Ever since Star Wars was in the running back in 1978 when I was 14 years old I have watched the annual broadcast of the Academy Awards. In recent years I confess that it’s rare if I’ve managed to see even some of the top-nominated films but still I settle in each year for the marathon show. Johnny Carson was classy and funny as a host and Billy Crystal usually put me away with laughs. I liked Whoopi Goldberg and thought Steve Martin had his moments. James Franco, Anne Hathaway, and David Letterman were duds (the latter being the only real surprise). All of which brings us to last week’s show and host Seth MacFarlane. Some of his schtick with William Shatner was amusing and I chuckled when he said the next presenter (Meryl Streep) needed no introduction and so did immediately just walk off the stage without mentioning her name.
Aside from that . . . well, aside from that Mr. MacFarlane was crude. Some loved it, especially the legions of MacFarlane fans who somehow find equal delight in his other work where women are routinely insulted for their size or height or where various female body parts are referred to the way middle school boys would talk. As the evening wore on, Mr. MacFarlane’s stock-in-trade humor and way of speaking about women clearly took hold as late in the show a staff member for the satirical newspaper “The Onion” let fly with a Tweet that referred to the 9-year-old Oscar nominee Quvenzhane Wallis with a sex-related word so awful I won’t even obliquely refer to it here. (It should probably be illegal to refer to a minor that way.)
Call it bad comedy momentum. Or call it what it really is–and which is the only reason I am writing this particular blog–bad cultural momentum. The next day “The Onion’s” CEO released a letter of apology and, like many people, when I read it, I wondered “Is this a joke, too?” When you spend your life crying wolf (or in this case making crude wolf calls at women), then when some day you want seriously to address a problem, well, it’s hard for others to take you seriously.
Mr. MacFarlane’s brand of humor–and the Academy Awards knew full well what they’d be getting when they signed this person–is so relentless in a certain direction that after a while it’s no longer a joke. It becomes the way people–especially young men–think. Sure, they can still get their buddies at the bar to crack up when they use MacFarlane-esque language to refer to women but just below the giggles is a sadder truth: they no longer know any other way to talk.
Humor is a great gift–I would argue it is a great gift of God. The Bible has more humor in it than we typically notice. Used well, the human mind can make puns, spy irony, or give some situation a quarter turn that will bring legitimate mirth to other people (and laughter really is the best medicine a lot of the time). But always there is that warning from Paul in Ephesians 5:4 about how in the Christian community there should be no “obscenity, foolish talk, or coarse joking” because, Paul says, these things are simply “out of place.” They have no proper place among God’s people recreated in the image of Christ.
These days it becomes harder and harder to say to someone “You’re out of line.” There is a sense of entitlement in our society that can be seen on most every Comment stream following articles in the NY Times or on CNN’s website. People let fly with any old thing they want to say on Facebook postings and the comments on such postings and to tell these people that their comments are “out of place” or that they themselves are “out of line” would likely incur just a blank stare.
I wonder if in the Christian community we can take Paul’s injunction on coarseness in our humor seriously enough so as to do a thorough assessment of whether it’s right to let children–or to let ourselves as adults–watch MacFarlane fare like Family Guy or his crude movie Ted. I wonder if we have the courage to say that many things are not only not funny they are so far out of place among us that if we don’t draw some boundary lines, our own young people (and our own young men in this particular case) will arrive at the day when they find they can speak about some people or about women in no way other than out-of-place ways.
And maybe, despite my 35 year run in watching the Oscars, if they keep getting hosts like MacFarlane, I will need to turn that off, too.