When jokes go too far

EntertainmentSeth MacFarlaneTheaterMedia IndustryAcademy AwardsMoviesBroadway Theater

Oscar hosts are supposed to be irreverent and edgy, otherwise they are instantly accused of boring us silly. So Seth MacFarlane must have been surprised by the rolling backlash from his performance at last week's Academy Awards.

In a gathering storm of protest in forums from The Atlantic to the Los Angeles Times, the first-time Oscar frontman was variously accused of anti-Semitism (for a routine exploiting the old canard that Jews own Hollywood), sexism (for his opening number involving actresses who have revealed their breasts to the cameras) and racism (including for pretending to mix up two African-American actors for comic effect). By the end of the week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was being pressed to disavow the performance of its own host, although it put out a statement defending him.

MacFarlane was not alone in being on the defensive. Steve Hannah, the Chicago-based CEO of The Onion — whose franchise is supposed to be so irreverent and edgy as to make Oscar hosts look like wimps — apologized Monday for what he acknowledged was a tasteless tweet that involved a four-letter word applied to lively 9-year-old Oscar nominee Quvenzhane Wallis.

The anonymous Onion offender was chopped up — an irony that did not escape some media observers who noted The Onion's in-house tweeter's very tricky job description: Be as offensive as you can until someone actually finds you offensive.

Even Jon Stewart, who often out-Onions The Onion, issued an apology last week — for making fun of Dick Molpus, a Mississippi politician with a record of fighting for civil rights who just happened to be stuck with a funny name that suggested otherwise ... to New Yorkers, anyway.

Stewart was as concerned with accuracy as with offense, but all of this would suggest that even the top brand names in comedy are struggling to figure out what's actually offensive nowadays.

After all, eight shows a week in New York and Chicago (and soon in London), "The Book of Mormon" has jokes that lampoon a storied American religion and the naivete of people of faith, and that brings up such taboo topics as African tribal traditions, rape, even children with AIDS. There has been no discernible backlash there, just huge profits. So why do the "South Park" boys get a pass as MacFarlane takes it on the chin?

There's no way to do justice to this issue without first observing that today's social media landscape, where the instant analysis of events like the Oscars is now widely consumed along with the event itself, offers many more opportunities for people to say they were offended. People have to tweet something. Outrage usually gets attention. Hence, outrage aplenty.

So stipulated. But what did MacFarlane do wrong? They've been discussing that in the comedy studies program at Columbia College. One useful text under discussion is the Gospel According to Molly Ivins, the late newspaper columnist and no shrinking violet when it came to poking fun: "Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful."

That's the start of what The Onion did wrong: A 9-year-old, even an Oscar nominee, has insufficient power. When that notorious tweet landed in our feeds, it engendered the feeling of leaping to the girl's defense, which killed off whatever humor might have been intended.

That's also a problem with hosting the Oscars — you end up with too much palpable power to operate as a satirist. Especially if you have the kind of glib confidence that comes easily to the seemingly invulnerable MacFarlane.

If you sat in some smoky club watching George Carlin rant about the jerks who run the country, it was cathartic precisely because of the implied inability of the fevered but clearly impotent monologuist to change anything, or land any kind of meaningful blow on the aforementioned leaders.

But at the Academy Awards, even the most naive viewer perceives that the honorees are trapped by contract and convention, forced to smile and grit their teeth as some callow youth-of-the-ratings-moment reduces their entire artistic careers to a juvenile catalog of naked body parts.

It's hard to turn pampered celebrities into sympathetic figures, but last Sunday's Academy Awards did a pretty fine job. And that's a large part of why MacFarlane's performance wasn't funny.

Then there's the question of building a relationship.

"The Book of Mormon" has an entire evening to forge characters and an alternate narrative that is, in its way, quite charming. Second City, which once poked fun at Superman in a wheelchair, also has mastered this imperative. So, when it is writing satirical stories rather than merely tweeting (a whole other skill), has The Onion.

In those great Onion articles, the outrageous gags are, as they say in the trade, well protected by a clear and credible worldview.

It's all a bit like the sweet-and-sour chicken at Panda Express: The comforting sugars of vulnerability make the odd bite of outre spice all the tastier.

MacFarlane, who is neither Jewish nor African-American, nor does he have breasts, had no grasp whatsoever of that truth, even though it can be applied to the simplest stand-up routine. There was no storytelling in his material, no point of view, no personal precariousness — just a series of isolated satirical jabs, which, when you're the one with the big role, inevitably come off as smug, cheap, easy or cruel.

You can imagine the confused Oscar producers sitting around arguing about what they should do next year. Some facsimile of Billy Crystal offering soft volleys to the likes of Jack Nicholson? Or a risk-taker like MacFarlane?

They will surely have noted that the ratings for the Academy Awards broadcast were up; but someone will say that was more to do with the movies than the host.

Maybe it's generational, someone else will say; yet, it will be pointed out, there were plenty of young women who went after MacFarlane for that notorious "boobs" song.

Perhaps the most useful criticism of MacFarlane's performance is to note its lack of generosity.

On the afternoon of the Academy Awards, the Black Ensemble Theater in Chicago opened a show called "From Doo Wop to Hip Hop." Part of the comedy in the piece involved the old joke of sticking a middle-age white guy in a mostly African-American cast, playing to a mostly African-American audience, and asking him to be a rapper.

But Jackie Taylor and Rueben Echoles, the creators of this show, understood what MacFarlane did not: The bigger joke comes when the mark thrives, prospers, succeeds.

That afternoon, you could chart the anatomy of the laugh: surprise, skepticism, cruelty, absurdity, acceptance, self-criticism.

These things are ratings gold: Just look at what Susan Boyle, who had just such a moment, did for "Britain's Got Talent" and, later, American audiences. That's why "The Book of Mormon" is the hottest Broadway musical in the world, and why all great hosts and comedians understand that, first and foremost, the joke must be on them.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @chrisjonestrib

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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EntertainmentSeth MacFarlaneTheaterMedia IndustryAcademy AwardsMoviesBroadway Theater
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