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"Edginess" Is In the Eye of the Beholder

03/05/2013 05:20 EST | Updated 05/05/2013 05:12 EDT

The whole Seth MacFarlane Oscars triumph/travesty provides a fascinating look at the notion of perspective.

MacFarlane is an entertainer who specializes in off-colour "shock" humour who hosted the Oscars and peppered the evening with a lot of off-colour "shock" humour. Some was deemed in bad taste (a joke about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln) some was deemed outright offensive and bigoted.

Some people said MacFarlane was great. Others that he was terrible. Others said those who said he was terrible didn't know what the hell they were talking about.

I tend to take the attitude that if something's worth doing in the arts...it's worth discussing after the fact. I once spent three hours discussing the movie Arachnophobia with someone -- which is about twice as long as the movie itself. And neither if us even liked Arachnophobia!

Anyway, I'm just fascinated by the whole notion of what constitutes "provocative," and "edgy," and "challenging" -- the sort of terms fans of MacFarlane tend to use.

We all have a tendency to define "edgy" and "provocative" by a rather selective criteria. Edgy is whatever others didn't like...but we did. Yet if we don't like something that others do...we simply dismiss it as stupid.

I was thinking about this with all the commentaries defending MacFarlane. These pieces usually start out saying: "MacFarlane is edgy and you're a baby for not appreciating him." Then they follow up by saying: "Besides, he was a hilarious!"

So, um...were they really finding him "edgy"? Others went even farther, saying MacFarlane was making the sort of jokes they and their friends make all the time. So...clearly he wasn't really "challenging" anything for them.

What they do find "provocative" is people criticizing MacFarlane. Then they get angry.

Apparently MacFarlane making the jokes he wants to make is a cherished example of freedom of expression. But people taking issue with MacFarlane's humour is then likened to censorship and fascist dictatorships. Not sure how a heterosexual WASP American male, backed up by arguably the most powerful propaganda instrument civilization has ever known (i.e.: Hollywood) and given a forum before roughly a billion people...can be viewed as the oppressed underdog. Or how a handful of bloggers and editorialists expressing a contrary opinion represents the vanguard of fascism.

In a piece by Donnie Demers he writes effusively about the cherished values of freedom and artistic expression...and then says those who don't like MacFarlane should "Shut the fuck up." OK, maybe Demers is trying to be slightly ironic. But views like that are stated -- without noticeable irony -- in more than a few comments sections responding to MacFarlane's critics.

But, um, how does that allow for provocative and challenging ideas?

The problem sometimes with "shock" comedy is: what is its greater purpose? For all that MacFarlane was supposedly being edgy and provocative did he make jokes about gun control and the NRA? Drone strikes? The American fiscal crisis? I didn't see the whole show so, y'know, I don't know -- but I suspect such humour would be frowned upon as too partisan, too...provocative (ironically, Martin Short's hosting of the Canadian Screen Awards arguably was more political, with jokes about Mike Duffy and Argo). Sometimes there's a feeling the defense of shock humour is a kind of hermetically sealed loop: shock humour exists...simply to allow for shock humour.

And then it becomes its own beast with an insatiable appetite -- comics more concerned with how many gasps they get than laughs. Immediately after MacFarlane's Oscars, Joan Rivers was in her own hot water for making a Holocaust joke involving model Heidi Klum. But the outrage, I think, had less to do with the quip...than that it wasn't funny, or remotely appropriate to the circumstances. Rivers didn't just go where the humour led...she clearly decided "humour" was simply in being shocking. Now, interestingly, Rivers defended her joke on the basis that she's trying to keep knowledge of the Holocaust alive in people's minds -- which maybe is a legitimate intent. But then that raises a flip side since the joke was in the context of Klum being German. If it was just a joke...it trivializes a human horror. If it was "political" was it racist, basically suggesting almost 70 years later: a German is still a Nazi?

Now, obviously, the rationale is that breaking down taboos is good -- and shock humour is the thin edge of the wedge. It causes society to loosen up a bit, so that we really can talk about things that matter. The 1970s sitcom, All in the Family, goes the argument, used humour to put important social and political topics on the front burner of social discourse.

But when MacFarlane does an entire skit about how Jews control Hollywood, is he spoofing anti-Semitism? Or is a section of his fan base nodding sagely -- the fans who brag he's telling the same jokes on stage that they tell behind closed doors? I suspect a lot of entertainers bank on that kind of ambiguity. They don't want to alienate any source of their revenue, so if their fans include a mixture of those who see them as "ironic" and those who assume they are "telling it like it is" they'll smile mutely and sign whichever bit of merchandise is thrust in front of them.

No one size fits all. I'll admit, I've come upon MacFarlane's Family Guy while channel surfing...and so far haven't found much to hold me for more than a minute or two (a cute gag...followed by a lot of tedium -- and that's not even considering the "shock" factor). I like outrageous, bad taste humour...and sometimes I just find it in bad taste. But it's the entertainer's job to walk that fence, and if they fall off -- isn't that their fault? If a comic tells an unfunny "safe" joke, we call him a poor comedian. But if a comic tells an unfunny "shocking" joke...he's supposed to be immune from criticism?

Ultimately, edgy, provocative, challenging...all these concepts rather depend on what you consider the status quo. If everyone's doing sex and fart jokes...is the edgy guy the one not doing sex and fart jokes?

Was MacFarlane "edgy" because he offended a lot of people...or, given the Oscars enjoyed a ratings boost, was he just delivering the safe jokes his audience wanted to hear?