Every year, as Oscar night approaches, water-cooler chatter treads well-worn paths and templates; who’ll wear what, who’ll win what, and most important of all, how is the host going to keep us entertained for the show’s bum-numbing three-hour-plus runtime? This year, that responsibility falls to one Seth Woodbury MacFarlane. Some of you just read the name and thought “Umm, who Mac what?” The rest of you clearly watch Family Guy, the amoral, hilarious and insanely popular animated show that’s made the 39 year-old one of America’s favourite (and wealthiest) potty-mouths.
MacFarlane isn’t exactly the first name that comes to mind when you think “Oscar host”. He’s not the perennial Hollywood insider, like say Billy Crystal. He isn’t a Machiavellian satirist who stares America in the face every night like the decidedly non-Hollywood Jon Stewart. And he isn’t even like (we hope) 2011’s man-of-the-hour James Franco. No, MacFarlane comes from the side of the fence that Hollywood prefers to pretend doesn’t exist: network television.
Drawn to animation as a child, MacFarlane started his career at Hanna-Barbera, the animation powerhouse behind icons like Yogi Bear. During his time there, he worked as a writer and storyboard artist on multiple shows, including classics Dexter’s Laboratory and Johnny Bravo. In 1998, bored of animating for children, he went to Fox with a pitch for a prime-time animation series about a family that was edgy, crass, and aimed squarely at adults. Fox bought into it, and Family Guy was born.
At first, viewers balked at the show’s adult, often nasty and scatological content, and after a rocky three seasons, Fox cancelled the show in 2002. But a dedicated cult following ensured that DVD sales went through the roof, and three years later in 2005, Family Guy roared back onto TV. By 2008, MacFarlane negotiated a deal with Fox to keep Family Guy at Fox until 2012. They gave him an astonishing $100 million. He was 34 years old.
Being one of America’s funniest and most popular animators is great, but it still doesn’t fully explain how MacFarlane found himself hosting Hollywood’s shiniest evening. That’s an achievement perhaps better explained by the sheer number of talents the multi-hyphenate from Connecticut possesses; like the best Oscar hosts, he’s a great comedic writer, whose poop and fart jokes often hide a set of fangs that he isn’t afraid to sink into Americana. Like the best Oscar hosts, he’s a keen musician and singer with a penchant for great showtunes. Like the best Oscar hosts, he’s earned himself a hint of Hollywood pedigree. In 2012, he wrote and directed Ted, his first live-action film, about a filthy, sentient teddy bear (voiced by MacFarlane himself) and the man-child who can’t let him go. (Fun fact: he’s also a nominee on the night, for a song he wrote for the movie.) And like the best Oscar hosts, he’s a frighteningly versatile performer, providing the three lead voices (among others) on Family Guy himself.
He’s also staggeringly intelligent. $100 million bought him the clout to do anything he wanted. But first, dismayed by “the rejection of science re-emerging in America”, he got to work re-igniting Carl Sagan’s legendary TV show about astronomy, Cosmos, with astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson hosting.
Above all else though, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences wants and needs MacFarlane to host the awards for one reason: the Internet loves him. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, where everyone’s a critic and we no longer need an award ceremony to build consensus on the year’s best films, Oscar’s gone and gotten a bit stuffy. Black ties? Gowns? Hollywood congratulating itself for hours at end? To the Internet generation, it’s all starting to look like old hat, something that’s been reflected in the show’s declining ratings. In 2012, the Academy even dusted old favourite Billy Crystal off the shelf, and all that bought them was a measly 4% gain over 2011’s dismal James Franco-hosted debacle. And if that sounded like good news, injury was followed by insult, as the Grammys replaced the Oscars as America’s second-most watched event (after the Superbowl). Worse still, in the 18-49 years demographic that advertisers so desperately crave, Oscar’s ratings were flatter than three-month old cola.
For the Academy, MacFarlane isn’t just a host; he’s a desperate, final roll of the dice. Oscar needs a young, hip audience, and MacFarlane has one. MacFarlane’s humour comes loaded with a million pop-culture references a minute, and venomous jabs at the Hollywood establishment, and it’s just the sort of thing that the Academy prays its audience wants. Two years ago, that’s exactly what Ricky Gervais used to galvanize the then-flagging Golden Globes, a show whose loose informality seems a more natural fit for our times. For the first time in their history, the Oscars stand before the abyss of irrelevance, and the Academy’s hoping that MacFarlane can make them relevant again.
But the path to relevance is not without its pitfalls. Gervais’ savage turn at the Globes earned him a collective backslap from the Internet, but it made him more than a few enemies in Hollywood. James Franco tried to play it cool and hip at the Oscars two years ago, and he just came off looking drugged instead. MacFarlane himself didn’t get off on the best foot while announcing this year’s nominees at an event in January. Referencing Best Foreign Film nominee Amour, he joked “The last time Austria and Germany got together and co-produced something, it was Hitler, so this is much better”. The backlash was immediate, with some questioning the tone he’d bring to the night.
As the curtains come up on Oscar night, for four hours, MacFarlane will have the toughest job in Hollywood. Reams of Internet-space will be devoted to every word he says. He’ll be judged for every joke, and he’ll be given no quarter. On some level though, just by virtue of being who he is, he’s already done half the job; he’s made the Oscars interesting again. No matter what happens on the night, we’re sure of two things—he’s got fodder for a great future episode of Family Guy. And he really can’t get any worse than James Franco.
Rohan Joshi is a comedian, writer and Bombayite. He tweets at @mojorojo