They Shoot Oscars, Don’t They?

The Oscar ceremony has finally acquired an ideal twenty-first century host in the smirking, tap-dancing, bland-faced Seth MacFarlane.

The nightmarish experience of the Academy Awards ceremony a few weeks back generated a lot of commentary, mainly long laments about what an unfunny, creepy host Seth MacFarlane was. But time passes; rage cools; the ratings come out and prove that, compared to previous years, the 2013 Oscar telecast was a popular triumph. The show’s producers, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, go on record saying they’re “proud” of their chosen host for succeeding in making the show, once again, “part of the cultural conversation.”

If MacFarlane succeeded at his job, what was that job? In what sense might the Oscar ceremony have finally acquired an ideal twenty-first-century host in this smirking, tap-dancing, bland-faced man?

To see it that way, you have to think about Seth MacFarlane’s role as the Oscar’s master of ceremonies. The Master of Ceremonies was a big deal in the early Catholic Church, responsible for making sure religious rituals were performed correctly. There’s probably a Master of Ceremonies kicking around the Vatican today, making sure nobody drops the communion wafers. But religious rituals ain’t what they used to be when it comes to constructing and affirming social order. Today, instead of religious rituals to give us the sense that we’re all connected and our lives have meaning, we’ve got media rituals.

It’s quite a comedown when you think about it, from the transfigured body of Christ to a crap TV spectacle. Perhaps this dramatic demotion is at the root of the basic hostility that emanates from the typical emcee. He’s the tuxedoed, grinning man, “fronting” for the show but not on a par with the other performers, leading the applause but not a member of the audience. He’s the head salesman, hawking a debased ritual. The salesperson may be central to capitalist culture, in which everyone is forced into sales somehow, but of course, in a system of bitter social inequity and forced self-abasement, we despise him for his obviousness. And at some level we resent what he’s selling. Performers are a cheap substitute for spiritual idols. They’re too ordinary to fulfill a godlike function yet too elevated in grotesquely inflated socioeconomic status to help us feel any social unity. So the audience has hostility even greater than the emcee’s, and the emcee’s job is to manage it.

The modern emcee is a strangely outmoded figure. He seems to have a harder and harder time doing his job. Like his close kinsmen the toastmaster, the roastmaster, and the carnival barker, his services are only very rarely required in contemporary life, though many forms of popular entertainment used to require an emcee. The job’s practical tasks include introducing the performers, setting the pace of the show, and acting as the intermediary figure between performers and audience. Performers must be brought back for encores if they are good, maneuvered swiftly offstage if bad, and jeered or rebuked if very bad. The audience must be prodded to applaud and appreciate or forgive and forget. Mistakes have to be smoothed over, hecklers dealt with ruthlessly. Working for the good of the show entails furious stage-management and salesmanship on the part of the emcee, while necessitating a perverse self-effacement — after all, he’s not the show itself, just the guy facilitating the show.

There’s a reason every Oscar postmortem begins with a thumbs-up/thumbs-down evaluation of the host. Did he succeed in “selling” the Oscars or not? We acknowledge that it’s a hopeless task, pulling off this lumbering four-hour test of endurance that contains within it a fashion show, a variety show, a stand-up comedy routine, a contest, a tribute, a party that we’re invited to spy on, and an interminable coronation-like ceremony for “America’s royalty.” Nevertheless, we routinely condemn the emcee who can’t sell it to us. “Us” being the impossibly heterogeneous audience ever more estranged from the world of classic Hollywood studio filmmaking that generated the Oscars in the first place.

MacFarlane found a winning formula for the Oscars not by inventing something new, but by channeling something old: a a callous, perpetually bored man “mastering” the audience as well as the performers with rhetorical ploys ranging from oily flattery to lugubrious tear-jerking to outrageous patriotic jingoism to incessant hostile patter. The banter isn’t necessarily funny, but it contains within it the established rhythms and grammatical patterns of humor — the setup, the joke, the “topper.” Only vague hostility is a must.

It’s a defensive stance reminiscent of street barkers trying to haul in customers with a hard sell (“Hurry-hurry-hurry, step right up!”) and over-the-top superlatives (“The most amazing, death-defying act ever attempted by modern man!”). This is often laced with dismissive asides used to quell hecklers (“Go away, kid, you bother me”) and to amuse and build the crowd.

Put a tuxedo on the seedy barker and you have your typical Oscars night emcee, a figure at once vital and marginal, necessary and embarrassing. Hangdog comedian Joey Bishop is a good example, having emceed for the smarmy nightclub act that the Rat Pack — Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, and the rest of the ring-a-ding-ding crew — used to do in Las Vegas. MacFarlane himself is a devotee of the Rat Pack performing mode, especially the song stylings of Sinatra and Martin. He put out a CD in 2011 entitled Music is Better Than Words, on which he sings 1940s and ’50s pop music standards in an old-fashioned Sinatra-like crooner baritone. You can buy it on Amazon for $10.99.

Joey Bishop was bitter till the end of his life that he was the least-remembered rat in the pack. In his view, he was actually the “hub of the wheel,” the most important figure in the success of the Rat Pack shows, the superman able to control a bunch of undisciplined egomaniacs. Bishop complained that they weren’t even ad-libbing those famous free-wheeling, high-living, macho, racist, sexist ad-libs — he himself wrote most of them ahead of time. Even Dino’s drunk act was a fake — at least on stage.

Bishop bragged in a late-life interview about how he defined the Rat Pack experience through “pure Rat Pack” humor, such as the following material he did with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Bishop injected mildly insulting commentary into the line-breaks of a sentimental ballad they were singing, “She’s Funny That Way”:

“I’m not much to look at,” sings Frank.
(You can say that again, opines Joey.)
“Nothing to see.”
(If you stand sideways they’ll mark ya absent.)
“I’m glad I’m livin’.”
(Dean, he thinks he’s alive!)
“And happy to be. I’ve got a woman.”
(He found a broad!)
“Who’s crazy ‘bout me.”
(She must be nuts.)
“She’s funny [that way].”
(She’s queer.)

You see, actual humor is entirely optional. MacFarlane didn’t need to be funny at the Oscars; he needed to generate laughs. Maintaining an air of vague hostility toward the performers, putting up some sort of resistance to their “act,” unites the emcee in a resentful conspiracy with the audience. Periodically, however, the emcee must seem to join the performers, becoming one himself by doing a soft-shoe shuffle or participating in a skit, and then rejoin the audience — transforming himself into a model spectator by leading a round of reverent applause for the “showbiz legend” he just introduced. He always returns to Position A: the superior huckster-showman, smarter than us all.

On these old-fashioned terms, MacFarlane can be regarded as a great success. He moved smoothly from insult comedy to a lugubrious rendition of the old love song “The Way You Look Tonight.” He made jokes about gender, race, and ethnicity that Joey Bishop would’ve been proud to have the Rat Pack deliver back in 1960. He hawked and praised the very things he mocked and dismissed, sometimes at the same time, a high-wire act worthy of a born emcee. He evoked the vaudeville tradition, introducing Meryl Streep with: “Our next presenter needs no introduction,” and promptly walking offstage. A gag so old it has whiskers on it, and perfect for exactly that reason. The line originated when a typical emcee attempted to offer suspiciously sky-high flattery to the performer along with some phony self-effacement, but it quickly became the tritest possible intro, open to every kind of insult and parody. Introducing Streep this way did triple duty: fawning over her Great Actress status, undercutting that status by neglecting to introduce her, and acknowledging just how jaded everyone is about her Great Actress status. We love the ritual, we crave the ritual, we despise the ritual.

MacFarlane established his superiority to the performers and the audience by pre-judging the show and his part in it, predicting bad reviews — especially if he performed a crass number called “The Boob Song.” Then he performed it, as the cameras picked out the actresses mentioned in the song for having given nude or semi-nude performances. “Look, there’s Halle Berry, Charlize Theron, Naomi Watts!” We got a look at each one so we could swiftly judge whether she frowned angrily, squirmed in embarrassment, or smiled defiantly. Many of the show’s bad reviews centered on “The Boob Song.” It was aggressive even for an emcee to make the charge — in song-and-dance-form, at the Academy Awards — that female performers might tell themselves they’re making art, but they’re just “selling” too, whoring themselves out in the flesh-peddling business of Hollywood, because hetero male audience members turn their “art” right back into porn.

Jamie Lee Curtis, former film star, wrote an appalled editorial about the Oscar show on behalf of her former-film-star parents, Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, and all of Hollywood’s elite. While acknowledging that she herself is “an actress who has bared her breasts in films to satisfy the requirement of the role I was asked to do — lucky to do, for in my case, those films were significant in my career,” she demanded to know what this “new” Oscar telecast was supposed to be, anyway.

When did they turn it into a roast? . . . As an Academy member, as the child of former Academy members, and as a woman, I expected more from the best that the movie business has to offer. The Oscars are about honoring art and artists. It is not supposed to be a cheesy vaudeville show.

But in fact, the Academy Awards telecast has been loosely modeled on a cheesy vaudeville show for decades, and “roasting” has always been part of the emcee’s arsenal. If we have trouble recognizing it now, that’s because vaudeville has been dead for generations, and we’re long past the point when American cinema’s ties to older entertainment forms like vaudeville and nightclub acts and variety shows were clear because talent migrated readily among them. Bob Hope, the emcee of the first televised Oscar show, had made his name in vaudeville, and carried the vaudevillian’s hard-won and varied skill set into radio, TV, and film stardom.

Esteemed Oscar host Johnny Carson was mentored by Jack Benny and got his big break emceeing TV comedy and variety shows. With each successive generation, our connection to the showbiz traditions that produced the emcee figure gets weaker. The Oscar ceremony represents the place where that tradition came to die.

Only, strangely enough, it doesn’t die. We don’t let it die. We keep it alive by watching it, long past the point when old vaudeville approaches to celebrating cinematic achievement have stopped making any sense at all. Somehow there’s always another carny-emcee tapping into our atavistic desire to watch a passive-aggressive man in a tux spew generally uninspired enmity at the very show he’s selling. Bob Hope, who presided over the Oscars a record eighteen times, was certainly a faster, funnier comedian than Seth MacFarlane, at least when he was young, but if you look at the old black-and-white TV footage of the earliest televised Oscars featuring Hope, you can recognize the sideshow huckster’s rictus grin that’s come down through the generations to appear in softer form on Seth MacFarlane’s pampered face.

The Oscar hosts regarded as most successful are the ones that have best evoked this moribund tradition. Johnny Carson was such a perfect emcee that he seemed machine-made. Billy Crystal was a maddeningly cheesy latter-day Borscht Belt comedian, a long-time student of moth-eaten “take my wife, please” gags. But how did young MacFarlane manage to crack the code?

I only happened to realize MacFarlane’s perfection as a retro Oscar host because I’d just watched the harrowing 1969 movie They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? It features a master of ceremonies and literal con man, Rocky, who presides over a seedy depression-era dance marathon just outside Los Angeles. The marathon draws hungry people as contestants, some hoping to break into the Hollywood film industry by catching the eye of a talent scout supposedly in attendance; it also draws Hollywood stars making appearances in the audience as symbols of the American Dream realized. They are paraded in front of the hungry, presumably to make them hungrier.

For Rocky, the sadistic grifter-emcee, the point of the marathon is not who wins and gets the prize — the contest is rigged to have no winners — but the quality of “the show.” What matters is that the audience of suckers keeps watching and believing in the drama of the marathon with its winners and losers, its trumped-up love affairs and Hollywood contracts, its all-too-real rivalries and physical anguish and mental breakdowns. That means managing the performers, as well as how they’re received.

“Yowzah, yowzah, yowzah,” Rocky brays, trying to gin up applause for the shuffling zombie-like marathon contestants. He oozes contempt for the marathoners and for the spectators at the marathon, while remaining perversely proud of his own ability to manipulate these highly suggestible chumps.

In other words, Rocky’s not just a sociopath, he’s also a typical emcee. And in his portrayal by Gig Young, who had once been a blandly handsome Hollywood star with a smooth baritone voice and a smug smirk, we can see the kinship to Seth Mac­Farlane with disturbing clarity.

Why do we keep this unpleasant, obsolete figure around? For years now, would-be Oscar reformers have pointed out that the whole emcee-centered vaudeville structure of the telecast is peculiar, passé, and unsatisfactory to all. But even timid changes have been dismissed as failures, and the show always returns to the old format. There must be something we want from that format, and from the figure of the emcee, that Seth MacFarlane was able to recognize and revive.

Nick Couldry argues in Media Rituals: A Critical Approach that what we require of our media rituals is not a mere “affirmation of what we share,” but “the management of conflict and the masking of social inequity.” In other words, we require the figure of the emcee to make a spectacle of this “managing” and “masking.”

For Rocky in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, this entails making a show of poor and desperate people (the marathon contestants) for other, slightly less poor and desperate people (most depression-era audiences) so that that the spectators feel somewhat better about their own suffering compared to the immediate, visceral suffering of the contestants. Rocky has to manage the degree of visible suffering, however. He won’t showcase the screaming hallucinations of a sleep-deprived contestant, for example, because “that’s too real.”

Too much reality is a danger if it alerts the audience to systemic cruelty in the workings of the dance marathon or the society that produced it. The spectacle has to be shaped carefully so that suffering takes on the qualities of an elevating narrative the audience can feel part of, an affirmative allegory of capitalism in which hard work and energetic competition show us the most worthy, the winners.

Too much reality wouldn’t seem to be an immediate problem faced by any emcee presiding over the ultra-mediated Academy Awards ceremony. It’s a plushly unexciting contest in which all involved are already “winners”: stars, Hollywood insiders. What has to be “managed” and “masked” is that the losers, who are nowhere to be seen in this spectacle, are the regular people watching at home. Throughout the worshipful celebration of these winners, the emcee must defuse popular resentment through a procedure of selective mockery, insult, and puncturing of celebrity images. We must have close-ups of the faces of the stars in reaction to this. Degrees of hurt or anger or good-humored ability to “take it” are thoroughly scrutinized. And the level of perceived hostility in this procedure is carefully evaluated afterwards. Did the emcee go “too far”? Was he too mean?

There has always been an agreed-upon tipping point, a perfect balance to be achieved in the matter of how much “humanizing” must go on, how much the stars must be made to seem “like us” in vulnerability, before it is too much. We want reassurance that the “winners” are safe, protected, and happy far above us, as they must somehow deserve to be. MacFarlane’s retro emcee hostility, as well as his reputation for crude cartoon satire seemed to upset the balance. This wasn’t a roast, after all! Though perhaps to continue as a popular ritual in our ever more conflicted and inequitable times, it’s going to have to become one.