Seth MacFarlane's Oscars: Hilarious or Hurtful?

This past weekend, Seth MacFarlane hosted the Academy Awards. When his reviews came in, they were less about whether he was a good or bad host, and more about whether or not he was a good or bad person.

MacFarlane told many self-deprecating jokes, but he also made a point of going after women, homosexuals, Jewish people and foreigners. MacFarlane’s performance at the Academy Awards should not have been shocking. Those are the types of jokes MacFarlane is famous for doing.

Even though he’s not my cup of tea, MacFarlane is totally allowed to make those jokes. It’s called freedom of speech. People are also allowed to find his jokes funny. There’s this tricky thing about freedom, you see. If you believe that everyone deserves a voice and that everyone deserves to have their own opinion, you also believe that people have a right to be stupid, mean, offensive, grotesque, disgusting, misogynistic, racist and any other hateful thing they want to be.

Seth MacFarlane has the same right to sing a song about boobs as I do to write an essay about Jeremy Renner’s butt. I mean, one of the reasons I write silly odes to Jeremy Renner’s butt or Channing Tatum’s abs or Aaron Tveit’s everything is because we live in a culture that has historically sexualized women as objects and denied women the right to sexualize men in return. So, when I do it, I feel like I’m leveling the playing field and when MacFarlane does it, it feels to many like he’s just continuing the age-old saga that men are people and women are objects to be controlled.

But, fair’s fair, guys…

It sucks. I know it sucks when a comic makes jokes that only target people and groups that are oppressed. It can feel like bullying and straight up bullying isn’t only unfunny, it’s also inhumane. I know. It sucks. It sucks. It sucks.

Oscar night was also marked by a faux pas from The Onion, a popular satirical website, which posted a tweet that referred to Quvenzhane Wallis as a c-word. They have since apologized for it, sparking some really smart dialogue from comedians who try to explain why the Onion’s joke was potentially benign in tone and writers explaining why the tweet was really about the insidiousness of racism and sexism.

The only thing I want to say on this is comedy is subjective and that satire is really, really, really hard to get right. I know from experience. Years ago, I did a character bit that was intended to be a satire of gossip columnists and the end result is far from a great piece of satire. It’s just video after video of me saying horrible things about celebrities. Did I mean any of those things? No. I meant to make fun of the kind of person who would say such things, and not to make fun of the celebrities themselves. Does it look like that was my intention? Not at all. Why? Because I was a baby comedian which means there was no context for what I was doing–the audience didn’t know me well enough to know it was an act I was putting on–and because as a baby comedian, only a third of my jokes actually landed.

What I’m getting at is that sometimes the offensive joke wasn’t meant to be offensive. It was just meant to be a joke. And if the joke doesn’t land, it can come off as being just offensive.

Sometimes an offensive joke really was intended to be flat out cruel and offensive. Other times, it was just misguided comedy writing.

MacFarlane’s “We Saw Your Boobs” song, for instance? Ignoring the fact that the actresses rolling their eyes in the audience were pre-taped and in on the joke, the song was initially set up as proof of MacFarlane’s comedic inadequacies. If the song had been taken off air ten seconds into the “We Saw Your Boobs!” refrain, the punchline would have been that MacFarlane is a sexist idiot who doesn’t get that a song about boobs isn’t funny. However, by playing the whole song through, that punchline was completely lost. It made it seem like MacFarlane and the producers of the show still thought the song was funny enough to be in an Oscar monologue, and I personally think that was their big comedy writing mistake.

Well, including references to scenes where women were raped was also a big mistake.

I’m not trying to defend MacFarlane or The Onion. MacFarlane’s a big boy and The Onion’s written by big boys and big girls who make their own creative choices. They succeed and suffer accordingly.

I’m also not really interested in getting mad at MacFarlane or the Onion or any of the comedians who go up every night and sometimes get it wrong.

I’m angry because for every person who was offended by these jokes, there were even more laughing.

A lot of people who watched the Academy Awards this past weekend thought MacFarlane hit it out of the park. They saw nothing wrong in sexualizing women who were performing in rape scenes. They saw nothing wrong with MacFarlane’s xenophobic intro for Salma Hayek that mocked not only her, but also Spanish stars Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem simply for not claiming English as their native tongue.

Maybe there isn’t anything wrong. Maybe those are just jokes. But comedians who do politically incorrect humor only rise to international stardom because society lets them. If the majority decides that the best comedy is sexist or racist in tone, what does that say about our society?

It says that our society is still sexist and still racist.

If we lived in a world where everyone was treated with respect and not judged on their gender, race, social class, nationality or sexuality, then guess what? Jokes that mocked people because of those things would never be funny because they wouldn’t make any sense, and comedians who told those jokes couldn’t have a career.

As an audience we have the power to tell the comedians when something’s not funny. It’s called dead silence.

Seth MacFarlane can be who he wants to be. The Onion can tweet what they want. They have that freedom.

We have to decide to want to be a better culture first and foremost.

Then, maybe we can all finally be in on the same joke.

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