Tim Goodman on Oscars Host Seth MacFarlane: 'Family Guy' Creator Faces Impossible Expectations

Even if he is funny, creative and well-behaved, to viewers it might be a little like going to a New Year's Eve party at a good friend's house only to find their distant cousin is hosting instead.
Courtesy of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
Seth MacFarlane

There’s no doubt that having Seth MacFarlane host the 2013 Academy Awards is a big bowl of interesting. That decision will have people talking. Whether it will have them watching is another story.

The knee-jerk reaction seems to be that it won’t work with viewers and will be a disaster if MacFarlane gets free rein to bring his Family Guy or Ted humor to the illustrious confines of the Oscars. That’s probably selling both the audience and MacFarlane short -- and it’s missing the much bigger picture about awards hosts.

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It’s true that most Americans – that would be everybody outside of this town – don’t really know who MacFarlane is. Telling them he’s the guy who created Family Guy, American Dad, The Cleveland Show and the movie Ted is unlikely to help much. Adding that he’s the one who took a huge risk and actually recorded an album that opened a lot of eyes is also a nonstarter. The people want immediately recognizable stars, be they comedians, talk show hosts or actors.

Even if MacFarlane does well -- and the bet here is he’ll do much better than current expectations – doesn’t change the fact that viewers are more comfortable with a known quantity. They see the host as a familiar face who guides them through the show. Even if MacFarlane is funny, creative and well-behaved, to viewers it might be a little like going to a New Year’s Eve party at a good friend’s house only to find their distant cousin is hosting instead.

Will that evening ever be what it was meant to be? Probably not.

The decision to tap MacFarlane as host is also the latest gambit by the Academy folks to spice things up. We’ll never know if the Brett Ratner and Eddie Murphy tandem that never happened last year would have worked or not. (Odds: Probably, with a few speed bumps.) What we do know is that Billy Crystal did not work. That’s because Crystal’s time as host had passed and his presence felt like a stale reminder of the past.

But the answer to what happened with Crystal is absolutely not to reinvent the wheel just because clinging to the past alienates the younger demo and reminds everyone of eras gone by. The lesson to take from Crystal hosting is that tastes and times change; maybe seeing him in action last year quieted down all the people who’d been screaming for his return to “fix” the show. Because he didn’t fix it. He reminded us that vaudeville passed for a reason.

Having MacFarlane host the show seems to play into the misguided notion that the Oscars need to be torn down and rebuilt, rather than merely updated and renovated.

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The 2013 Oscars will be produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who said: “We are thrilled to have Seth MacFarlane host the Oscars. His performing skills blend perfectly with our ideas for making the show entertaining and fresh. He will be the consummate host, and we are so happy to be working with him.”

That might be true, except viewers are likely to see him as that distant cousin who opens the door at the party they were looking forward to. How about a close-up on the smiles falling off their faces? So, yes, taking nothing away from MacFarlane (because there seems to be some sport in, mocking the guy which seems way out of line with his proven talents), he’s the wrong choice, coupled with the wrong reason.

The big picture here, for the Oscars, Emmys and even the Golden Globes, is there’s too much emphasis on the host. The host is not the star of the show. The host is – wait for it – the host.

All of the major awards shows have turned into comedy routines. There’s nothing wrong with being funny, of course – most of my favorite hosts for any of these awards shows have been hilarious comedians. But the tipping point might have come with Ricky Gervais (another favorite) and the Golden Globes. Whether you put any merit in the Globes or not will influence your opinion on whether they need a host with the right balance. Clearly, Gervais was there to be the show. He lit the room on fire to the delight of viewers who A) don’t take the Globes seriously and B) don’t like celebrities taking themselves seriously. His return engagement after allegedly being banned was the beginning and end of the Globes story. The focus was all Gervais. Even though I might fall into the camp that believes having the Globes be a rip-roaring free-for-all makes for the best possible television, it was clear that the role of the host had shifted disproportionately and needed to be addressed.

The Oscars trying James Franco and Anne Hathaway was a disaster not only because it was so patently obvious producers were looking for the younger demo, but because Franco was a terrible choice who quickly checked out. Hathaway’s spirit was certainly right for the event, but she wasn’t a big enough name to host alone (and suffered unduly because of Franco tanking).

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What awards shows need to come to grips with is that they are now being judged (by critics, some viewers) on how funny the host is. But there's no way to win that game. There’s a way to get back to the middle ground – funny, efficient, present but not desperate to own the spotlight.

The recent Emmys showed the best steps toward the right balance. Host Jimmy Kimmel tried to be funny and respectful (in a Carsonesque kind of way) and be the host without being the star. That’s the model going forward. I liked ABC’s choice of Kimmel. It was the right one. But it could be that Kimmel, despite all of his recent successes and commanding what is clearly the best late-night talk show on television, was just slightly ahead of the curve (as Crystal was more than slightly behind it).

His approach to hosting the Emmys was the right one. But if Americans thought he was too much of an unknown quantity (or were judging him for not being a David Letterman, much less a Johnny Carson), then what the hell are they going to think of MacFarlane? The recipe for choosing a host is not that complicated: You need to factor in the people in the room, the people for whom the awards are being held, and the viewers at home – a broad-based demographic of varied tastes. Too old (Crystal) – not good. Too new (Kimmel?) – a slight miss. Stars without enough broad-based interest (Franco, Hathaway) – definitely not. And hosts who want to be the center of attention (Gervais) – only if you care about the snark-seeking viewers at home.

That’s not nearly as complicated as it sounds. Pick someone people know and like. Make sure they’re relevant to the era. Make sure they’re funny but not scathing. Keep them moving things along (not disappearing in the back). Keep it upbeat and dignified.

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OK, you say, if it’s so easy to fit that criteria, then pick someone. For the Oscars, I wouldn’t pick MacFarlane because there’s no name recognition to the outside world. I wouldn’t pick, say, Jay Leno because then you have a TV host talking to the movie world (though he wouldn’t be the worst pick ever, even if Letterman fairly bombed in 1995). And I wouldn't chase the young demo with a pair of young stars to get the right demo.

Easy. I’d go with Tom Hanks.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine