I guess I’m weighing in a little late in the news cycle about Seth MacFarlane’s now-notorious Oscars hosting gig. But I’m not really going to talk about the gig itself, so much as what it illustrates about the nature of humor. And in that respect, a little bit of perspective is probably a good thing.
As a writer of humor – or what I HOPE constitutes humor, anyway – it’s a debate that I’ve followed, in the hopes that I might glean some insights.
MacFarlane, of course, took a lot of criticism for the jokes he made. Many observers, including Jamie Lee Curtis and Jane Fonda, branded him as sexist. Particularly infuriating, from the critics’ standpoint, was a musical number titled “We Saw Your Boobs,” which was essentially a listing of movies in which female actresses showed their breasts.
Another factor in the controversy, for better or worse, is the fact that MacFarlane’s appearance accomplished exactly what the Oscar programmers hoped it would. Ratings were up, particularly among the coveted 18-to-34-year-old demographic.
A couple of observations I’d like to throw out from the beginning, so you know where I’m coming from.
1) Humor is inherently tricky and volatile. It has to be at least a little transgressive, or it’s not funny. Some of the funniest jokes – the “Springtime for Hitler” musical number from “The Producers,” for example – are funny specifically because they’re so wrong. But if you make it too wrong or disturbing, it’s not funny any more. Achieving that precise balance isn’t easy.
2) Seth MacFarlane seems like a decent guy, from the interviews I’ve seen with him. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of his humor. He has his moments. But overall, his stuff just doesn’t do it for me.
3) Sexism is still a pervasive and corrosive presence in our society. Women still pay a very high price for it, and many of them are engaged in a hard-fought and heroic struggle against it. That struggle includes addressing women’s depiction in popular entertainment. And as I’ve written about before here, you can’t automatically dispel concerns by saying “Hey, lighten up! It’s just a joke.”
So where am I going with this?
Let me share with you a joke I tell among my poker buddies, which usually gets a laugh. Be prepared – it’s dirty, in case those of you with more delicate sensibilities want to bail now. (And if you’re under 18, PLEASE STOP READING MY BLOG!)
OK, here goes …
This guy’s in a whorehouse, and the women are laughing at him because he’s got the word SHORTY tattooed on his dick. Finally, one of the women agrees to go upstairs with him. When she comes down, she looks stunned. The others ask her what’s going on. She says: “You know that guy with the SHORTY tattoo? Once I got him hard, it said SHORTY’S BAR AND GRILL, ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO!”
I don’t consider myself mean, ignorant or sexist for telling that joke when I’m throwing back a few beers with my guy friends over a basement poker game. But I could think of a number of contexts where telling it would be very wrong.
Around children, obviously. Or in a setting where it’s more likely to cause embarrassment than amusement, such as if one of the aforementioned guy friends happened to have his mom along.
If I told that joke at an Amnesty International conference to address the plight of women victimized by the sex trade, it would be grossly inappropriate. Or if I told it at a church gathering.
Now picture this scenario. I tell that particular joke to a bunch of my poker buddies. One of them thinks it’s so funny that he asks me to tell the same joke at his wedding reception.
So I do as asked. I show up at his wedding reception. At the designated time, I take the microphone and tell the joke.
The laughter is deafening at the table populated by guys with whom the groom and I play poker. The rest of the guests stare at me in stony silence.
And afterward, a number of those guests walk up to me and tell me what a horrible person I am. There were children in that room! The word “whore” is terribly demeaning toward women! Don’t I know that the bride’s sister works with abused women, many of whom were in the sex trade? Do I really think jokes about that are funny?
In a way, I feel that’s the situation Seth MacFarlane is in. He did what he normally does, in a very different context and for a very different audience. He did what he was asked to do. But the people who asked him to do it made an ill-advised decision, and now he’s taking some flak for it.
I thought MacFarlane himself summed it up in a concise and funny way when he compared it to the Kobayashi Maru – a legendary test from the Star Trek universe that represents a no-win situation. And MacFarlane has said emphatically that he won’t host the Oscars again.
I guess that’s the ultimate lesson to take away from this. Your poker buddies may enjoy that “Shorty” joke. But when one of them asks you to tell it at a wedding reception, you’re better off getting him another beer and encouraging him to forget about it.