Sunday night's Academy Awards have few surprises left in terms of the awards themselves—it's all Argo, Argo, Argo, with maybe some J. Law for good measure. But to hear a first-time host and self-proclaimed Hollywood exile tell it, the biggest about-face of Oscar night will be the emcee: Seth MacFarlane is not, in fact, a jerk, at least not according to MacFarlane himself, at least not this time. He's spent the past several weeks trying to win over his haters with a self-effacing schtick unknown to the world of Family Guy since that time Peter Griffin met Death. Should you believe your host? Or is he double-crossing everyone, only to pull another 180 and go all Ricky Gervais on us? Let's examine, with maybe some psychoanalysis for good measure.
(Update, Sunday: Yup, he's a jerk.)
Self Defense No. 1: Seth MacFarlane is 'on the outside'
One of MacFarlane's pre-Oscar media tour talking points has been that he just doesn't fit. He told CNN he's the "wrong guy" to host a show in a "thin-skinned" room. When Anthony Breznican asked him in last week's Entertainment Weekly if he felt like one of the "cool kids," MacFarlane made quite the effort to say quite the opposite:
No, no. I never have. There are a handful of shows that are darlings in the media, of the award-show community...Family Guy has always been on the outside.
All this despite being sort of a media darling who's getting into the movie business and whose song for said movie, Ted, is up for Best Original Song this year:
Oh yeah. It's so ingrained in me that 'oh, we must be hated by everybody.' So it's become this sort of inability to process any kind of positive feedback. We all focus on the negative, you know.
Reality Check: So, yeah, he's not a red carpet regular. But Seth MacFarlane is not sitting at an entirely different table in the cafeteria, either. While, yes, he may take a beating from some of us losers on the Internet, as Nina Metz pointed out at the Chicago Tribune, he's clearly been embraced by the mainstream — even if teenage boys are the ones really watching the creations that have made him hundreds of millions of dollars. He has multiple shows on broadcast television, he made that successful summer comedy with the teddy bear and Mark Wahlberg (both of whom will be on stage on Sunday), and his next blockbuster looks like it will star himself and Amanda Seyfried and Charlize Theron, themselves no strangers to Oscarland.
We asked psychologist Robin S. Rosenberg, who has written on the psychology of figures in pop culture in books and at Esquire, to elaborate on what she thinks might be going on here. While she wasn't so familiar with MacFarlane's schtick, she looked at some examples that we've outlined here and surmised that he might be engaging in "defensive pessimism," defined as "a strategy used by anxious people to help them manage their anxiety so they can work productively. Defensive pessimists lower their expectations to help prepare themselves for the worst."
That sounds about right, but is Seth MacFarlane doing this for himself, or for us?
How It Might Play Out: In an interview way back in December with Rolling Stone he said: "this is not going to be Family Guy Meets the Oscars. Hosts who come in with a specific brand and try to turn the show into the brand, it never works. You have to adapt yourself to the Oscars, not vice versa." That said, Ted, the talking bear, is making an appearance. Expect more movie MacFarlane than TV MacFarlane.
Self Defense No. 2: Seth MacFarlane has been cursed by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler
Reporters keep asking MacFarlane how he feels about doing his thing just six weeks after Fey and Poehler did theirs so well at the Golden Globes. So now, he's basically screwed. MacFarlane faux-predicted, in his EW interview, that Fey and Poehler will host the Oscars next year and that "they'll get rave reviews." In the CNN interview he took it farther: "If I had one review for anything in my career as good as their worst review for that I would be a happy man." He continued: "I thought they were fantastic, but they are also beloved by the press. So even if they had not as great a job as they had done...There are certain people who have sort of a carte blanche, you're awesome, we love you no matter what you do. That said they were fantastic, but I wouldn't know if they weren't from reading the press." That's a good move, Seth, go ahead and backhandedly insult the two people everyone loves.
Reality Check: Well, he's kind of right about this. Here's a tweet from today:
It's not too late to have Tina Fey and Amy Poehler host the Oscars. #oscarscoup— Ben Williams (@bendwilliams) February 22, 2013
How It Might Play Out: The problem isn't solved by him reminding us of their performance.
Self Defense No. 3: Seth MacFarlance does not think the Oscars are that important
He told the Associated Press in an interview posted today:
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.
Subtle has never been a word we associated with Seth MacFarlane.
Reality Check: A number of "outsider-y" hosts have tried to take the whole thing down a notch, but that tactic rarely goes over well. Chris Rock made fun of Jude Law and incited the ire of Sean Penn. David Letterman introduced Uma to Oprah. Let's hope MacFarlane doesn't do what Chevy Chase did and greet the crowd with ''Good evening, Hollywood phonies."
How It Might Play Out: Well, we know he's going to trying to push some buttons. In one interview he said of the room: "Let's just keep the boundary clear, and put an electrified fence up at the base of the stage, and just kind of make it this is the U.S. and this is Mexico." Meanwhile, he told USA Today that the Oscars, even in the days of Johnny Carson, have long had a bit of roasting: "It's just a matter of how black the meat gets. I'm going somewhere from medium to medium well." There's always a chance for overcooking, of course, but MacFarlane's ad-lib experience hosting Comedy Central roasts—of Charlie Sheen, Donald Trump, David Hasselhoff—should get some exercise after the monologue and before the grand, song and dance number finalé with Kristin Chenoweth.
Self Defense No. 4: The media already hates Seth MacFarlane, so he will not make it out alive
MacFarlane told CNN: "I go in at about minus 10 with the press. So it's like I got to get myself to at least the level where they can tolerate me, and then maybe from there I have a shot at maybe getting a positive review."
Reality Check: He's not entirely wrong here even though, yes, Ted is 69 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and he has had a New Yorker profile, so he's reached a certain echelon of high-brow notoriety. That said, Lisa De Moraes in The Washington Post said that the "the quantities of searingly bad press MacFarlane’s already received" may actually help MacFarlane in that people will at least tune in to see what he does.
Rosenberg, the psychologist, said MacFarlane's pre-Oscar public behavior showed him to be kind of an ingenious manipulator. "He was already constructing a narrative where if he did poorly compared to other people there was an explanation that wasn't really about him in terms of his abilities, but it was really a social experience," she told us in a phone conversation. By saying—constantly—that critics don't like him, MacFarlane encourages the audience to not be such lemmings. In that way, Rosenberg said, he's doing a little bit of "impression management."
How It Might Play Out: We'll let you know on Sunday night. Stay tuned for live coverage, instant analysis, and probably some mean jokes.