Let’s start by clearing up two misconceptions: neither is Seth MacFarlane the death of comedy, nor is the key to enjoying his work “lightening up.” Regardless of how you feel about him, to go into a Seth MacFarlane movie or TV show these days is to at least partially surrender the expectation of surprise. For me, he’s become a bit like the Ron Paul of comedy, with three good ideas for every one REALLY bad one, three genuinely funny gags to one so bad it makes me groan until I start to see flashy things in my field of vision. He’s not unfunny or anti-funny, and he’s decently clever, it just depends how you weigh that big groan against the laughs, and how much you mind him reusing the same bits over and over and over again. I don’t like to think of comedy as a slot machine, but MacFarlane can make it feel that way — the same moving parts, the occasional bust, the occasional jackpot, sometimes a cute theme. Ooh, this one has cowboy hats instead of cherries!
In fact, I bet you already had a Seth MacFarlane checklist for Million Ways in your head. Is there a “doin’ drugs” scene? A comedically extended fight scene? A gross-out poop scene? An overlong musical number? A totally superfluous non-joke reference to some other movie? The answers are yes, yes, yes, yes, and two, actually, including one after the credits, respectively. (Ugh, that post-credits scene).
It’s not the crassness of it I mind – though it’s often used against MacFarlane, “crass” is not a valid criticism of comedy. In fact, some of the best things about it are the bluest, such as Sarah Silverman’s Old West prostitute telling a John to “shoot that dirty cowboy cum all over my face!” (I would argue that there’s a certain poetry to the phrase “dirty cowboy cum”).
What I mind is the formula. For me, the best kind of comedy is the kind that makes me wonder why I’m laughing at it while I’m laughing at it. There’s something supernatural about jokes you can’t reduce to simple explanation. Being able to recognize a joke formula is like watching a magician perform an illusion after you already know how it works. You can admire his skills as a craftsman, but you never believe that it’s magic.
The longer you watch a MacFarlane movie, the less magic it offers. And shit, man, watching the old bad-guy-gets-a-laxative-slid-into-his-drink bit for the umpteenth time is the comedic equivalent of a magician reaching into his top hat to pull out a rabbit and just flipping me off instead.
I still haven’t seen all of Ted. A few months back, I switched it on for five minutes when it was on cable, just in time to see a scene where the Teddy Bear, voiced by Seth MacFarlane, does an impression of Family Guy‘s Peter Griffin, a character also voiced by Seth MacFarlane. Get it? They’re both the same guy! Gold star for audience recognition! I turned it off thinking it was one of the most painfully unfunny movies ever. Then a few weeks ago, a friend had the Ted DVD lying around, and we switched it on after a long day of golf and barbecue. I caught about the first 20 minutes of it before I fell asleep, and I woke up thinking it had actually been pretty funny.
Both Ted and Million Ways lead me to believe that 20 to 30 minutes is the optimum length for a Seth MacFarlane comedy. The remainder is mostly those same jokes driven into the ground, plus an extemporaneous song and dance number that’s more theatrical than it is funny, and a couple of non-joke pop-culture references. There’s an excruciating Peter Griffin moment late in Million Ways where Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown shows up for absolutely no reason other than to high five the audience for having seen Back to the Future (“Bro, remember Pepsi??”). But a guy behind me did say “Dude, that was awesome!” when it happened, so I guess I know why it exists (idiots love being congratulated).