I don’t know if you heard about this, but Seth MacFarlane upset some people at the Oscars. From the opening musical number—titled “We Saw Your Boobs,” in which he pointed out actresses in the audience who had appeared topless in films—to a gag about a nine year-old someday being too old to date George Clooney, to a series of gay panic jokes, an inordinate percentage of his comedy seemed to be about women or men who do not want to have sex with them. He also incisively observed that Jews run Hollywood. [Caution: link comes with irritating sound.] That last quote-unquote joke encapsulates why I dislike MacFarlane’s work, and also why calling him offensive misses what’s wrong with him.
Joking that Hollywood is controlled by Jews would have been daring and maybe funny in 1953. For the next five decades it was a dead letter, and now it is Theoretically Shocking. At this point, we have been inundated with Jewlywood jokes; what was once a mumbled industry truism is now familiar to kids in Iowa. Meanwhile, our culture has wisely decided to stop complaining about Jews, to the point where anti-Semitism is much less of a problem than it used to be.
Enter MacFarlane. He risks little by deploying the cliché that Jews run Hollywood, because we have heard it so many times it is akin to joking that no one walks in LA. In theory he’s not supposed to say it, but it’s also familiar and nonthreatening. The result is a sort of frisson of danger with no real transgression; instead of saying what we’re all thinking, he says what we all say and act like we shouldn’t.
The last ingredient in MacFarlane’s genius recipe is to give this cliché to a foul-mouthed teddy bear. Teddy bears are supposed to be cute! What’s next—superheroes with mundane problems? A rockin’ grandma? MacFarlane is a master of the recognizable comedic form that is not surprising or funny—the cutaway, the running joke that runs long and, above all, the empty pop culture reference. In other words, he is a hack.
Notice how the cutaway gag in that last link ends: Stewie yells, “put me down, you sick, twisted fruit!” That line reaches for something funny only to fall back on shock value. You’re not supposed to call gay people (or whatever Michael Jackson was) fruits. It’s not actually a joke, but it feels kind of edgy—less edgy than, say, “put me down, you faggot!” and therefore safe. We can all laugh at it. Or we could, were it actually funny.
The problem with “put me down, you sick, twisted fruit!” reflects a larger problem with the scene: it’s not a story but a situation. MacFarlane hasn’t made Michael Jackson a character in some funny series of events. He’s just rendered an actual situation with Stewie in it. A comic scene is often understood in terms of A-B-C. It A) establishes a situation, B) creates an expectation in the audience, and then C) subverts it. The problem is that there is no (B) in Michael Jackson holding Stewie over a balcony. Having created no expectation to subvert, MacFarlane is forced to subvert some cultural expectation that we would bring to any scene. Hence “fruit.”
The mechanism by which a tired premise tries to become a joke through shock value is the same one that tanked MacFarlane’s Oscar performance. Despite Katie McDonough’s Salon headline, he probably did not devise “We Saw Your Boobs” to celebrate rape in film. He did it to be funny. Because he is terrible at being funny but great at making what people agree is comedy, he went with a recognizable formula: bathos. The Oscars are a pompous event that honors actors; ergo, let’s make fun of actors and use the word “boobs.” Boobs! “We Saw Your Breasts” wouldn’t be funny, and if you can’t see why, you don’t understand comedy the way Seth MacFarlane does.
Of course, reducing Charlize Thereon’s Oscar-winning performance in Monster to us seeing her boobs is also pretty sexist. If nothing else, it assumes that “we” are all people who thrill at the chance to see boobs—i.e. men. But MacFarlane was not waging some hateful campaign against women. He was just doing what he does: remembering a venerable comic premise, failing to come up with a new spin on it, and then making it resemble a joke by tacking on some safe transgression at the end.
You can tell he’s a hack and not a bigot by the word “safe.” MacFarlane joked about Jews running Hollywood, not about black men running the NBA.* He shocked us with sexism, not radical politics or his disdain for the Special Olympics. He specializes in transgressions we no longer consider threatening—anti-Semitism, backward attitudes toward women in the workplace, throwing up. He’s not actually risky, but he seems that way. He’s not actually funny, but he replicates the structure of jokes. He is a hack, and his exceptionally hacky performance Sunday night shows what he is capable of when he really pushes himself.