Culture

Ted 2: Seth MacFarlane’s Unfulfilled Promise

When comedian Seth MacFarlane hosted the Academy Awards in 2013, he bit the hand that feeds him, getting under the skin of Hollywood liberals who had thought themselves broadminded until their own insincerity, duplicity, and feigned high standards became the object of ridicule. MacFarlane’s idea to hire the Los Angeles Gay Men’s Chorus to sing a song critiquing Hollywood’s heterosexual exploitation (“We Saw Your Boobs”) was incisive, double-edged mockery, using political correctness against itself and outdoing Mel Brooks’s “bad-taste” musical finale in Blazing Saddles. Neither Hollywood nor its sycophantic defenders could take it. MacFarlane was attacked by the media as if he had committed blasphemy.

They got his point. It would have been a triumph if MacFarlane, creator of the animated TV series Family Guy and American Dad, had answered his critics with equally bold and hilarious feature films. Instead, he has revealed wit’s-end humor in Ted, A Million Ways to Die in the West, and the new sequel, Ted 2, about a foul-mouthed, libidinous teddy bear. When the stuffed animal sues for personhood, MacFarlane ridicules the current mania for identity politics — a jape about Hollywood pandering. 

Throughout Ted 2, MacFarlane’s attempt to conquer Hollywood by switching from animation to live action with special effects seems misjudged. It would have been preferable had he stuck with the cartoon fantasy of his television shows instead of asking for a strained suspension of disbelief. His cartoon illusions, where a dog, a baby, or an alien can communicate with people through sarcasm, sometimes makes stunning satire of what humans project onto inarticulate others. His barking dog, talking baby, and changeling alien are id figures — ideal for animation, which expresses our own unfiltered psyches.

But in Ted 2, the photographic realism of the teddy bear’s marriage to Boston floozie Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) and his best-bud friendship with dimwit John (Mark Wahlberg) lacks even the imaginative buoyancy of Pixar’s Inside Out. MacFarlane’s humor is essentially stand-up comedy with visual accompaniment. (MacFarlane himself voices Ted, using the same blowhard honk he used for Family Guy’s Peter Griffin.) Any expectation that Ted’s legalistic bid for human status (so he can adopt a child) will provide a coherent illustration of the foibles associated with social “progress” is dashed when MacFarlane reverts to an unbelievable, hellzapoppin narration. As one over-the-top skit follows another, MacFarlane loses his political point.

This is unfortunate, since MacFarlane, of all our present-day humorists, seems the one most capable of avoiding political piety. Ted’s lawyer, the pothead neophyte Samantha L. Jackson (Amanda Seyfried), invokes Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson, and Brown v. Board of Education with a straight-faced conviction that parallels today’s reflex tendency to equate every social plaint with classic precedents — as if every young black male were Emmett Till, or, in MacFarlane’s farcical view, every young black male were a teddy bear.

Attorney Jackson’s bid for the sanctimoniousness that has changed the tenor of civil-rights arguments should have made for brilliant humor that subverted the abuse of historical paradigms. But MacFarlane and his co-writers, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, opt for slapdash, grab-bag, far-out antisocial jokes rather than following their ideas (such as fleeting discussion of the current buzzword “justice”) to a clarifying conclusion.

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On TV, MacFarlane is a wizard of the blackout skit, cutting to crazily unexpected, sometimes wildly literal illustrations of a character’s throwaway gags. Here, after a joke about John’s porn habits, MacFarlane cuts to surreal scenes of John and Ted destroying his laptop. The dirty jokes and the marijuana, courtroom, chase-scene, celebrity, and gay jokes get in the way of political humor. In a sense, this demonstrates the problem with current political comedy.

Not just a satirist, MacFarlane subverts cultural niceties, which ought to make him an ideal political comedian — one who insults both sides of the aisle. But his basic intent is to assault “decency,” thereby subverting all the pretense and hypocrisies that political opponents use against each other. Ted 2 takes the twisted humor of Mad and Cracked magazines to a sometimes malign place. As court jester to a generation for whom the word “sick” is high praise, MacFarlane, with his game-changing invective, even forced The Simpsons to become more caustic and sacrilegious.

#related#Unlike those post–National Lampoon clowns from Saturday Night Live to Comedy Central, whose sense of bourgeois privilege finds safety and acclaim in predictable political bias, MacFarlane inspires hope for a rhetorical balancing act that David Letterman, Lewis Black, Jon Stewart, and Conan O’Brien all fail to achieve as they twist political humor into partisan diatribe. Yet, Ted 2’s stream-of-consciousness storyline doesn’t sustain the film’s satire consistently enough to make MacFarlane’s pandemonium matter.

MacFarlane has developed an irreverent audience that may not realize the uselessness of simply having its buttons pushed, and Ted 2’s comfy-cozy protagonist (a teddy bear who makes anarchy seem cute) may be guilty of appealing to that audience’s lack of conscientiousness. Ted 2 is fuzzy, like a TED talk that encourages morally lazy reliance on shock humor. Consider the cutaway when Ted and John say they like to get high and “throw apples at joggers”; the absurdity and sadism typify MacFarlane’s manic slapstick.

At his most enjoyable (and Mel Brooksian), MacFarlane goes to musical-comedy numbers like the opening “Stepping Out with My Baby.” At his most effective, MacFarlane ad-libs, as when his nervy three musketeers undermine an improv act. They holler out requests ranging from 9/11 to Robin Williams, from Charlie Hebdo to Bill Cosby, that suggest last-minute extemporizing. The concept disrespects the sacred cows even of most comedians’ sacred cows, which is exactly what today’s PC humor deserves. When MacFarlane is good — as at the Oscars — his political irreverence works. Still, we deserve better than Ted 2.

— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Awards’ Anti-Censorship Award. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.

 

 

 

 

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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