Seth MacFarlane as Oscar Host: 5 Burning Questions (INSIDE STORY)
Monday's news that Family Guy and Ted creator Seth MacFarlane will host the Oscars in February drew responses of shock, praise and puzzlement. After all, he bears little resemblance to the sort of performer who's been the typical Oscar host over the last quarter-century. He's not a stand-up comic (though millions find his writing and animation hilarious), he's not a song-and-dance man (though he's shown signs he'd like to be one), he's not a household name (though he has nearly 3 million Twitter followers), he's young (well, young-ish, at 38), he doesn't have a lengthy résumé in movies (though he couldn't have made a bigger splash in film than Ted, which grossed $434 million worldwide this summer), and he's known for being irreverent to the point of offensiveness.
So how's he going to work as an Oscar host? If awards show producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron let him run free, they run the risk of turning the prestigious 85th annual Academy Awards ceremony into the MTV Movie Awards, a tacky spectacle that repels and alienates the show's traditional audience. But if they rein him in, they smother the spark that he brings to the table and risk a bland show that bores and alienates potential new viewers.
Of course, the Academy knows all this, as do Zadan, Meron, and MacFarlane. Still, they have their reasons for the unorthodox move. Read on for the answers to your burning questions about the reasoning behind the choice, the pitfalls MacFarlane faces and how he and the producers will try to work around them to create an entertainment event that everyone will want to watch.
1. Why did the Academy pick MacFarlane?
The obvious answer is his youth appeal. Your parents may not know him, but he's become a huge success in TV animation (and now, movies) thanks to a young, predominantly male fanbase -- precisely the viewers that the Oscar show has been courting in vain for years as its audience has steadily shrunk. Usually, what brings young viewers back to the Oscars is strong rooting interest in one or more of the nominated movies (like an Avatar or Lord of the Rings), but unless Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises get nominated for Best Picture, that's not likely to happen. So the next best thing is hiring a host that young people like.
Of course, the Academy tried for youth appeal two years ago when it hired James Franco and Anne Hathaway, and even though he was funny and she could sing and dance, the onstage result was disastrous. MacFarlane may not be a traditional comic or singer/hoofer either, but he's shown he has those skills, particularly on his recent gig hosting Saturday Night Live, which really showed off his versatility as a performer. He's not just a funny-voices guy, though that's something extra he offers, a talent that only Billy Crystal (among recent Oscar hosts) shares.
Zadan told The Wrap that it was this versatility alone, and not youth appeal, that put MacFarlane on his and Meron's shortlist. "We were looking for somebody who had the diversity of talent to pull off what we wanted to do," he said. "We never thought about demographics." That disingenuous statement may be funnier than any joke MacFarlane will tell on Oscar night. (For his part, Meron acknowledged MacFarlane's fanbase, telling USA Today, "We want the broadest audience for the show. This host just increases that audience.")
2. Who did MacFarlane beat for the gig?
Zadan and Meron aren't saying, but the pool of potential hosts is surprisingly small. The job calls upon a particular set of skills -- the ability to be a genial host, the ability to think quickly on one's feet, the ability to crack broadly amusing jokes that don't lose or insult half the audience, the ability to engage movie fans, and some song and dance skills -- that come most naturally to talk show hosts, stand-up comedians and comical movie actors. Few hosts have all these skills. Hugh Jackman (who hosted in 2009) can sing and dance, but he's not inherently funny. Tina Fey and Louis C.K. are funny but not musical. Neil Patrick Harris (who's hosted lots of awards shows) is musical and funny but not really a movie star; same with Jimmy Fallon. Eddie Murphy, like nine-time-host Crystal, could probably do it all, but he quit the job last year when producer Brett Ratner, who hired him, was fired over his homophobic comments, and no one wants to be reminded of that fiasco, so Murphy, through no fault of his own, is off the list. Other past hosts, like Jon Stewart, Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin, Whoopi Goldberg and Ellen DeGeneres, could come back, but they're also all over 50 (or, in Stewart's case, will turn 50 before February). MacFarlane, however, can do it all, and at 38, he's younger than everyone else on this list (even Harris, who's four months older).
3. What are the pitfalls MacFarlane faces?
The hardest part of hosting the Oscars may be coming up with jokes that play well to both the broad and diverse audience at home and the nervous Hollywood bigwigs in the auditorium. It's easy to make jokes deflating the movie-star egos in the room, but they go over like grim death when those same egos are sitting with arms folded and teeth gritted in the front row, making for a silence that plays awkwardly to TV viewers. (Such past hosts as Chris Rock, David Letterman and Chevy Chase found that out to their peril.) But too much blandness also fails to get laughs. And political humor (especially after a bitterly contested election cycle, like the one we're going through now) risks alienating one half of the home audience.
MacFarlane, who's hosted roasts on Comedy Central and who's offended about every minority group possible on Family Guy, knows how to do funny insults, but he's going to have to dial it back, not just to avoid biting the hand that feeds him in the room, but also to maintain the air of class that befits the entertainment world's most prestigious award. MacFarlane recognizes this, telling Deadline, "The trick is really going to be to make it as funny as I can and true to what I do but at the same time respectfully adapting the tone for this event which is a very different event than I have been a part of in the past." Or, as he put it to The Wrap, "We're not going to turn the Oscars into Family Guy."
He won't have to tone it down just for Oscar night, but for the five months between now and Oscar night. If he says something politically incorrect, especially about the people who invited him (as he did earlier this year when lobbying for Emmy nods for Family Guy), he'll be fired quicker than you can say "Brett Ratner."
4. What can we expect from a MacFarlane performance as Oscar host?
MacFarlane has said his favorite Oscar host was Johnny Carson; the longtime Tonight Show host emceed several times in the late '70s and early '80s, telling jokes with broad populist appeal that nonetheless managed to skewer Hollywood insiders without leaving a mark. So that may be an indication of how he'll handle the satirical part of his job. There will be at least one big, orchestral musical number. "There's nothing I love more than being around orchestras. That's something we'll be making use of, I'm sure," he told USA Today. As for MacFarlane's talent for funny voices, we'd be pretty surprised if they don't find a way for him to do Ted the bear. His habit for dropping random pop cultural references, which he deploys so arbitrarily on Family Guy, is actually pretty perfect for a show as steeped in movie history as the Oscars.
5. How do critics think he'll do?
Early reactioon yesterday to MacFarlane's hire was mostly positive. "I think he'll pull it off as expected - some great jokes, a lot of smiling," Awards Daily editor Sasha Stone told Celebuzz. "He'll be funny, confident and reliable."
"He’s the perfect host," Gold Derby editor Tom O'Neil told Celebuzz. "He’ll be edgy but he knows how to walk right up the line and not step over it."
Not everyone thinks MacFarlane is a surefire winner as Oscar host. "Having MacFarlane host the show seems to play into the misguided notion that the Oscars need to be torn down and rebuilt, rather than merely updated and renovated.," wrote Tim Goodman at The Hollywood Reporter. Tampa Bay Times TV critic Eric Deggans wrote that he wasn't sure whether hiring MacFarlane was the best idea ever or the worst. At Slate, David Haglund wrote that he finds MacFarlane's humor is often cruel and crass but added, "Otherwise, though, Oscar host might be just the gig MacFarlane was born to do."
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