Q: What do you do when your real life exceeds your wildest fantasies?
A: Keep it to yourself.
This is what comes to mind when I think of Seth MacFarlane as host of the Oscars.
By the way, the above is a quote from James L. Brooks’ very excerptable and very prescient screenplay for Broadcast News, an original script that was nominated for but did not win the Oscar in 1987 (that went to John Patrick Shanley’s more audience-pleasing Moonstruck). Mr. Brooks’ dialogue was spoken by a somewhat empty-headed, pretty boy reporter (a much younger William Hurt) being groomed for network anchorman to a nowhere near as attractive veteran reporter (Albert Brooks, who incidentally now looks much better and younger than Mr. Hurt) being passed over for the job. Imagine Seth MacFarlane 25 years from now, no longer well-groomed, svelte and hip but bald, pot-bellied and sallow-faced, talking to, say, a much older Seth Rogen, who right now could stand in for the young Albert Brooks and will likely look as good or better than the older Albert Brooks in two and a half decades, and you might get what I mean.
In any event, I have no idea if Mr. MacFarlane expected to one day be on the Oscar stage hosting but clearly it is reasonable to believe that two long-running, mega successful television series (Family Guy and American Dad) and one mega successful film (2012’s Ted) that one writes, creates, directs, voices and, by default, stars in before the age of 40, is enough karmic largesse to make any of us believe that this quote could certainly come up in conversation to categorize at least parts of his meteoric professional rise. Well, if not in his mind, than in ours – or at least mine. And that is the point.
Mr. MacFarlane’s belief in himself to the nth degree and beyond is what has made him wildly successful and popular and this is responsible for his crude, tacky and, to me, mostly unfunny stint as host of the 85th annual Oscars. It’s not hard to imagine his very same frat boy type jokes about Star Trek, boobs, Chris Brown beating up Rihanna, and 9 year-old Quvenzhane Wallis one day dating George Clooney going over really well to a group of his bros in his parents’ basement, as one reviewer stated, without a peep of protest. The trouble is, and the reason for the backlash despite a rise in the ratings (and it was only a 3% rise from last year – not the gargantuan one being bandied about), is that he’s performing to an audience of a billion people watching the Oscars. And a lot of that core audience are not his bros – meaning, straight white guys of a certain age – but includes ladies with boobs. And gay men – who mostly don’t think too much about Star Trek, don’t care much about ladies breasts (save, I guess, the representatives of the Gay Men’s Chorus who shared the stage with Mr. MacFarlane in a climactic moment of self-loathing irony during the boobs number), and are certainly protective over Rihanna and little diva in training QW.
Still, and perhaps rightfully, Mr. MacFarlane made a choice to be 1000% himself on Oscar night even though he was performing not in (his usual medium of) voice-over and animation and, depending on who you are, he may or may not have made the right call. What is inarguable is that in making his choices for the evening he chose to indulge in the exact mindset that brought him and his comedy to the worldwide center stage in the first place. – hubris.
Hubris: an excessive pride or self-confidence; arrogance.
It takes a certain amount of hubris to succeed as any kind of creative artist in show business. I mean, one big clue is the phrase itself – SHOW business, meaning half of your job is to SHOW who you are through what you do. To SHOW it without hesitation, to SHOW it boldly, proudly and to anyone who chooses to look at it. To SHOW it despite the naysayers and with unbridled confidence to the world at large even if you are insecure, nee dying, on the inside. And even if you are and can’t hide it, you can at the very least SHOW THAT to your audience fully and endear people to you that way.
Seth (I feel as if all this pillaring of him allows me to call him that now) was like a giant id dancing around the stage on Oscar night. Howard Stern on steroids. But — do we want Howard Stern hosting the Oscars? (Oh, now don’t tell me he’s next year’s host?!) This kind of act works great in animation or on the radio or occasionally on the stage in a book musical (see Book of Mormon). But the Oscars are theoretically supposed to be about the movies. Not a frat boys’ obsession with Captain Kirk or the boobies of ladies that you want to ogle. Unless — they can be. Which is what some (but not all) people are saying. While the rest of us (okay, maybe just me) are saying:
Just because in your wildest fantasies you can do anything you want doesn’t mean you should do anything you want. Just ask Mel Gibson and Chris Brown. When some fantasies are beyond your wildest dreams, maybe there’s a reason you yourself didn’t think of them.
But hey, that could be just me. In my own informal survey of about 40 of my college students aged 20-22, about 90% were perfectly fine with Seth, in fact they thought he was pretty fun. This is also borne out by the ratings numbers – which did rise 11% in the key 18-49 demographic, a bottom line kind of thinking which could be all ABC and this year’s producers really cared about. As for my students, primarily, it was the guys who were most enthusiastic but most of the gals didn’t seem to mind either. This, however, did not sway me one bit. Though it did make me feel a bit….well, out of the mainstream. Which is how I’ve felt most of my life anyway. And that’s absolutely, totally 1000% okay. In fact, it’s actually great. Which could also be my own form of hubris, albeit expressed in a different form. After all, one person’s excessive pride or arrogance could be another one’s salute to their favorite body part of choice. Which begs the question posed by Oscar presenter Jane Fonda post ceremony: If you want to stoop to that, why not a list all the penises we’ve seen?
The night after the Oscars I moderated a panel where a different sort of hubris was the star – a more life-affirming positive kind. This occurred when three successful graduates of our program – one director-writer, one writer-director and one younger screenwriter – spoke to our current students about their paths to whatever professional good fortune they were now enjoying.
The stories were all the same. A larger than life and seemingly illogical belief in your ability to “succeed”, a fierce dedication to the kind of work that you wanted to do, and an almost inhuman amount of enthusiasm and good humor along the way that caused people to want to be around you. These kinds of strategies brought one of our grads a seven-figure plus studio sale on a script she wrote – one of the hottest scripts on Hollywood’s Blacklist. It brought another alumn numerous on-camera network commentator spots that exceeded his wildest fantasies because it was nothing he ever desired, plus the ability to direct what are now five feature films. It also has given the third the opportunity to support himself as a paid screenwriter for 20 years, writing numerous studio assignments and taking time out to direct a few of his own independent features, all the while living a more traditional life of husband and father during that time.
As I sat and listened to their stories I thought about my own, and that of many of my friends in the business. Times and technology have changed but the basic scenario hasn’t. Belief in oneself despite what the world is telling you, an almost superhuman work ethic, and willingness to, at least at some point in your life, occasionally be the kind of person others want to be around.
I guess, in the end, it’s all sort of a form of hubris. The decision to make is: do you want to use your powers for good – or for evil?