The host's feeble wisecracking may have been meant to provoke, but provoke what?
The best moment of Seth MacFarlane's Oscars hosting gig may have come late in the night when, in announcing Meryl Streep, he said "our next presenter needs no introduction" ... and then just walked away.
If only he'd kept his mouth shut more frequently.
That's not to say the Family Guy and Ted creator made for an out-and-out terrible host. His lack of nervousness, his throwbacky radio-broadcaster voice, and his clean looks added up to a charisma score greater than zero, which is more than could have been said for James Franco. And at the very beginning of the evening, it seemed as though we were in for a tolerable if insider-y night: joshing about Ben Affleck's directing-award Oscar snub, referencing the unimpressed Tommy Lee Jones meme spawned at the Golden Globes, drawing knowing chuckles by observing that the film industry's big box-office haul this year meant Hollywood accountants had to "work harder to prove that nothing made a profit."
But then William Shatner was beamed in for a Family Guy-esque experiment in the meta. Captain Kirk had come from the future to reveal that the headlines the next day would proclaim MacFarlane the worst Oscar host ever, unless he changed his routine. Cut to a clip—from the future, see—of MacFarlane performing "We Saw Your Boobs," during which he essentially read off a Mr. Skin database of shirtless-actress appearances over time. The bit could have been a hilarious acknowledgement of MacFarlane's past idiocies—if it had been, like, five seconds long. But no: We got a full minute-plus of breast chronicling, followed by MacFarlane's definition-of-homophobic insistence to Shatner that he wasn't a member of the gay men's chorus he'd just sang with.
From there, the jokes just got more and more... well, what's the word? Calling them offensive gives them too much power, which isn't to say that black people shouldn't have felt uncomfortable about MacFarlane pretending to mix up Denzel Washington and Eddie Murphy, or that half the population needn't have squirmed when MacFarlane called Zero Dark Thirty's plotline an example of "a woman's innate ability to never ever let anything go." What the jokes were, really, was stupid, boring, and empty: humor that relied less on its own patently sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. content than on admiration for or disgust with the host's willingness to deliver it.
So much of comedy is about the shock of recognition, of seeing some previously unacknowledged truth suddenly acknowledged, but the only recognition MacFarlane offered was that some people say dumb things about other peoples' gender/racial/sexual identities. Which, of course, should not be shocking at all.
MacFarlane's fake edginess didn't totally derail the night, but it did irritate, given that the ceremony was already too long. Tributes to James Bond and 21st-century movie musicals were nice in concept (the former more so than the latter—it's way too soon for Dream Girls nostalgia) but dragged in execution.
The speeches were mostly charming, though it was embarrassing for everyone involved when the producers blared the Jaws theme to shoo the happy winners off stage. And as for the winners, I was no great Argo fan, but it was hard to not be moved by seeing director/producer/star Ben Affleck choking up during his acceptance speech (even if he displayed more emotion in those few moments than any characters did over the course of the film he won for).
And in a way, after last year's snoozy retrospective tone, it was nice to see someone as youthful as MacFarlane trying to push buttons. But it was also depressing that these were the buttons he chose. The fight over what's OK and what's not OK in comedy is deeply worn out, but it's a fight MacFarlane asked us again to have—almost explicitly, with that Captain Kirk shtick serving as a trolling prebuttal to the tsk-tsking media—on one of pop-culture's biggest nights.
It shouldn't be hard to come up with a sensible position on this. Everything, including punchlines about the Jews cutting non-Jews out of Hollywood, snickers about women faking the flu to lose weight, and cracks that there's no need to try to understand what Salma Hayek's saying because she's so hot, is "OK." It's a free country, etc.
But that doesn't mean those jokes aren't hurtful, obvious, or dumb. It doesn't mean they don't make the world a worse place. Humor, after all, can be an incredible weapon for social progress, but it can also be regressive: The more we pass off old stereotypes, rooted in hate, as normal—as MacFarlane did again and again last night—the longer those stereotypes, and their ability to harm people, will be in place. If only Captain Kirk had told us whether we'll have moved past this nonsense by the 23rd century.
This piece first appeared in theatlantic.com