When you’re mulling over the news that Ellen DeGeneres will host next year’s Oscars, it’s important to remember that everyone knows what makes a good Oscar host and absolutely no one can agree on what makes a good Oscar host. We’re all experts, and we’re all unwilling to compromise on our expertise. There are neutron-vanilla examples of what an Oscar host should be. If you’re my age, that’s Billy Crystal. If you’re a little older, it’s Bob Hope. Crystal and Hope both had a shtick which, when repeated ad nauseam, became tradition. (Politicians, ugly buildings, and lame jokes all get respectable if they last long enough.) And there are explicit examples of what an Oscar host should not be: Cue montage of Franco tweeting onstage while Hathaway tries to blind us with jazz-hands.
But hosting is essentially a thankless one-size-fits-none job, requiring the emcee to be funny, without being insulting; to keep things moving, while their very presence fundamentally slows things down; and to dominate the show’s first ten minutes and then basically disappear for the last hour. Oh, and you also have to appeal to the following demographics: Adults, who have seen all the movies but who won’t get any of your jokes about social media; younger adults, who have seen none of the movies but will apply a rigid grad-school critique of every possibly thematic implication of your most throwaway zingers; children, the theoretical moviegoers of tomorrow; and, most importantly, the memories lingering inside of the adults and the young adults, which loudly insist that this year’s Oscar show just doesn’t compare to what the Oscars were like when we were all younger. And by the way, you are hosting a Hollywood event which very often repudiates everything that contemporary Hollywood stands for, handing Oscars to tiny independent films and foreigners with curious accents and basically everything besides the franchise action films which constitute Hollywood’s primary product.
So, to Ellen: Congratulations! As one of the most likable human beings on the face of the planet, the daytime talk show host will have less of a an uphill battle than most recent hosts, partially because most recent hosts have run the gamut from boring to more boring. The shadow of Hugh Jackman hangs heavy over the last half-decade. The Steve Martin/Alec Baldwin duo was great on paper but stilted in execution; the James Franco/Anne Hathaway was bad on paper and an extended act of mass-market surrealism in practice. Billy Crystal’s return trip two years ago felt like a too-late new installment in a beloved franchise, the Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull of hosting gigs. (It was also haunted by the what-might-have-been specter of the Eddie Murphy Oscar evening, a tantalizing prospect that came undone when everyone at the Academy pretended to suddenly realize that Brett Ratner was a villainous douche rocket.)
And then came Seth MacFarlane. News that the Academy was bringing in Ellen DeGeneres leads one to naturally conclude that the Academy is essentially apologizing for the Family Guy creator’s outing as Oscar host. MacFarlane has built a career on fratboy humor; DeGeneres has built a career on whatever the opposite of that is. MacFarlane’s gig led to cries of misogyny, racism, and general white-dude awfulness — all things that are almost unthinkable to apply to any aspect of DeGeneres’ storied career. She has hosted the Oscars once before — and she was great! The fact that the producers have locked her in so early in the process — two months earlier than last year — gives the whole thing a rescue-mission vibe.
And it might be. But Crystal was hired for a rescue mission, too, and his 2012 Oscars were exactly as boring as a safe show can be. At this specific cultural moment, half a year away from the last Oscars and from the next Oscars, it’s possible to look back and find some aspects of MacFarlane’s performance worth praising. MacFarlane has built a career on bad taste, but he has also built a career on ridiculous overcompensation. Even if you hate Family Guy and everything it represents, and boy I sure do, the sheer brutal momentum of the show can force at least a couple laughs out of you. (The style works much better on American Dad!, the low-rated ugly stepchild of MacFarlane’s lineup which is also the best argument for MacFarlane-ism as a viable comedic structure.)
And the best thing about his Oscars was how much MacFarlane was working at it. In stark contrast to the last few Oscar hosts, who seemed variously bored (Martin, Crystal, Franco) or uncertain what the hell they were doing there (Baldwin, Hathaway), you could tell MacFarlane badly wanted to be the Oscar host. Hell, he built his entire monologue off his desperate need to be validated, with a running gag about the media’s reaction to his hosting job. (A big part of that gag focused on Entertainment Weekly — and our own history with Mr. MacFarlane is well-documented.) He sang. He danced. He bantered, relentlessly. He made out with Sally Field. The whole ceremony felt fully composed by a distinctive vision, right down to the decision to play off winners with the Jaws theme.
Mind you, that vision wasn’t necessarily a good vision. It was sophomoric at best, repulsive at worst. Like, lots of people thought the whole Jaws thing was offensive to the winners. To which I can only say: Yes, it was. But let’s be honest: The whole nature of the ceremony is pretty offensive to anyone who isn’t an actor. Celebrity winners can ramble on for long minutes, while the most brilliant sound designer in history would get played off after 45 seconds. Hell, the Academy has already banished the best parts of the old awards shows — the honorary Oscars — to a non-televised event. The fact that we didn’t get to see D.A. Pennebaker give a speech while accepting his lifetime-achievement Oscar is more offensive, in cultural terms, than anything MacFarlane did at the Oscars. But we need to work with the Academy Awards that the current Academy wants: An event that wants most of all to entertain, to keep moving, to be relevant to young people.
And so, it is possible to admire MacFarlane’s style without remotely supporting his content. DeGeneres is almost certainly not going to do an entire musical number about women’s breasts. She will probably not make icky jokes about Quvenzhané Wallis. (She will probably not make icky jokes, period.) She will be fantastically charming — and these Oscars will just be a few short hours, and won’t test the limits of her charm like that time she judged American Idol. She was a safe choice, and that’s fine. But MacFarlane was not a safe choice, and to his credit, he acted accordingly, working ridiculously hard to leave his mark on the place. If Degeneres can tap into just a bit of that energy, her second turn could be even better than her first. Although, hmmm, in her announcement tweet, she’s already making an orchestra play-off joke? Let the pre-criticism begin! Oh, what fun these Oscars are.