A Defense of Seth MacFarlane Against Nation of 'Footloose' Dads

When someone attacks a joke my gut instinct is always to defend the joke and its teller. Well, not always. It depends on where the joke comes from. As George Carlin once explained, "There is absolutely nothing wrong with the word 'n**ger' in and of itself. It's the racist a**hole who's using it that you ought to be concerned about."

Which reminds me: Man alive, I miss George Carlin.

I might not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but I think I know the difference between a bigot using humor to demean, and good-natured satire. Racist/sexist jokes told with the intent to hurt, insult, or further a stereotype offend me -- because elitism and bigotry offend me. You can not only sense the hostility from an elitist bigot, but also that someone is being singled out.

We conservative Christians feel this hostility and sense of being singled out all the time, especially in today's popular culture.  We're not being tweaked, teased, or kidded -- we're being marginalized. But when it's genuine satire, I swear on my Jesus-freaking heart that I can laugh at myself. George Carlin is a comedy god to me and the Monty Python films, "The Life of Brian," "The Meaning of Life," and "Holy Grail," take direct aim at my faith and put me on the floor laughing.

As Carlin goes on to explain in the link above, the difference between satire and bigotry comes down to intent and context.

 

Which brings me to Seth MacFarlane's hosting of the Oscars Sunday night.

Though I have seen all the clips in question, I do wish I had watched the entire show.  It's a little unfair of me to attempt to rebut MacFarlane's critics without having sat through the entire four hours, so let me put it this way: the clips don't match the criticism directed at MacFarlane. And this criticism is coming in equal sides from both left and right.

The left-wing Huffington Post and L.A. Times are on the exact same page as (among others) the right-leaning Kyle Smith and Twitchy.com.  

HuffPo:

Yes, if an opening number called 'We Saw Your Boobs' wasn't offensive enough - to both actresses and every woman watching the show - then the 'Family Guy' creator saw to it to make cracks about bulimia, domestic violence, gay men and oh, so much more.

Twitchy:

Bingo! And once again, scratch a leftist and find a sexist. “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane proved that adage when he hosted The Academy Awards last night. Twitter users were not amused by his demeaning “jokes” about women.

L.A. Times:

MacFarlane's boob song, the needless sexualization of a little girl, and the relentless commentary about how women look reinforced, over and over, that women somehow don't belong. They matter only insofar as they are beautiful or naked, or preferably both. This wasn't an awards ceremony so much as a black-tie celebration of the straight white male gaze.

Kyle Smith:

MacFarlane’s tone-deaf, unfunny, sexist, puerile, straight-from-the-ninth-grade-locker-room “We Saw Your Boobs” routine about nekkid actresses was lower than a cockroach’s pedicure. Charlize Theron’s pained reaction shot (which was part of the act, but fitting anyway) spoke for the world: Several of the actresses MacFarlane mocked were shown in rape scenes.

Right and left are also criticizing MacFarlane over the rest of his material.

Guy Benson at Hot Air:

I also found the Lincoln assassination joke to be in poor taste, but it didn’t really offend me.  Cheap, offensive one-liners are MacFarlane’s calling card. …

MacFarlane’s snark about the “Christian Right,” for instance, was beyond lame.  In introducing presenters Daniel Radcliffe and (a totally charisma-free) Kristen Stewart, the grinning emcee quipped, “He’s a boy wizard and she’s a girl vampire. Together, they are pretty much everything the Christian Right thinks is wrong about Hollywood.”  Har!  How edgy.

New Yorker:

Seth MacFarlane and the Oscars’ Hostile, Ugly, Sexist Night …

And who knows what the Los Angeles Gay Men’s Chorus thought that it was doing by serving as MacFarlane’s backup singers, but it’s hard not to wonder what the rhetorical point was meant to be. We saw your boobs, but that’s not even what we find attractive, so you exerted no power in doing so—all you did was humiliate yourself? Maybe that’s reading too much into it. It could be that MacFarlane just thought it would be funny for him to say the word “gay” as often as possible.

Kyle Smith:

MacFarlane made a funny about Chris Brown beating Rihanna, another about Latinos with accents, and another about orgies at Jack Nicholson’s house, the place where Roman Polanski gave a little girl drugs for the purpose of raping and sodomizing her.

New Yorker:

It’s possible that the line about not caring that he couldn’t understand a word that Penelope Cruz or Salma Hayek said because they were good to look at was directed as much at Latinos as at women, since he also mentioned Javier Bardem—but that doesn’t make it any better.  

From the clips I've seen and the criticism that followed, it looks to me as though MacFarlane did what a comic is supposed to do. Nothing and no one was off-limits. Hollywood was the biggest butt of his jokes, but so were gays, Latinos, actresses, stars like George Clooney, and the Christian right.

How is making fun of actresses who bare their breasts qualify as misogyny? And if the roles in questions happened to be rape victims, how is that mocking rape? How is mentioning Jack Nicholson's house and his well-known sexual habits some kind of insensitive reference to Polanski's crimes? How is making fun of what is obviously a dysfunctional relationship between Chris Brown and Rihanna anti-woman or insensitive towards abusing women? Stigmatizing that kind of relationship through humor strikes me as a good idea.

Are we to a point where observational humor about not being able to understand a foreign accent is risible? Is there something wrong with a joke aimed at the Christian right in a four-hour night in which everyone else takes a beating? Does anyone honestly believe MacFarlane was "sexualizing" a nine-year old girl and not mocking the middle-aged George Clooney's predilection for college-aged super models?

I once met a screenwriter who works at a very high level in the world of network sitcoms. We got to talking about modern television comedy, and I told her that I just don't watch sitcoms anymore. There are a number of reasons, but one of them, I told her, is that the jokes are all sex-sex-sex-sex.

"It's just one dirty d**k joke after another," I said. "I'm not a prude or anything. I just find it dumb and tiring."

"That's something of a simplification, but do you want to know why it feels that way?" she replied. "It's political correctness. You can't make fun of anything or anyone. No one can take a joke anymore -- on the right or left. So we joke about sex."

As DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz did, if people want to argue that MacFarlane's humor was too crude for the "family hour," fair enough. But I must say that I've caught snippets of "Two and a Half Men" much cruder than anything I saw Sunday night.

 

What strikes me as wrong-headed, though, is all this taking of offense and hurling of "ists." I fear we're becoming a nation of well-intentioned (sometimes) "Footloose" dads who see danger in harmless fun; where we cry "ist" to put a stop to things that make us uncomfortable; where -- so "we don't offend" and "for the good of others" -- we build restrictions. And what happens in the process? We lose our own capacity for joy and that very healthy exercise known as laughing at ourselves.

What I saw in those Oscar clips was MacFarlane engaging in what we used to call a good-natured ribbing, and doing so in the tradition of The Masters. Sid Caesar was a genius at mocking different languages and accents and "I Love Lucy" turned it into a cottage industry. Henny Youngman became a legend with "Take my wife, please." Jokes about famous actors dating young girls are as old as George Clooney; so are jokes about famous couples who publicly and bitterly fight -- the Battling Bogarts, Frank and Ava, Liz and Dick…

While MacFarlane might have been cruder than his predecessors, the style, intent, targets, and good-natured approach were exactly the same. Would Lenny Bruce or Sam Kinison even be allowed to get off the ground today? Or would they be booed off the stage on open mic night before we ever had a chance to see their "insensitive" genius?

It's not the comedy that has changed, it's we who have changed -- and not for the better. We went from laughing at the naughtiness, the exaggerated truth, and ourselves, to taking offense. And nothing troubles me more than this: In today's culture, accusing someone of an "ist" is the exact same thing as screaming "shut up."

If you can't mock actresses willing to bare their breasts or tweak someone over their accent or use "gay" to get a laugh or make a joke about a 150-year-old assassination or tease about the tendency of some Christians to get a little stuffy -- what's left?

D**k jokes.

No thank you.

P.S. Please don't take my argument to an extreme, either. Comedy aimed at those who can't defend themselves is deplorable. When MacFarlane hired a Down Syndrome actress to mock Down Syndrome sufferers (really Sarah Palin), I thought it was exploitative, and said so. "The Onion" calling a nine-year old girl the c-word is no better.  Yes, there is a line and that's mine -- along with "intent" in the way Carlin explains above.  

 

Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC 


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