During Sunday's 85th annual Academy Awards ceremony, MacFarlane had an especially huge rock to push, one that ultimately took more than 3 1/2 hours to come to rest. And while it took him a long time to get the ball rolling with his opening production number, he finally did so in spectacular fashion. After that, it was all he could do to deliver one-liners lively and witty enough not to slow the already lengthy proceedings down any further, or bring them to a crashing halt.
To be fair, any Oscar host faces two seemingly irreconcilable demands. He or she has to play to the crowd in the room (that is, tell jokes that flatter the Hollywood bigwigs on hand) and to the crowd at home (that is, deflate those same showbiz egos for our amusement). It's a balance that a lot of other TV-bred comics (particularly David Letterman and Chris Rock) have been unable to accomplish.
But MacFarlane had set himself a much taller hurdle.
On the one hand, he had to pay homage to the nominees and winners, using the genuine comic and song-and-dance talents he possesses, in an earnest, unironic manner. On the other, he had to address the very fact that he seemed an inappropriate choice, given the puerile humor he's famous for, even while pleasing fans who tuned in precisely for the kind of obnoxious sensibility that has made hits out of "Family Guy" and "Ted." In other words, he had to make the Oscars, a celebration of the work of thousands of people in the film industry, into a referendum on himself.
The solution he came up with was pretty ingenious: having William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk come back from the future to critique MacFarlane's performance and urge him to replace the tasteless bits with more tasteful ones. True, the bit seemed to trivialize one of the great sci-fi characters of all time -- it's sad and kind of creepy that the last time Shatner dons a Star Fleet uniform and sits in the captain's chair of the Enterprise might have been to be a punchline in the service of MacFarlane's superego -- but you couldn't fault the execution. After all, the premise allowed MacFarlane to present both sides of himself, the side that genuinely loves musicals, and the side that finds no subject too taboo to joke about.
The result was a bizarre but hilarious meta-spectacle, allowing MacFarlane to show us, during the Oscars, material that was actually too vulgar for the Oscars. That includes the "We Saw Your Boobs" song he did, a celebration of all the Oscar-caliber actresses who are willing to take their tops off in the name of art (especially Kate Winslet, who's done it more often than most), interspersed with reaction shots of those same actresses registering disgust and disapproval (alas, the shots were all archival footage from other awards broadcasts; if only we could have seen how the likes of Meryl Streep and Helen Hunt were reacting at that very moment they were being mentioned in the song). Or the re-enactment of the movie "Flight," with a cast of sock puppets. (Best shot: to represent the chaos in the spiraling jetliner, a pile of socks tumbling in a clothes dryer.) Or the Flying Nun bit, where MacFarlane hit on a receptive Sally Field backstage while he dangled from the ceiling in her old Sister Bertrille costume (a bit that proved Field is both a good sport and an Oscar-worthy actress). All these bits were juvenile, but the "Star Trek" frame allowed him to get away with it while keeping his distance, alternating them with tasteful bits like a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers routine with Channing Tatum and Charlize Theron dancing gracefully while the host crooned "The Way You Look Tonight," or a soft-shoe rendition of "High Hopes" performed with Daniel Radcliffe and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
In fact, the only thing that didn't work about the "Star Trek" device was that it didn't start soon enough. MacFarlane began the show with the usual stale inside jokes about this year's nominees, and how Ben Affleck missed out on a director nomination for "Argo," and how Emmanuelle Riva is quite old, and how violent "Django Unchained" is (his reference to the film as an ideal date movie for Chris Brown and Rihanna drew audible gasps from the crowd). By the time Shatner beamed in, he was a welcome sight. Altogether, the elaborate opening lasted a full 17 minutes, as if to foreshadow what a long night we were in for.
The rest of MacFarlane's job consisted of dropping the occasional one-liner to introduce presenters or to transition between segments of the show. He got off a few good ones, though they probably went too far for the crowd in the Dolby Theatre. Noting all the well-dressed people in the auditorium on a Sunday, he said, "This is like church, only with more people praying." Of Daniel Day-Lewis and other actors who've played Abraham Lincoln, he said, "The actor who really got inside Lincoln's head was John Wilkes Booth." Another shocked gasp from the audience (even though Day-Lewis himself had told a milder version of the same joke last month at the Screen Actors Guild awards), suggesting that, with some jokes, even 148 years later is still too soon.
As the show began to drag on interminably, MacFarlane offered the usual quips of frustration about how long the show was, well, dragging on. They were just OK (a joke about how the ceremony had gone on so long that the 2014 ceremony would follow immediately seemed recycled from Billy Crystal), but he delivered them with deadpan aplomb.
MacFarlane also did presenter duty, as the voice of Ted. The animated bear joined his co-star, Mark Wahlberg, for an unfunny exchange that pandered to the laziest stereotypes of Hollywood as being full of oversexed people and Jews. Again, it was a way for MacFarlane to cater to his worst instincts while distancing himself from them (Hey, it wasn't me, it was the talking stuffed animal!), but it lacked the inventiveness and good-natured self-parody of the opening. At least MacFarlane used Ted and not "Family Guy" brat Stewie, as he had threatened to do in some pre-show interviews.
By the time the final award was handed out, MacFarlane still had one more song to perform, a duet with Kristin Chenoweth toasting all the nominees who didn't win. The song probably kept a few viewers from changing the channel while the closing credits scrolled past, and the lyrics were actually pretty clever (there was a whole verse devoted to Best Actress also-ran Quvenzhane Wallis, comparing the nine-year-old to Tom Cruise in both talent and height), but after 3 1/2 hours, enough was enough already.
We'll have to wait for the Nielsen numbers to know if he succeeded in drawing the youth demo that the Academy desperately craves. Given the in-house response to some of his jokes, however, I doubt MacFarlane will be invited back to host next year. Still, he was more hit than miss, and he proved to be an experiment worth trying once.
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