In search of “dumb” as a standard of judgment!


More on the Oscar show mess: In this morning’s New York Times, Cieply and Barnes report the reaction to Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar turn.

In the hard-copy Times, their report sits atop the first page of the Arts section. Early on, we were struck by the reaction we highlight below:
CIEPLY AND BARNES (2/26/13): Post-Oscar Monday found the movie capital coming to grips with a 3-hour-35- minute ceremony that climbed in the ratings but at its best seemed to hide a great year for film behind a flurry of musical numbers, TV memories and Michelle Obama. At its worst, members of the Academy of the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said, the ceremony trafficked in offensive humor.

“I think I’m a very liberal guy, but I actually winced,” said Lawrence Turman, an Academy member who is chairman of the Peter Stark Producing Program at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.

He echoed criticism that a number of people in Hollywood voiced privately, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid complicating relations with the Academy and the show’s producers.
According to the reporters, many observers were critical of MacFarlane, but most were only willing to speak “privately,” “on condition of anonymity.” This seemed strange, because of something we learned just a bit later on:
CIEPLY AND BARNES: Hawk Koch, the president of the Academy, did not respond for requests for comment. An Academy spokeswoman defended Mr. MacFarlane and the show’s producers in a statement.

“If the Oscars are about anything, they’re about creative freedom,” the statement said. “We think the show’s producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, and host Seth MacFarlane, did a great job, and we hope our worldwide audience found the show entertaining.”
The Oscars are all about creative freedom. But how strange! Despite this lofty orientation, people didn’t feel free to voice their thoughts about the Oscar program!

Hollywood is often good at posturing and posing. That said, we were struck again, as we always are, by the annual paradox of the Oscars. As an industry, Hollywood is all about entertainment. Yet the one TV show it stages each year is always a brain-numbing flop.

So it was again this year. But critics seem to be searching for the term with which this problem can best be described.

That one key term is “dumb.” MacFarlane had a few good jokes, but most of his jokes were not good jokes. They simply weren’t very funny. They were massively formulaic.

There’s a term for such work: “dumb.” And yet, the criticisms recorded by Cieply and Barnes never employ this straightforward term for the dud which destroyed the Dolby.

In the Times report, MacFarlane’s jokes and skits are criticized as “offensive.” They’re criticized for lacking “good taste,” for having “a sexist tone.”

They’re criticized for being “ugly,” for “reinforcing anti-Jewish stereotypes among Oscar viewers around the world.” MacFarlane is also criticized for his “reliance on jokes about race.” The overall broadcast is criticized for “containing sexist, misogynistic and sexually exploitative content.”

We wouldn’t necessarily disagree with any of that. We’d extend the complaint about race, noting that, to an “artist” like MacFarlane, actors like Denzel Washington and Don Cheadle are still just a couple of black guys for use in extremely stale jokes.

Cheadle and Washington are nothing more, not even after all these years.

MacFarlane was criticized in many ways, some of which are meant to be stinging. But the most obvious critique of MacFarlane’s work was AWOL from this Times report:

MacFarlane’s work was numbingly dumb—dumb and formulaic. It isn’t hard to come up with jokes like the ones he offered. You just have to be dumb enough, crass and empty enough, to be willing to do it.

This isn’t the first time we’ve noted the absence of “dumb” from our culture’s store of criticisms. Under prevailing cultural rules, you can criticize a performer or a journalist for almost anything—except for being dumb.

You can say a performer is sexist, racist or “ugly.” But for some reason, you aren’t allowed to say that an “artist” like MacFarlane is just flat-out dumb.

MacFarlane’s performance was very dumb. But then, a lot of work in Hollywood is, so no one seems willing to notice.

How does the Hollywood hackistry think? For the true humor produced by the evening, let’s look at the way MacFarlane’s work was defended to the Times. In this passage, Cieply and Barnes are quoting the broadcast’s producers:
CIEPLY AND BARNES: Others expressed unease over Mr. MacFarlane’s reliance on jokes about race—he pretended to mix up Eddie Murphy and Denzel Washington—and women, including the opening number about nudity called, “We Saw Your Boobs.”

Julie Burton, president of the Women’s Media Center, an organization that recently released a report on the shortage of female movie directors, said “The sexist tone throughout the show indicates a critical need for the Academy to expand its talent pool of female writers, producers and directors.” Ms. Burton added that instead of celebrating film, “the whole world saw them honoring men and mocking women.”


Asked whether they regretted having included the number, Mr. Zadan and Mr. Meron, in a telephone interview on Monday, both answered, “No.” Mr. Zadan pointed to the show’s strong ratings, and said, “You hire Seth MacFarlane, you want something to be cutting edge and irreverent.”
In Hollywood Speak, dumb, formulaic Stern-style jokes are said to be “cutting edge” and “irreverent.” Meanwhile, critics who want to be decent and open-minded will make remarks like this:
CIEPLY AND BARNES: “It is offensive, even though comedians have great latitude,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, speaking of a skit in which Mr. MacFarlane, in character as the trash-talking teddy bear from his movie “Ted,” counseled Mark Wahlberg that it’s best to become Jewish and donate to Israel if you want to work in Hollywood.
“Comedians have great latitude,” Rabbi Hier said, trying to be decent, open-minded and fair. Presumably, this permitted latitude is part of the drive to protect MacFarlane’s “creative freedom.”

(At this point, we insert our mandatory joke: At present, the only creative thing is Hollywood is the creative accounting. MacFarlane is a case in point. As noted above, he has made one movie—about “a trash-talking teddy bear.” For unknown reasons, we refer to such people as “artists.”)

Rabbi Hier was being fair. But for those who want the simple truth, here it is: MacFarlane’s jokes and skits were dumb, formulaic—and crass. Before we get to offensive and sexist, let’s visit the starting-point:


Out of respect for “creative freedom,” Hollywood figures won’t state such a fact. It’s the most obvious fact in the world.

In our culture, it can’t be said.

The wages of people this dumb and this crass: Black guys can only be black guys. Women have boobs, little else. (Little girls are taught this fact about themselves in the program's opening minutes.) And the Jews are still controlling Hollywood! Let’s broadcast this fact to the world!

MacFarlane was dumbest and crassest in show. Minds like his keep everybody locked up in their old pens. But in our world, you can’t call him dumb. You have to go straight to the S- and R-bombs. This provokes the scripted response in which dopes like MacFarlane are said to be “irreverent,” on the “cutting edge.”

That scripted response is extremely dumb too. But you can’t even say that!


  1. Good Gawd, Somerby. Didn't you write this yesterday:

    "We fled the Oscars not too long after Seth MacFarlane performed 'We Saw Your Boobs,'"

    Which right at the top of the show. And now you are going to review the whole show based on what others are writing about it. Others that you happen to agree with.

    Reminds me of your review of "Django Unchained," which you also walked out on, then pretended to know everything about it, based on reviews that happened to agree with you.

    1. Maybe he DVRed it and watched it later?

    2. Well, given his "review" of "Django," doubtful.

      It's more like in that case. Somerby watched a few minutes then thought he knew everything about it. "A little learning . . ." you know.

    3. Actually it was more a review of the reviews, and how those reviews are averse to using the word 'dumb'.

      Although an old joke is coming to me "If they are so dumb, then why are they rich?"

      Of course, the whole point of the "idiot box" is that, like the speech in Billy Madison, we are all dumber for having watched it.

  2. 1) Shows featuring entertainers giving awards for entertainment are mainly watched for the glamorous fashions as opposed to meaningful social commentary. If you're older than 12, you're probably aware of this. Also, don't watch the NBA All-Star game to learn the mechanics of tough defense.

    2) "We’d extend the complaint about race"
    R-Bomb alert! By the way, MacFarlane created The Cleveland Show. That too relies on race for humor--it works because race is still a sensitive issue in America. Oh yeah, and Cleveland is generally the sensible good guy in the show.

    3)Howard Stern burps into the microphone. MacFarlane does Broadway-style song and dance routines. One requires notably more skill and creativity than the other.

    1. And about the easiest, annual "review" to write is just how awwwwfull! the Academy Awards show is.

      Seems like so long ago that I came to this blog for serious discussion of politics.

    2. But boob jokes require no creativity or skill at all.

      "If there was anything subversive about MacFarlane's whole performance, it was his perseverance, his insistence at sticking it to the female gender in those jokes, and most of them were like white bread with Miracle Whip on top, boring and bland to me."

      From one of my favorite bloggers. Yes, McFarlane was dumb. And dumb in an utterly conventional way.

  3. Bob, why don't you put together a you tube sampler of the way you would have hosted. But, please no Bob Hope impressions.

  4. I'm so used to hating "Family Guy" that I actually thought McFarlane raised his standards a bit for the Oscar gig. As a result I probably didn't cringe as much as I normally would have. Here are three points at which I cringed the most:

    Seth made a crack about how winning an Oscar guarantees a fabulous career. He could have made that a sexist joke by pointing to all the Oscar winning beauties who have since all but disappeared (per a recent Salon article). He could have made race-tinged fat jokes about that hugely obese black girl of "Precious" and hardly anything else since. But no, he directed the joke at the white French guy from "The Artist" who had to be there to present Best Actress. (I'm sure he's enjoying a brilliant career in France.)

    Of course the "Jews Run Hollywood" jokes from the toy bear were cringeworthy. I'm surprised he didn't drag Chuck Hagel into it. (Was the movie any funnier than the routine? If not, I'm glad I skipped it after all.)

    The closing number dedicated to the losers -- with names. Not clever, just mean, and pointless. Much funnier was Steve Martin the year the phrase "and the winner is" was forbidden in favor of "and the award goes to" presumably because all nominees are indeed "winners." No doubt in protest of this Orwellian restriction, Steve Martin gamely announced upon opening his envelope, "And the losers aren't --- "

    I'm loving all this criticism heaped upon Seth because I've always hated him. But does it mean he disappointed millions of fans convinced of his unfailing genius, or that millions have hated him all along and finally had their chance at him?

  5. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is a mutual admiration society.

    One of the most important factors in selecting an Oscar winner is how much money the producers spread around Hollywood that year.

    Sounds a lot like C-Span.


  6. I stopped watching this awful show years ago and I've never regretted it. Even if the jokes are intelligent, non racist, and non sexist, the scripts everyone else reads are so awful, so trite and self-congratulatory, that it just seems like all of Hollywood masturbating each other. I can't stand these people or their movies.

  7. That's quite a commentary for someone who claims to have fled the Oscars shortly after the Boobs number.

  8. We were waiting for the "We Saw Your Dick" number, but it didn't materialize.

  9. I didn't see the Oscars, can't remember a time I've ever bothered to watch them. I do enjoy sitting down to an occasional episode of Family Guy however. One of very few shows I do watch. Sometimes laugh-out-loud funny and sometimes fitting in the way it mocks ignorance.