About four years ago, I was at a party with some friends -- nothing too formal, just a bunch of friends hanging out, playing games, watching TV, etc. One friend was a little drunk and made some racially tinged jokes at the expense of two friends who are black. It didn't register to me, really, that the jokes had been made at all (I don't actually remember what the jokes were) and the two friends didn't seem to mind the joke. The jokes seemed in the spirit of the evening, where a lot of people were made fun of for a lot of personal reasons.
The night ended rather abruptly when the two black gentlemen left and I got the sense that something was amiss -- it was just the sudden way that they departed. You know how sometimes the way someone leaves might not *seem* off, but you can just tell someone's upset? It was like that.
I don't remember how I got word that they were both angry about the jokes, but I know I got it second hand. I reached out to both of them to apologize. I told them that even though I hadn't made the jokes in question, I let it happen unanswered. I wasn't sensitive to their feelings. I hadn't been a good friend. They both accepted the apology, but one went onto say something that still affects me four years later:
"It's okay -- you don't know what it's like to be a black person in a room full of white people. You can't know. That's not your fault, that doesn't make you a bad person. You just can't understand how I felt."
And that brings me to the Oscars. I watched the Oscars with one friend. We're both guys. We loved it. We laughed our asses off at Seth MacFarlane's jokes. Only hours later when I got home and read the reaction on Twitter did it even occur to me that his jokes could have been sexist.
The more I think about it and the more intelligent, funny women I know who can most definitely "take a joke" have spoken out about it, the more I accept that I'm up against something I can't understand because I'm not a woman. And I'll bet a woman would be a far better judge than I in terms of what's sexist.
So with that in mind, yeah, Seth's show was sexist. I don't think that was his intention, but that was his result.
To explore what I mean by "his intention", I'm going to go back in time four years once more: In 2009, David Letterman angered the right wing with a joke about Sarah Palin's daughter (not the one of legal age, the younger one) having sex with a baseball player. When he apologized, he offered an incredibly profound statement:
"I told a bad joke. I told a joke that was beyond flawed, and my intent is completely meaningless compared to the perception. And since it was a joke I told, I feel that I need to do the right thing here and apologize for having told that joke. It's not your fault that it was misunderstood, it's my fault that it was misunderstood."
(Anyone who wants to point out Letterman's recent comments that he's not sure he should have apologized can bite me. This quote remains true, delivery's motivations be damned.)
I've never gotten 100% on board with the "people have to learn how to take a joke" crowd for a number of reasons, most of all that it implies that an audience owes something more than the price of admission. I'm told again and again by funny people that "nothing should be sacred", but apparently the integrity of a joke is always sacred? That doesn't line up.
I get what Seth was going for with the "Boobs" song. I don't need the joke explained to me. But it seems the mass audience didn't. That's the audience to whom the Oscars telecast is selling their show, and that's the difference. Out of my male-centric tunnel vision (we ate sausage!), I can recognize that. The Oscars are not a comedy show. They feature comedy, but they are not a comedy show. MacFarlane wasn't the right host for that show.
(Incidentally, I don't think he owes anyone an apology. The Academy owes an apology -- they knew who they were hiring.)
Comedy comes under enough fire from people who don't "get it," and I don't think that this should lead to a widespread discussion of "what's funny," as if a society could ever come to agreement on that. I certainly don't think a comedian in a comedy club or a performer on a comedy show or what have you should have to censor themselves. The venue demands honesty. If someone sought out comedy, they shouldn't be surprised when they're offended (though laughter's the sound of surprise, right, improv nerds?!)
But by the same token, let's not pretend that every time someone gets offended it's because they "can't take a joke." If comedy's all in the delivery, then doesn't that assume shared responsibility between the performer and the audience? Why is the onus on them alone to be understanding?
There are a zillion reasons why that person could be offended, and some of them are perfectly valid. Maybe it's something the rest of us can't possibly understand, and as show business's customer, they are allowed to overreact. Particularly when it's during the Oscars, a show they might be watching for something other than the host.
I think Seth MacFarlane is an incredible comic talent. But as an Oscars host, he was all wrong, and his show ended up being sexist. I think that's too bad, because I've heard great things about him as a boss and collaborator from people who have worked with him (and not a one of those people were white males) I also feel badly if this cost him some fans who might otherwise love his work in the right context.
That said, the Lincoln joke was gold.
(P.S.: Two months after the incident at the party, I sat with one of those same friends and watched Transformers 2. There are two excruciatingly racist characters in that movie, and I was embarrassed watching it. My friend had to stop me from walking out of the theater by saying, "It's just a movie, calm down.")