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The Oscars Broadcast, Zooming Way Past Cheeky To Land Squarely On Crass

If you like Argo (which won Best Picture), the movie Chicago (which made a couple of appearances) and jokes about women (which just kept coming), you probably had a substantially better night than the average viewer, who was subjected to Seth MacFarlane's delivery of one of the worst hosting performances in Oscar history.

In fact, David Letterman is writing Seth MacFarlane notes of gratitude right now for taking all the pressure off of "Uma, Oprah, Oprah, Uma," the most famous bomb of 1995, and more recent troubled hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway are feeling a little less heat as well.

Host Seth McFarlane during Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, Calif.
Kevin Winter / Getty Images
Getty Images
Host Seth McFarlane during Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, Calif.

MacFarlane opened with a perhaps predictably juvenile and overlong bit in which he sang about all the actresses he'd seen topless in movies, trying to have his cake and eat it too by framing it in a bit where William Shatner visited from the future to show him what it would look like if he were bombing.

Unfortunately, it was very difficult to tell the difference between pretending to bomb and actually bombing — the laughter he received seemed polite at best, and his conviction that saying "boobs" enough times would cause a room full of tuxes and gowns to quake with hilarity seemed misplaced. And then there were sock puppets. It's better forgotten.

Throughout the night, MacFarlane returned over and over to the topic of women and how silly they are — how Jessica Chastain's character in Zero Dark Thirty is an example of how women never let anything go, for instance — to the point where it seemed like his shtick would have benefited from a simple count of how many times he was returning to the well of "Women, am I right?"

The best hosts tease sharply but graciously; that's what made Johnny Carson a good Oscars host, and Jimmy Fallon at the Emmys, and recent Golden Globes hosts Amy Poehler and Tina Fey.

He kept apologizing for and reframing jokes so that he'd be less responsible for them: If the audience didn't like the joke, he'd comment on how much worse it would get, or how unfair that was, or how he'd thought they weren't doing that joke. He showed none of the willingness to say what you're going to say and not walk it back 10 seconds later that characterizes every legitimately daring comedian.

His sexist jokes were in poor taste, sure, but if they'd been funny, nobody would have cared. People are forgiving when your women-are-crazy material is funny; they're not so forgiving when it's dull. It didn't help that the patter written for presenters was almost as bad. It takes a lot to make the charismatic guys from The Avengers come off like charmless dolts, but they managed.

It wasn't just MacFarlane making the entire telecast look bad, particularly in the early going. What seemed like a cheeky decision to play people off the stage with the Jawsmusic when they talked too long seemed brutal and tasteless when it was used on the guy who was explaining that a visual-effects company responsible for Life Of Piwas going under, or against the guys who made the documentary Searching For Sugar Man.

Fortunately, there's a lot more to the Oscars than the written patter. Shirley Bassey emerged to sing "Goldfinger" — and there's nothing that's not fun about listening to Shirley Bassey, after all. Adele performed the Skyfalltheme that would later win for Best Original Song. There were also numbers from Chicago, Dreamgirlsand Les Miserables, in addition to an appearance from Barbra Streisand, singing "The Way We Were" as part of the In Memoriam tribute to Marvin Hamlisch.

And the nominees, too, can always be counted on to introduce a little humanity into the proceedings. Winners including Ang Lee (Best Director, Life Of Pi), Jennifer Lawrence (Best Actress, Silver Linings Playbook) and Daniel Day-Lewis (Best Actor, Lincoln) gave charming speeches that reminded people why they're well liked. That went, too, for the last speech of the night — from Ben Affleck, whose thriller Argo won not just Best Picture, but also Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing.

Other big winners included Bravefor Best Animated Feature, Amourfor Best Foreign Language Film, Anne Hathaway in Les Miserablesand Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained for Best Supporting Actress and Actor, and Quentin Tarantino for Django's Original Screenplay.

It seems like it's very difficult for awards show organizers to learn the lesson that an awards show is not a roast. It's not there to pull the rug out from under Hollywood and zing the heck out of everybody and show 'em a thing or two. People are wearing millions of dollarsin borrowed jewelry; trying to teach them a lesson in humility at that moment, you are doomed to fail before you begin.

When MacFarlane and a poorly served Kristin Chenoweth ended the broadcast — afterBest Picture was announced — with a song calling out all the "losers," by name, it seemed like a discordant, nasty note on which to end right after Affleck's appreciative, upbeat speech. People don't watch awards shows to see the host dump on the show he's hosting unless he's very, very, verygood at it. The best hosts tease sharply but graciously; that's what made Johnny Carson a good Oscars host, and Jimmy Fallon at the Emmys, and recent Golden Globes hosts Amy Poehler and Tina Fey.

Seth MacFarlane demonstrated Sunday night, perhaps as well as anyone ever has, that hosting the Oscars is not about proving how clever you are. Like being a good talk-show host, it's about making everyone look good, which makes you look confident and capable. And while you're worrying about how blue you can work, how much humor about Jews you can do in your bit with Mark Wahlberg, and how many times you can say "boobs," it's important to keep in mind that the most important thing is that you be funny.

If you're funny, people are pretty flexible. If you're not, no stuffed bear can save you.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.