Seth MacFarlane has been set up for failure, even if he succeeds.
There are moments, such as James Franco's disengaged effort a year and a half ago at the Oscars, or the 2008 fiasco at the Emmys featuring five ill-prepared co-hosts from the reality TV world, in which the choice of emcee is truly damaging to the broadcast.
But too often, the hosts are swept up in a general cynicism from awards audiences toward a show that can seem off-target no matter who's at the helm. They expect the host to be as transcendent as the movies the Oscars are honoring, forgetting that it's not exactly a fair comparison.
And that's why MacFarlane will begin his Oscar night right at cliff's edge.
Take a look above at the world-famous "Uma-Oprah" clip from David Letterman's stint at the 1995 Oscarcast — a bit has become synonymous with Oscar host failure — and note the following:
1) For all its infamy, the gag runs for less than a minute — it's over before you know it.
2) The audience, including Uma Thurman and Oprah Winfrey, is laughing.
3) It really is rather lightly amusing, but even if it's not your cup of tea, it's hardly a showstopper in the worst sense. Letterman is cheerful, game, and most of all, ready to move on to the next bit.
Letterman would be the first to tell you he's not Johnny Carson, considered by many the prototypical Oscar host, but Carson himself would also concede that not everything he threw out there works — a core part of the guy's persona was grounded in his ability to weather a fizzled gag.
Billy Crystal changed the game in the early '90s, raising expectations. Nevertheless, I look at the list of hosts since then and find myself with fond memories. I liked Letterman. I liked Steve Martin, liked Ellen DeGeneres, liked Jon Stewart. None of them were perfect, but I'd be pleased if any of them came back. (See the clips below for reasons why.) Yet more often than not, they're forced to apologize for their Oscar tenures.
So here comes MacFarlane, a major player in the entertainment industry but one whose onscreen bonafides — unlike everyone who has preceded him as Oscar host for decades — need to be explained to all but his most hardcore fans. Some have already credited the Academy, prexy Hawk Koch and Oscar producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron for thinking outside the box in choosing MacFarlane, but based on history, it's easy to imagine MacFarlane will have trouble winning over a crowd that isn't predisposed to like him — that isn't invested in him.
The sense among many in the community that MacFarlane doesn't belong on the Oscar stage is a significant obstacle for him to overcome. There's a question in my mind whether MacFarlane can overcome it, but there's a bigger question of whether Oscar-watchers will allow him to.