Thursday, March 28, 2013

"Why I Did Not Write About The Oscars"

I could have written about the Oscars a month ago when they happened, but that would have been inconsistent with a blog whose mission and preferred strategy is to maneuver below the radar and avoid attention.  I like to bide my time, let the heat of the moment die down, then jump in when interest is low, bordering on nonexistent. 

That’s what I call integrity.

Though you could as easily call it a congenital aversion to commercial opportunity.  More easily probably.  

In the 2013 Oscars, there were few to no surprises concerning who won.  The primary controversy was this:

The Oscars producers chose a host whose name recognition and comedic sensibility would attract television’s highly coveted 18-to-49 demographic.  The substantial boost in that demographic’s ratings this year suggests that their strategy successfully paid off. 

I myself am in the 67-to-74 demographic.  And we found ourselves maximally challenged by the host. 

Seth MacFarlane was selected to “bring in the kids.”  And apparently, he did.  How?  By being relatively young (39), and by performing material consistent with his hit series Family Guy that was…

And therein lies the problem.  It’s not easy to write this, because every selected adjective conveys a judgment.  And every judgment in this regard is predicated on a difference in the viewing audience member’s age.   

Check out the contrasting assessments of Seth MacFarlane hosting the recent Oscars.  It’s like a generational “potato-potahto.”
Tasteless – Irreverent

Inappropriate – Edgy

Puerile – Liberated 

Disrespectful – Sticking it to the old farts

Not funny – Hilarious

It’s not a hard-edged Dividing Line, of course.  I imagine there were viewers close to my age who were tickled by the “We Saw Your Boobs” production number and the “Jews control Hollywood” slander – I mean, playful pokes of harmless Anti-Semitism – I mean, fun – as, I imagine, there were members of the Younger Set who were stone-facedly unamused. 

But over all, the Older Crowd, raised on the bloodless barbs of Bob Hope and Johnny Carson, went “Feh!”  While the “Kids” took Seth’s shameless shenanigans in their cool and casual stride.   

Confining my review to one sentence, I found Seth MacFarlane alarmingly out of his depth, increasingly isolated from the audience in attendance, and noticeably shaken by the end, though he tried gamely to cover it up. 

From a creative standpoint, it is my view that the source of MacFarlane’s difficulties result from the fact that utterances that are funny emerging from animated characters are considerably less funny emanating from actual human beings.  (Especially when those utterances are at the expense of actual human beings with feelings sitting in the audience.)

Excluding the “Human Beings Sitting In The Audience” Factor, I have direct experience in the issue of “human being” comedy versus the comedy consequences of drawn characters. 

Short answer: It’s not the same.

I wrote a pilot once called The Home Team, where, in a role reversal, a recently retired baseball player stays home taking care of a baby, while his wife pursues her dream as a lingerie designer.  (This was in the early nineties, when that premise actually seemed interesting.)

My pilot script was turned down.  But in a plan the studio might call “game-saving” but which I would call  “What the f…”?, the project I created was taken away from me, and put in the hands of a successful writer from The Simpsons, for a total reworking.

By the early nineties, I was in my late forties.  The Simpsons writer was in his early thirties.  The writer switch indicated that the studio believed that the younger writer could infuse a currency into the premise my aging sensibilities were unable to deliver.  The “whether I agreed, and how I did I feel about that” sentence will be left “understood.”

As a result of his revisions – and his reputation coming off a very hot show – the Simpsons writer got the pilot script picked up for production.  (The “how I felt about that” sentence will also remain “understood.”)

One day, I wander down to the stage to see how they’re doing, taking a seat in the empty bleachers that on show night will be filled with a live studio audience.  I just wanted to see how they were doing.  (With my show!)

They were rehearsing a scene with the ballplayer and the baby.  It’s a “drooling scene.”  (Not found in the original version.)  In the scene, the baby is required to drool on cue.  (And the hilarity is intended to ensue.)

Among the myriad of other things they can’t do (as opposed to animated babies who can do anything you want them to), live babies cannot drool on cue.  I look in dismay on as the “Special Effects” people inject “fake drool” into the baby’s mouth. 

In my view, at least, live babies (again in contrast to drawn babies), do not look cute drooling.  They look like you need to run for a tissue.

Here’s what we’re dealing with here.  A writer whose stock-in-trade is animation has imagined a sequence that could, conceivably, be hilarious in the animation arena but is tasteless, jarring and inappropriate - descriptives some applied to Seth MacFarlane’s outing as an Oscars host – in the real-life context of actual people, which includes babies.

Sidebar:  How could “animated baby drooling” be funny?  The answer revolves entirely around the execution which, with the unlimited possibilities could be anything.  How slowly the drool comes out.  The baby’s “visual response” to the drooling.  (“Look at that!  I’m leaking!”)  How long the drooling lasts, the longer, the funnier.  There can be issues of coloration, contingent on what the baby had recently consumed.  Like balloon animals, the descending drool could “shape-shift” into various images, consistent with the fantasies projected in the infant’s mind.  None of this can be achieved with live babies.  With live babies, you get “spit out of the mouth”, and that’s it.       

As the man said:  It’s not the same.  Not in my pilot.  And not on the Oscars. 

But that’s my opinion.  And it could just be camouflaging the fact that I’m old, and I don’t get it.  I don’t want to be “the guy who doesn’t get it.”  (This is especially “ow”-ey to a guy who has gotten it for so long.) 

The only thing I want to be less than “the guy who doesn’t get it” is “the guy who bends over backwards to get it”, in a desperate effort not to seem over the hill. 

I could offer the opinion that, even on his own terms, Seth MacFarlane did not solidly deliver.  But I feel deficient in the legitimacy to back that up.

So I didn’t talk about the Oscars. 

I just wanted to tell you why.   


Mac said...

I think you're onto something with the cartoon/reality aspect. Seth Macfarlane's a great writer, animator, voice talent, producer etc etc but in the flesh, he's not funny. He's hasn't got charisma, presence or funny bones. I'd doubt he's ever done stand-up.

As to whether it's age that left you cold, I don't think so. I'm in my late 40's and tend to find Family Guy very funny (the earlier eps - it's way past its sell-by date now) I love American Dad, but the Oscars routine just felt a bit "meh." Not offensive, not OTT, just "meh."

Canda said...

McFarlane is not a performer, which the Oscar Host or Hosts have been in the past. Unfortunately, you should also not hire actors, as we found out with James Franco.

Best to go with "funny people", who have proven to be funny in front of live audiences.

Much was made of the ratings being higher, but I believe that was a result of the Academy finally nominating several movies that made over 100 million,
thus you had an audience familiar with them. This wasn't the year where the Academy nominated movies like "Monster", which they love and no one else watches.

john brown said...

Carson and Hope worked as hosts because they had established ties with the people in the audience. Hope as a fellow performer and Carson as a guy who had all the old timers on his show. They could gently needle the people in the audience and get away with it.
And, they knew how to deliver standup material. When to stay with it and when to switch over to something else.
I think Seth just dug his heels in and plowed through the night.