to review her. Adele’s a plus-size lady, get it? (Earlier, introducing co-presenters McCarthy and Paul Rudd, MacFarlane cracked: “See if you can tell ’em apart!”)

The host sets the tone for the awards, giving the audience permission to have a good time, and the rhythm of the evening felt off from the get-go. But I can’t blame MacFarlane for all of that. It was a clunkily produced, drearily long show, with some truly horrid scripted patter that stranded some talented actors. (A quintet from The Avengers cast needed a superhero to rescue them from an endless introduction.) And there were some flat-out bizarre production choices, like the decision to play off long-winded winners with the music from Jaws — which might have worked as a gag, once, except it really wasn’t one. They were just actually playing people off to Jaws.

The night’s theme was “Music in Movies,” which played to another MacFarlane skill set: he’s got a genuine love of show tunes and a decent set of pipes. (He got to indulge his inner theater geek with a funny, non sequitur re-creation of the von Trapp family escape at the end of The Sound of Music, just before introducing Christopher Plummer.)

If the “boobs” song and the like fell flat, the music did salvage some moments in the show: in particular, Shirley Bassey showed that decades later, she can still ravish the most distinctive pronunciation in Bond songs (“Gold-fingAH!”). But there was also a bizarre amount of attention lavished on the 10-year-old movie Chicago, the last musical to win Best Picture but not exactly a landmark in cinema history. (Awkwardly, the producers of the Oscars, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, were producers of Chicago, and so spent a good part of the night honoring … themselves?)

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The Oscars are finally about the awards, though, and toward the end of a very long show, the ceremony got a spark of life from some surprises and moving speeches. Jennifer Lawrence charmed in her underdog win, tripping on the way up to the podium and recovering by telling the crowd, “You guys are just standing up because you feel bad that I fell.” (She and Adele share that rare, disarming gift of making the world feel delighted for their own wild good fortune.) Daniel Day-Lewis accepted Best Actor from Meryl Streep and joked, “I had actually committed to playing Margaret Thatcher.”

Ben Affleck gave a charmingly broken-up thank you on Argo’s Best Picture win, which was announced, in a bizarre twist, by Michelle Obama, via a live feed from D.C. (How uncomfortable would it have been had Best Picture gone to political hot-potato Zero Dark Thirty?) Even MacFarlane seemed looser, and funnier in small doses, as the night went on. Before Streep took the stage, he said, “Our next presenter needs no introduction” — and walked off.

Before I even read the comments here, I’m going to guess that people who really like MacFarlane and his 10-jokes-a-minute Family Guy also liked his Oscars: particularly young viewers and male viewers, MacFarlane’s core audience, who don’t necessarily tune in for the Oscars. (Disclosure: I’m middle-aged and agree with the South Park guys that Family Guy plays like it’s written by manatees.) And that, after all, was probably what ABC was going for with “an Oscars the guys can enjoy”: not an Oscar that only young men would watch, but an Oscars watched by everyone who would watch them regardless, plus young men. Young men who are also big fans of Chicago and Les Miz.

It may work well for them; we’ll have to see the ratings. (It will also probably help that this was a more commercially successful crop of Best Picture nominees than in some recent years.) But it was also up, for a key hour, against The Walking Dead, a show that’s huge among young male viewers. Want an Oscar the guys can enjoy? It might need more zombies.