When Seth MacFarlane, the actor/screenwriter/producer/comedian/director best known for creating bro-comedy classic Family Guy, was announced as the host of the 85th Academy Awards in early October, critics reacted with a collective facepalm. Who wanted to endure three hours of tasteless-but-still-pointless bathroom humor from a man whose most recent creative effort was the story of a pot-smoking CGI teddy bear? Still, there’s more to MacFarlane than meets the eye, and there’s plenty in his decade-and-a-half-long career to inspire some confidence in Sunday’s performance. Here’s why we’re confident he’ll succeed — or, at the very least, get more laughs than James Franco.
His pre-Family Guy work includes some of the best stuff from Cartoon Network’s golden age. MacFarlane was still a freshly minted RISD alum when he was hired by the legendary Hanna-Barbera studios as an animator and writer, on the strength of a ten-minute short called “Life of Larry” that he wrote and drew himself as undergrad. There, he worked on Cow and Chicken, I Am Weasel, and most importantly, both Dexter’s Laboratory and Johnny Bravo. This doesn’t just prove MacFarlane can write material for the after-school set; both shows were just as enjoyable for adults as for kids. Dexter’s Lab was a surrealist precursor to the kiddie-nerd humor of Jimmy Neutron, and Johnny Bravo, where MacFarlane had more creative control, was an entertaining send-up of cartoons’ typical macho-meathead protagonist. Both are promising examples of accessible — but still hilarious — humor that appeals to a wide audience.
He’s got musical chops — and he plans to use them. In 2011, MacFarlane unexpectedly released a solo album, Music Is Better Than Words. Neither a comedy routine nor a Weird Al-style parody album, it’s a collection of American classics dating from the 1940s through the 1960s. Billed by MacFarlane as “a classic Sinatra-style album,” it’s not half bad either; it was even nominated for a Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album Grammy. Skeptics will get to see MacFarlane’s pipes on full display at the Oscars: he told Barbara Walters in an interview that the orchestra is “too big of a temptation not to use,” and the ceremony’s producers recently announced that the host will perform a duet with Kristen Chenoweth at the award show’s conclusion. Even if it’s awful, it should at least be interesting, and gives this year’s host more to do than just de-fanged stand-up comedy.
MacFarlane’s interests reach beyond bro comedy — really! Besides mid-century music and the crude stereotype humor that pervades most of MacFarlane’s mini-empire of animation shows (Family Guy, American Dad!, and The Cleveland Show), he actually has a number of influences he can bring into his Oscar night routine. He’s cited Jonny Carson and Bob Hope as role models for his Oscars performance, two comedians whose style is about as far from Family Guy as it gets. He’s also promised to tone down on the explicit content, telling the AP, “It’s still Disney for Christ’s sakes.” MacFarlane has even demonstrated some versatility by venturing into the science documentary genre, co-producing Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey, a follow-up to Carl Sagan’s cult classic PBS series that stars none other than Neil DeGrasse Tyson — and we all know a man who’s gotten Tyson’s approval is someone we can trust.
MacFarlane’s in-your-face provocative schtick might be kind of refreshing. Believe it or not, most viewers’ main gripe with MacFarlane’s humor might also be its greatest strength: the guy’s not afraid to push some buttons. And when the main problem with awards shows is how forgettable and vanilla they tend to be, a showrunner whose pitch to Emmy voters included the sentences, “Come on, you bloated, overprivileged Brentwood Jews. Let us into your little club,” might actually be an improvement for the Oscars. Ricky Gervais’s 2011 Golden Globes performance, for example, may have been vicious in its takedowns of Hollywood bigwigs, but it was certainly memorable — and, more importantly, often hilarious. Besides, something tells us the members of the Academy can take a little ribbing; they’re showbiz people, after all.