02/28/2013 05:57 EST | Updated 04/30/2013 05:12 EDT

Behind The Headlines: Seth MacFarlane Is More Bully Than Comic

Host Seth MacFarlane speaks onstage during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday Feb. 24, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Behind the Headlines: The social causes in current events.

In a unique take on daily news hits, Free The Children founders Craig and Marc Kielburger go behind the headlines to explore how the stories you read are connected to the causes you care about. You'll never read the news in the same way again.

The headline that got us thinking: "Seth MacFarlane's Rihanna & Chris Brown Joke Leads Oscars Quotes & Zingers"

It's all fun and games until somebody gets hurt.

As the host of this year's Academy Awards, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane managed to make light of domestic violence, reduce women actors to their breasts, and offend African Americans, Jewish Americans, women again, and, well now we've lost track.

After all, he did have a whole three and a half hours to dig himself a hole with "hostile, ugly and sexist" humour that turned off as varied a range of people as possible.

It's an age-old question: can you make a joke without a victim?

We asked two comedy-writer friends. The first said no: there is always someone who will find offence in even the most innocuous jokes or one-liners. When you push the limits, you are eventually going to go too far, and it's good to have some comedians taking that risk.

The second said we have to try: it's harder than an easy joke that plays on our prejudices, shock value or popular targets, but there are countless other comic strategies that don't require a victim, from Monty Python absurdism to Shakespearean situational confusion.

We tend to agree with the second friend. As much as we confess to enjoying a little potty humour now and then, we appreciate that comedy is an art of lines: some are treaded finely, some are crossed, and some are left behind in the dust. When humour has a point -- political or social satire, for example -- crossing the line and rustling feathers is welcome and necessary. Even MacFarlane's Family Guy, like The Simpsons, operates on multiple comedic levels at once, getting laughs for easy gags while weaving in smart social commentary.

But where we draw our line is based on a familiar phrase heard on playgrounds and in family rooms for as long as we can remember: "I'm not laughing at you. I'm laughing with you." It's an important distinction, though not exactly as the kid (or teen, or adult) pleading innocence while making fun of someone would have you believe.

In this way, what struck us most about the Oscars uproar was that it happened within a week of two other events that in our eyes are related.

Canadian tennis star Rebecca Marino announced she's leaving her sport because of her struggle with depression, which was at least partially worsened by bullying she experienced through social media. Some of that bullying was related to her weight -- never mind that she is a strong, healthy, world-class athlete.

A few days later, in front of 40 million viewers, the Academy Awards host poked fun at Adele because of her weight -- never mind that she just brought the house down with her performance of the Oscar-winning best original song.

Is it too much of a stretch to say that bullies across North America saw themselves hosting the Oscars one day?

Then within a week of the Oscars, on Feb. 27th, students donned pink shirts at schools across Canada to combat bullying in their communities. Pink Shirt Day celebrates the courage of Nova Scotia high-school students David Shepherd and Travis Price, who coaxed 50 friends to wear pink shirts after a male freshman was bullied for wearing pink to school.

It wasn't easy David and Travis to boldly wear pink--to step in and say "No" to laughing at a classmate. Similarly, it's easier for a kid on the playground to side with the bullies rather than the bullied--to join the taunting rather than to step in.

Jokes that laugh at Rihanna and Chris Brown, the breasts of serious actresses, or Adele's weight are easy --you could even say lazy.

What is disappointing is that MacFarlane's opening monologue reportedly received twice as many cheers as jeers on social media, and as upsetting as his jokes is the fact that he drew the highest Oscars ratings in three years, and an 11 per cent rise in advertisers' coveted 18-to-49 demographic. In other words, "hostile, ugly and sexist" sells.

We realize we can't eliminate all offensive humour, nor would we want to. But if our society has largely made jokes about blondes and "Newfies" socially unacceptable, surely we can do the same for bullying humour that wounds certain people get a laugh.

As for Mr. MacFarlane and other professional comedians, we'd say that like political discourse, you choose where you meet your audience: if you dumb it down, that's where they'll meet you, and what they'll grow to accept. If you raise the level, they'll meet you there too. For the rest of us, let's raise our sense of humour a notch -- as an audience and as amateur comics -- and in the process set a good example for our kids to laugh with instead of at.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit

2013 Oscars