The news that Seth MacFarlane the creator of "Family Guy," "American Dad!" and "The Cleveland Show," and therefore one of the few people sucking up more of Rupert Murdoch's money than Sean Hannity will be the host for next February's Oscar telecast caused a mini-explosion in the Twitter universe this week. (To be fair, a cat playing piano will cause a mini-explosion in the Twitter universe.)
The one question most people asked was: Why him?
I had another question in mind: Why would anyone want the headache of this gig?
The "why him?" question is easily answered: The Academy Awards is a ratings loser, and the producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan ("Footloose," "Chicago") wanted to find somebody, anybody, who could draw the elusive 14-35 demographic.
The Academy has been going after that group with the persistence, and success rate, of Ahab pursuing the white whale. In past years, the Academy has tried revamping its rules to expand the Best Picture category to let in blockbuster films (after the snubbing of "The Dark Knight"). It hired young actors with no chemistry to host (remember James Franco and Anne Hathaway?). And last year it made a disastrous attempt to bring in director Brett Ratner (of the "Rush Hour" films) as a producer a move that ended prematurely when Ratner had to resign after making homophobic comments.
Ratner had picked Eddie Murphy to emcee this year's Oscars, but Murphy bowed out when Ratner did and the substitute was Billy Crystal, who was a comfortable choice to the Academy's geriatric base but didn't do much to draw the young folks.
MacFarlane, it must be assumed, could draw some of the younger audience that watches "Family Guy" or those who filled theaters this summer for his directing debut, the raunchy comedy "Ted."
He joked to The Hollywood Reporter that he "was sitting outside [Zadan and Meron's] office" awaiting the call, and it's clear he has been angling for a job like this for a while.
MacFarlane is an invisible presence in his TV shows, with only his name and his many voices dim bulb Peter Griffin, sophisticate-dog Brian Griffin and the violence-minded Stewie Griffin on "Family Guy," and blowhard CIA agent Stan Smith on "American Dad!"
But he has been pushing his face further into the public sphere. He released an album of Big Band standards, revealing a love for the classics and a fair crooning voice something he's deployed frequently on "Family Guy." He embraced Borscht Belt tradition by emceeing Comedy Central roasts for Charlie Sheen and David Hasselhoff. And last month he fared well as host of the season premiere of "Saturday Night Live," where his numerous impersonations namely a zoned-out caricature of Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte drew a few laughs.
So MacFarlane has been gunning for an emcee gig like the Oscars and now he's found one that Neil Patrick Harris hasn't taken already.
There's still the question of why MacFarlane, or anybody, would take what has to be the most thankless job in showbiz.
Awaiting any Oscar emcee are a cadre of movie critics (ahem), plus millions of bloggers and tweeters, waiting to tear the host apart for any fault in the show. And no matter what goes wrong whether it's an idiotic musical number, an extraneous montage or a fatuous acceptance speech ultimately the emcee takes the rap.
Then there's the paradox that the emcee must appeal to young viewers, but not alienate the older audience. For one thing, that older audience includes the aging stars and Hollywood power players sitting in the Dolby Theatre. So even if the emcee tries to do some edgy material, the jokes won't get a lot of laughs in the room and once the flopsweat starts, it's difficult to make it stop.
As past emcees like David Letterman and Jon Stewart have learned, being too ironic is often a losing proposition. The Academy's members take themselves and their awards really seriously and don't like it when hosts (especially ones who come from TV) start aiming the jokes at Oscar's pretentiousness. So the jokes stay along familiar paths, like mocking the telecast's length.
To really score as an Oscar emcee, it's necessary to be funny without being too ironic. Johnny Carson, who hosted five times in six years (1978-1983), excelled at telling gently mocking jokes while remaining sincere about his love for movies. Crystal, with nine ceremonies under his belt, could spread the warmth with the humor but he's a throwback to an earlier era.
There's only one name I can think of who combines sincerity, youth appeal and guaranteed humor. It's a group that should have gotten the gig when Ratner and Murphy dropped out. They had a box-office hit and enough public support that a Facebook campaign lobbied to get them the job.
When all else fails and everything else has for Oscar emcees the past few years the Academy would be making the smartest decision ever by giving the hosting job to the Muppets.
Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at http://www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket or Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at email@example.com.