Oscar guy Seth MacFarlane aims to perk up stodgy awards

LOS ANGELES - You think the Academy Awards are boring? Try the nominations. They only last a few minutes, but it's generally a sleepy academy suit and a sleepy starlet droning a list of names at 5:30 in the morning.

Except last time. Some baby-faced guy took the stage, advised people who don't know him to pretend he's Donny Osmond, then stood beside sleepy starlet Emma Stone and cut loose with this line about best-picture nominee "Amour":

"I read `Amour' was co-produced in Austria and Germany, right? The last time Austria and Germany got together and co-produced something, it was Hitler."

For good or bad, Oscar host Seth MacFarlane already has enlivened the awards scene. As emcee of a broadcast notorious for its predictability and geezer audience, MacFarlane may bring a cheekiness that prods younger viewers to check out the Oscars just to see what he might pull. But given his Hitler wisecrack, just how far will MacFarlane push it?

"It's a balance between not being completely dismissive of the ceremony, but at the same time, injecting a little bit of a lighter sensibility than maybe we've seen in the past," said MacFarlane, the impudent creator of "Family Guy" and last summer's potty-mouthed blockbuster "Ted." "The Oscars does have a history of taking itself so deadly seriously. And while it obviously is a ceremony that's important to the people involved, you know we're not curing cancer here. So if there's any subtle reminder that I'll try to inject into the show tonally, it would be that."

The most-beloved Oscar hosts -- Billy Crystal, Johnny Carson, Bob Hope -- are those who play it safe while managing to poke gentle fun at Hollywood, the awards and the nominees. With TV ratings generally declining over the last few decades, Oscar overseers have tried shaking things up, trying out new hosts and different ways of handing out prizes.

The results have been mixed. Jon Stewart and Ellen DeGeneres earned polite praise as Oscar hosts. Chris Rock ruffled feathers with a few tart jabs but was mostly respectful. Hugh Jackman was charming and energetic, while Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin were an able team as dual hosts.

Another duo, Anne Hathaway and James Franco, were brought in two years ago to court young viewers. Hathaway was cute and perky, but Franco seemed to sleepwalk through the show. So last year, Oscar organizers lured back old stand-by Crystal, the most-popular among hosts of recent years.

The show's audience has inched up from its all-time low five years ago, when 32 million people watched the Oscars. But ratings remain well below the Oscar heyday of decades ago, and no matter who's the host, the show has never been able to shed its image as a marathon broadcast where rich and famous people hand out trophies to other rich and famous people.

Enter MacFarlane, who's not just a funny guy but a gifted singer, with a Frank Sinatra-style album of standards to his credit.

"What I'm hoping for -- like everybody else, the other billion people watching -- is just that it's the best show of all time and he's the greatest host ever to have lived," said former emcee Jackman, a best-actor nominee for "Les Miserables." "He's going to nail it. I think he's very funny."

Not everyone's looking forward to a Seth-fest Oscars.

"I'm not that big a fan of his," said Alan Arkin, a supporting-actor winner for "Little Miss Sunshine" who's nominated in the same category this time for "Argo." "I find him a little crude, more crude than necessary."

MacFarlane gave a taste of things to come Jan. 10, when he became just the second Oscar host to join the nominations announcement (Charlton Heston was the first, for the 1972 show).

His early-morning shtick lasted just 10 minutes -- a fraction of the often interminable Oscar show itself -- but it brought a backlash from people wondering what sort of show might be expected from a guy whose chubby cartoon hero on "Family Guy" once was forced to strip off his shirt and moo like a cow while a woman pretended to milk his man-breasts.

The Hitler joke aside, critics said MacFarlane disparaged women with a comment that supporting-actress nominees no longer had to pretend they're attracted to Oscar kingpin Harvey Weinstein; belittled writers by saying adapted-screenplay contenders just cut-and-pasted from their source material; and slammed the directing picks as the "five people who are the very best at sitting in a chair watching other people make a movie."

Edgy or insulting?

Some feel it's just the jolt the stodgy Oscars need to get younger, hipper fans -- the key audience for Hollywood films -- to tune in.

"The Oscars still remain the pinnacle of artistic achievement in film, and I think it will always be that," said Jim Gianopulos, studio chairman at 20th Century Fox, whose Fox network airs "Family Guy" and MacFarlane's other animated series, "American Dad" and "The Cleveland Show." "At the same time, I think it needs to be able to have a certain level of irreverence to be culturally relatable

at this point, and I think Seth is the absolute perfect host to bring that."

Oscar producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron said there's no leash on MacFarlane -- they'll allow him to get as edgy as he wants.

"If we hire him and we don't let him say anything, then we're idiots," Zadan said. "Then why do we even go to him?"

"The question is always said, are the Oscars still relevant?" Meron said. "We believe the way we've put together the show this year, it's completely relevant, especially having Seth, who is kind of the voice of the current culture right now."

MacFarlane -- who provides the voice of F-bomb-dropping stuffed bear Ted along with "Family Guy" characters Peter, Stewie and Brian Griffin -- also is an Oscar nominee himself -- best song, for a tune he co-wrote for "Ted."

"That's kind of cool. I got nominated," MacFarlane said on nominations morning. "I get to go to the Oscars."

Hope he likes the host.
 

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