THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Michael Russnow Headshot

Why Seth MacFarlane's John Wilkes Booth Joke Didn't Work For Most: Bob Newhart Got it Right When Less Than 100 Years Had Passed

Posted: Updated:
Print
Getty Images
Getty Images

In the aftermath of my review of the Oscars and that of many others who seemed to agree Seth MacFarlane's humor was often wanting, I thought I'd offer a postscript as to why for most people the John Wilkes Booth joke didn't work.

It had nothing to do with Lincoln being a sacred cow, nor as MacFarlane defensively rejoindered when his joke bombed, "150 years and it's still too soon, huh?" It wasn't too soon at all.

Simply put, along with a host of national critics I found Seth MacFarlane sophomoric, appealing to the basest form of humor, rather than seeking what many might prefer as a cleverer approach, finding unexpected irony while satirizing a situation. And before you point out that the ABC ratings were higher than last year's, it had little or nothing to do with MacFarlane. The host's popularity or lack thereof has only a small degree of audience pull. It's been proven that the highest ratings usually accompany the popularity of the year's nominees, and most of the 2012 best picture nominees grossed more than $100 million.

Nonetheless, in a discussion with a young actor Monday night, he said he found the Oscar host quite funny, including the John Wilkes Booth remark. I tried to explain my point of view, which was that, rather than cutting edge, to me it was cheap, sort of like banana peel humor. He responded that there were many fans of MacFarlane and that there should be room for that sort of humor on the Oscar show, in order to appeal to all segments of society. I should add that, during all this, he was most respectful and accepting of my point of view, as opposed to the personally insulting comments my review engendered from mostly anonymous readers.

I don't mind the sort of argument my friend put forth, but still believe the Oscar show should elevate itself above playground or frat party humor. A lot of tween types find gross situations very humorous, and this extends into the teen years and for some even into their third decade. However, it is also true that life among school-age kids can be hell for those who are dissimilar, with cliques abounding, separating the in-crowd from those it deems wanting.

If you're different, maybe not athletic or pretty or, God forbid gay (yes, even in today's more tolerant age) life can be pretty horrid. Fortunately, there is a moderating trend regarding those prejudices as one matures, at least to the extent that one doesn't for the most part openly abuse folks who are not in the main stream, because there is usually an understanding of what might be appropriate conduct and what might not be.

In the case of the Oscars, while it is hardly a papal conclave or royal coronation, it is a major worldwide event, as opposed to an Animal House toga party. Certainly, acid humor has its place, and it's okay to mock people's idiosyncrasies and personas. And while I was sneered at for saying I wasn't a prude, which, according to some, meant I actually was one, I really do enjoy much of MacFarlane's comedy on Family Guy (but let's not forget it's a cartoon), find the unorthodox and unforgiveable antics on Showtime's Shameless mostly hysterical and truly appreciate comics who take the time to think about what might be funny as opposed to shooting from the hip, using the lowest common denominator to get the sort of laugh that sends a 12-year-old wild.

For those who are cognizant of Bob Newhart (and my young actor friend wasn't) I thought of the comedian's breakthrough album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, which featured a series of monologues, many of them priceless in which Newhart was having a conversation with someone unseen and unheard. One of them was in the course of giving a driving lesson to an incompetent student, but for the purpose of this piece I recall his classic Abraham Lincoln versus Madison Avenue. In this sketch, a press agent was advising Abe Lincoln, who was about to deliver the Gettysburg Address.

By the way, this was 1960, less than a hundred years after Lincoln's death. In the course of this routine, he counsels Lincoln against changing Four Score and Seven to 87. But to the case in point, at the conclusion, when it appeared that Lincoln would be home alone with Mary and couldn't get anyone to play bridge with them, the PR man said, "Listen, Abe, why don't you take in a play?" The audience burst into hysterics, even though the connotation was evident, the advice would lead to his assassination. (Yes, fact checkers, I know that the assassination was a year and a half after the Gettysburg Address, but the tie-in was clear).

So, here are two punch lines that remind us of Lincoln's death. One worked for most, the other only for a minority. It had nothing to do with sensitivity about Lincoln's passing, rather it was the approach. One used irony. Oh, my God, he was killed for following a bad suggestion. The other attempted to do word play about getting into someone's head, first indicating Daniel Day-Lewis had done so to prepare to play Lincoln in the film, but that John Wilkes-Booth had done a better job of doing so. And how? Obviously with a bullet. And the audience in the Dolby Theatre and most of those at home felt the Oscar host had gone too far.

What's next? Making fun of those who are crippled? Homely people? Fat people? Would we have laughed if MacFarlane had done such a joke at the expense of Melissa McCarthy? Perhaps some of you would.

And that's your right. And that's why there are avant-garde, underground clubs, not to mention all sorts of music and art forms. But the Oscars are an important venue, and while it's okay to evolve to new mores in our society, it doesn't mean it's appropriate or even smart to go to the basest levels. If that means losing a small percentage of the audience -- and it would be a small percentage, believe me, so be it.

By the way, I find it interesting that the harshest among my readers only saw my critical remarks about MacFarlane, ignoring many of my positive plaudits. I mention this, because among the other reviewers who mentioned the mixed to critical reportage, they quoted other sources for the harsh attacks and seemed to get a different feel from what I wrote. In the Christian Science Monitor:

Even the more positive reviews rated his performance a mixed bag, with Huffington Post writer Michael Russnow writing that "when he played it straight, he was great -- poised, handsome and charming. But on occasion he spewed classless material, which I'm sure he thought was very funny."

and from Mstarz.com:

The reviews weren't all bad. Huffington Post's Michael Russnow criticized MacFarlane's performance as host but did give him some credit, "During these moments and when he played it straight, he was great -- poised, handsome and charming."

It's great to be a super fan of someone. I've been known to tout a few favorites myself, ranging from the legendary Deborah Kerr to the more currently in vogue Leonardo DiCaprio. You may not appreciate anything but accolades uttered about the entertainers you admire, but it might be wise not to zero in only on what you don't like, ignoring completely the stuff with which you might agree. Please don't forget there's a reason why the word fan emanates from fanatic, and when the latter takes over it's neither fair nor pretty.

Michael Russnow's website is www.ramproductionsinternational.com