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Shock Plus Nothing

by Ross Douthat

A review of Ted

On the weekend before the Fourth of July, Americans lined up for two raunchy, R-rated exercises in transgression. In heartland cities like Indianapolis, Nashville, and Kansas City, notionally havens of decency and family values, the movie of choice (mostly for women) was Magic Mike, a beefcake parade starring Channing Tatum as a male stripper on the make. Meanwhile, in liberal metropolises like Boston and New York, notionally havens of tolerance, multiculturalism, and political correctness, audiences (mostly male) preferred Seth MacFarlane’s Ted, a bawdy modern fairy tale whose comedy depends on generous doses of misogyny, ethnic stereotyping, and gay panic.

This filmgoing polarization cries out for some sort of generalization about the Red America/Blue America divide. So here goes: In more conservative parts of the country, perhaps, sex and nudity still retain enough of their traditional frisson to make the prospect of watching the matinee idol of the moment strip and gyrate seem like a genuine cinematic event. In more liberal areas, though, political correctness is the only remaining form of puritanism, which means that filmgoers looking for a transgressive kick are more likely to get it from jokes about Asians or the mentally handicapped than from the sight of a handsome movie star in his skivvies.

At the very least, this theory suggests a possible answer to the otherwise incomprehensible riddle of Seth MacFarlane’s immensely successful comedy career. MacFarlane is the impresario behind Family Guy, a third-rate Simpsons knock-off that lasted just three seasons on Fox around the turn of the millennium but then was rescued from deserved oblivion by DVD sales and renewed in 2004 by the network, and is still going strong. Its creator now presides over a range of spin-offs and tie-ins, and he’s sufficiently respected — as an entrepreneur, if not an artist — that he’s been entrusted with a revival of The Flintstones, scheduled to take form whenever his busy schedule permits.

First, though, that schedule has given us Ted, MacFarlane’s first feature film and a distillation of the comedy style that has made him so successful. The movie stars Mark Wahlberg as John Bennett, the grown-up version of a Boston-area boy who wished that his oversize teddy bear would spring to life and saw that wish miraculously granted. Over the intervening years, the bear has grown up with him, trading a childlike warble for a Cheers-style Bostonian patois. He and Bennett are still best friends, but now they pass the bong back and forth, trade graphic insults, and zone out watching Eighties television. This ursine-enabled arrested development exasperates Bennett’s girlfriend (Mila Kunis), whose angst over her Ted-dependent paramour creaks the movie’s plotting into gear.

MacFarlane does Ted’s voice, as he does the voices of several characters in Family Guy, and not surprisingly the bear gets most of the best lines. By “best,” though, I mostly just mean “most offensive,” because that’s the essential element in his comedy. MacFarlane favors pop-culture references and random, one-joke set pieces, but mostly he favors what Claire Hoffman, profiling him in The New Yorker, describes as “an aggressive shock-and-gross-out agenda” in which “abortion, AIDS, bestiality, Down syndrome, and rape are favorite comic motifs.” (To that list, Ted adds Lou Gehrig’s disease, which one character wishes on another, a laugh line that’s prompted a predictable backlash from ALS sufferers and activists.)

A “shock-and-gross-out agenda” is common to a lot of comedy today. MacFarlane is unusual, though, because he offers transgression-plus-nothing. He doesn’t have the fundamental sweetness of the Farrelly brothers, or the hints of social conservatism that make Judd Apatow’s oeuvre so interesting, or the anarchic libertarianism that infuses the work of South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone. (Parker and Stone famously loathe Family Guy.) When Ted brings on an Asian guy who yells “This is my home long time!” or makes its teddy-bear-obsessed villain a mincing, effeminate closet case or cracks wise about Middle Eastern men or mental retardation, the un-PC offensiveness is the beginning and end of the joke. We’re shocked, we laugh, and then it’s on to the next provocation.

MacFarlane’s offenses don’t subvert his audience’s pieties, as a more talented comic’s might; they depend on them. It’s telling, in this regard, that his real-life politics are conventionally Left Coast: Indeed, he was actually honored last year (by an atheists’ association) for “his fearless support of equal marriage rights and other social justice issues.” What they call fearlessness I’d call professional self-interest. MacFarlane needs a world of PC shibboleths, because otherwise he wouldn’t know what buttons to push to get a shocked, “did the teddy bear really just say that?” laugh.

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