“We’ve seen in the past it can go both ways,” Seth MacFarlane says of his Oscar hosting duties. “You can be too old-fashioned and you can be too irreverent. Often times that audience isn’t necessarily going to be with you if you go too far over the line.”
For those who love the Oscars, but feel the show needs a little more element of surprise, that line is just short of getting punched out by Meryl Streep.
The new host of the Academy Awards got on the phone with Entertainment Weekly to talk about his plans for the 85th annual show, but far from the barbarian who might storm the gates of Hollywood’s biggest night and unleash Gervaisian hell, MacFarlane sounded more like he wanted to play nice – albeit just a little rough.
A little over 39 million people watched the Oscars last year, and many of them love the ceremony for its sense of class and sophistication. Glamor is a big part of the appeal, so MacFarlane is probably wise not to come in announcing plans to annihilate this holy day of obligation for cinephiles.
But maybe he can take away the “obligation” part, and make the Academy Awards a little more accessible to those who are only invited to the party through their television sets.
With Ted, his blockbuster summer comedy about a teddy bear who comes to life and becomes a womanizing alcoholic, he takes a lovable thing – makes it decidedly un-lovable – then finds a way to make you care about it nonetheless. On his TV shows Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show, MacFarlane does the same thing to our most hallowed institutions – family, country, religion, and — of course — pop culture.
As emcee for some of Comedy Central’s brutal roasts (the ones for Charlie Sheen, David Hasselhoff, and Donald Trump), MacFarlane has made some of the most savage, withering jokes, but with the charm of a high school prankster who expects the microphone to the school’s P.A. system to be yanked away from him at any second. It’s not that you get the sense he doesn’t mean it – he’s just too funny to dislike.
THE GOLDILOCKS ZONE
In that respect, I speak for myself and other fans – MacFarlane certainly has his share of vocal detractors, just ask the Internet, which has a special hate-place reserved for practically every celebrity. His own group of scorners was certainly activated yesterday with news he’ll be hosting the Feb. 24 ceremony.
But the newly minted host can come in and both undermine the sometimes self-serious nature of the Oscars, and still honor its traditions and history. Just hours into his new job, he sounded determined to hit that sweet spot.
“I think there’s a balance with the Oscars, and that’s going to be the challenge — the challenge of staying honest and true to what it is I do, but at the same time adapting appropriately for this event,” MacFarlane said. “I do think it’s that sort of musical tension and release. If you’re coming at ‘em with something a little edgy, you want to pull it back with something comfortable following that, and always walk that tight rope.”
He again points out that in the past, there have been instances in which too much irreverence has irritated the attendees – who come with fraught nerves as they await career judgment in front of a global television audience.
“It’s a big night for them. They want it taken seriously,” MacFarlane says. “You just have to use your brain, case by case, and decide whether something is over that line or not. That’s going to be a constantly evolving process.”
MacFarlane didn’t cite examples of where it has gone wrong before, but they’re easy to remember. In 2005, Chris Rock asked from the Oscar stage, “Who is Jude Law? Why is he in every movie I have seen, the last four years?” Later, a grim Sean Penn came out to present an award and responded, two hours later: “In answer to our host’s question, Jude Law is one of our finest young actors.”
Funny, right? But also odd and uncomfortable. So were the barbs from Ricky Gervais during his first stint as host of the Golden Globes, mocking Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, and the president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. The gags seemed to land a little harder because his targets were right there in front of him. Audiences loved it, but the crowd in the room squirmed.
While there may be a certain amount of glee in that for the television audience, MacFarlane seems to be keenly aware that he’s playing to two crowds and has to balance his relationship with both. “The lesson there is [to find] that perfect Goldilocks zone, of classic showmanship and fresh comedy that keeps everything relevant,” he says.
SONG AND DANCE MAN?
Oscar producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron cited some unexpected reasons for choosing MacFarlane as their Oscar host – specifically his ability to sing and dance. The pair are known for their Broadway shows, most recently the revival of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and they also produced the movie versions of Chicago and Hairspray.
“When we were chosen to produce the show, we wanted to create an entertainment that has great diversity to it,” Zadan said. “In order to accomplish that, you need a host who does a lot of different things and can do it well. There aren’t that many people who can do that much. Some people do comedy well, others sing very well, others dance – but the thing about Seth is, you go down the list and he does so many things well, it gives us the opportunity to do an all-out entertainment show.”
“What he has done is what we’ve tried to do in our work, which is take a genre and freshen it up,” Meron added. “Seth has an eye to the past with a look at the future.”
Until now, the closest MacFarlane has gotten to the Academy Awards was this spoof from Family Guy, where Peter Griffin recalls stuffing the ballot box at the awards – leading to some bizarre nominees (and Daniel Day-Lewis.)
MacFarlane chuckles at the memory of that bit, but says he doesn’t expect to go quite that weird at the ceremony. “I can’t tell you why that’s funny. When it was pitched in the writers room, I laughed and so did a lot of other people – and I’m not quite sure why,” he says. “Maybe we shouldn’t think too far beyond that. If you’re laughing, then something is working.”
He’ll never be able to please everyone. But no matter what MacFarlane does, if he can just keep enough people laughing we won’t be able to hear the grumbling of the naysayers.
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