NEW YORK, N.Y. – The love-him-or-hate-him reaction to Seth MacFarlane’s turn as Academy Awards host is evidence that one of the most high-profile jobs in show business is becoming one of its most thankless.
The “Family Guy” creator and first-time Oscars host seemed unusually preoccupied with his reviews both before and during Sunday’s show. He predicted he’d be ripped apart and he was, particularly on social media. He also had his fans, with many suggesting the motion picture academy got precisely the kind of performance it expected and wanted in hiring someone known for his subversive, even crude humour.
As is often the case with the Oscars, the major awards themselves — “Argo” as best picture, Daniel Day Lewis and Jennifer Lawrence as top actors — hewed closely to pre-show predictions. The host’s performance is the most unpredictable element of the show, and it seems the negative experiences have the most mileage. David Letterman’s awkward 1995 turn is well-remembered, most of all by him. Chris Rock tried to bring some edge in 2005 and fell flat. James Franco and Anne Hathaway’s snoozefest in 2011 is still being talked about.
After Franco and Hathaway, the Oscars returned last year to the tried and true — eight-time host Billy Crystal — and faced criticism that the reliable had become the stodgy.
To some ears, MacFarlane’s material — which included a song-and-dance number about breast-baring actresses, a domestic violence joke involving Rihanna and Chris Brown, and references to Mel Gibson’s racial slurs — didn’t make the grade.
“If you’re going to the edge, you have to be funny,” said comic Joy Behar on “The View” Monday. “To me, I love Seth, but it wasn’t funny enough.”
Behar’s colleague, Whoopi Goldberg — a four-time Oscars host — had a bit more empathy, noting that people in MacFarlane’s position have a tough line to walk. The Oscars can’t force a younger audience to be interested just by hiring a younger host, she said, and a younger host has to know the audience that is out there.
Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, agreed that MacFarlane’s was a difficult position.
“Your job description is that you are trying to appeal to people who are not necessarily watching the Oscars to get them to watch, and at the same time appeal to people who are actually watching it,” he said. “That’s not an easy thing to do.”
The Nielsen Co. said an estimated 40.3 million people watched the Academy Awards on Sunday, up 1 million from last year and the first time since 2010 that the show topped the 40 million mark. More importantly for ABC, ratings for the 18-to-49-year-old demographic were up 11 per cent over 2012. That’s the age group upon which ABC bases its advertising rates, and MacFarlane was brought in this year in part to attract a younger audience.
The telecast was likely also propelled by the second screen experience, which has steadily grown in recent years as a driver of ratings for major live TV events. Twitter said that there were a total of 8.9 million tweets about the Academy Awards during the show and red carpet arrivals. That fell short of both the Grammys earlier in the month (more than 14 million tweets) and the record 24.1 million tweets about the recent Super Bowl and halftime show.
Arguably MacFarlane’s most offensive joke, measured by the audience’s groans, referred to actors who had tried to play Abraham Lincoln over the years. “I would argue that the actor who really got inside Lincoln’s head was John Wilkes Booth,” MacFarlane said of Lincoln’s assassin.
In addition, a pre-taped song about movies where famous actresses displayed their breasts was seen by some women as sexist — and a much-echoed criticism of MacFarlane’s Oscar performance.
“Watching the Oscars last night meant sitting through a series of crudely sexist antics led by a scrubby, self-satisfied Seth MacFarlane. That would be tedious enough,” wrote the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson. “But the evening’s misogyny involved a specific hostility to women in the workplace, which raises broader questions than whether the Academy can possibly get Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to host next year. It was unattractive and sour, and started with a number called ‘We Saw Your Boobs.’”
On Monday, the Anti-Defamation League added itself to the list of those offended by MacFarlane, protesting his joke, through the teddy bear character in MacFarlane’s movie “Ted,” about Jewish control over Hollywood. The bear, voiced by MacFarlane, claimed he was “born Theodore Shapiro and I would like to donate money to Israel and continue to work in Hollywood forever.”
MacFarlane seemed completely aware of what he was doing, and there were no indications he pulled any surprises. The motion picture academy granted him complete freedom to write the show as he saw fit but did see MacFarlane’s routines ahead of time. The Academy had no immediate comment when contacted on Monday about MacFarlane’s performance.
Some critics figured MacFarlane was in a can’t-win situation. Brought on to deliver “edge,” and perhaps some of the younger movie audience that enjoyed “Ted,” he was little known to a large portion of the Academy Awards audience. They didn’t know his style of humour, either.
“For a guy who had the deck stacked against him before he started, MacFarlane did a surprisingly impressive job,” wrote critic Tim Goodman in the Hollywood Reporter.
Critic Frazier Moore of The Associated Press said MacFarlane went back and forth between the Bad Seth and Good Seth throughout the night — and gave high marks to both.
“Both were very funny, stewarding a broadcast that never went askew,” Moore wrote.
Associated Press Writer Jake Coyle contributed to this report.
EDITOR’S NOTE — David Bauder can be reached at dbauder(at)ap.org or at http://www.twitter.com/dbauder .