So, Seth MacFarlane is the new Oscar host. My first reaction was to joke that he’s tired of success and is looking for the kind of over-exposure that caused people to turn on Ricky Gervais. But from his point of view, I sort of understand his recent attempts to make himself more of a public figure. He’s one of the most successful people in show business now, but he himself isn’t all that recognizable to the broader public, because they know his voice but not his face. Hosting the Oscars is a way of establishing himself as a live performer, and maybe paving the way for a future when he can star in his own movies—instead of hiring a better-known actor like Mark Wahlberg to be the face of his work.
Well, that’s what’s in it for MacFarlane—more public recognition. What’s in it for the Oscars? It seems like an odd, unfamiliar choice. But the Oscars are always on the lookout for hosts who can attract the Young People without driving away the Old People. The failed James Franco/Anne Hathaway experiment was an example of that. MacFarlane has one advantage over those two: his audience base is very young, but he’s actually beloved by middle-aged Hollywood as well.
You can chalk that up to his old-fashioned Rat Pack sensibility (his performing style is a mix of sincerity and phoniness; it’s also the style of music he and his bandleader, Walter Murphy, like to use). Also, his jokes are the right mix of “edgy” and populist, giving him a middle-age appeal that goes beyond almost anyone in Hollywood, except maybe Larry David. For example, David Simon, a middle-aged genius who doesn’t like most television, recently said that he likes to watch Family Guy with his adolescent son. Family Guy just seems to hit the sweet spot of appealing both to very young people and to the show business establishment. Same with Ted, a hit movie that was seen as an example of a movie that was both very commercial and very (or at least somewhat) personal.
So the Oscar/MacFarlane gamble, on his part, is that he can use the hosting gig as leverage to make himself into a genuine star— not just an incredibly successful creator/director/voice actor. His recent SNL gig didn’t make this seem entirely possible—he has this smugness about him that simply cannot be gotten rid of—but he can try again. As for the Academy, they’re willing to hitch their wagon to anyone who may be able to provide that rare cross-generational appeal.