Seth MacFarlane and William Shatner share the stage early in the telecast. Photo by Mario Anzuoni/REUTERS.
Most of the winners were expected, and the speeches weren’t groundbreaking or over-the-top, especially since some of the lesser-known winners had their thank-yous unceremoniously cut off by the main theme from Jaws. Tributes to the James Bond franchise and recent musicals dominated a portion of the evening, and audience members gasped at the first tie in almost two decades, which happened in the Best Sound Editing race. Yet one of the evening’s briefest moments has been the talk of many blogs and articles since the show, and that was the appearance of Ted, voiced by host Seth MacFarlane.
After introducing the awards with the assistance of William Shatner’s Captain James Kirk, who warned MacFarlane about all of the offensive things he did in an alternate future during the show to merit an awful review, his most memorable potential misstep came when he wasn’t even seen on stage. The central character of his successful June comedy, foul-mouthed teddy bear Ted, came out to announce a category with Mark Wahlberg. Ted proceeded to recognize several actors present – Alan Arkin, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Joaquin Phoenix – noting that they all had Jewish heritage. He then asked Wahlberg if he was Jewish, and, after hearing that he was in fact Catholic, told him “wrong answer” and suggested that he should be Jewish and donate to Israel if he wants to continue working in Hollywood. Ted closed his speech with a mention of receiving a private plane at the next secret synagogue meeting.
It’s actually surprising that this was the sole Jewish moment of the Oscars this year. Other awards shows in the past have had equally humorous Jewish shout-outs, like Brad Garrett’s proclamation upon winning an Emmy for Everybody Loves Raymond that his victory could pave the way for Jews to finally break into Hollywood. What Ted said, however, has earned criticism from, among others, the Anti-Defamation League, which deemed it “offensive and not remotely funny.” Jewish Journal editor-in-chief Rob Eshman took the time to respond to that statement, explaining that this could be an opportunity for people to look at why Hollywood is so populated by Jews in a positive manner.
More interesting is the timing of Ted’s words. This ceremony was otherwise completely Judaism-free. While some of the winners, Day-Lewis being the most notable, have Jewish ancestry, almost none of the films nominated had Jewish content. Christoph Waltz won his first Oscar three years ago for playing a Nazi in Inglourious Basterds, a film with much controversial Jewish content, and this year triumphed for Django Unchained, a film with wholly different themes. Helen Hunt’s role in The Sessions was the only overt instance of Judaism I found among this year’s nominees. Ted’s quip about donating to Israel was especially interesting considering two of the nominees for Best Documentary Feature. 5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers both espouse opinions that run contrary to Israeli public policy. Calls for donations to Israel from Hollywood at this time seem unlikely at best.
Ted’s remark has troubled many, but it seems more representative of the fact that, with the percentage of Hollywood that is made up of Jews, that population is entitled to one joke over the course of a three-and-a-half-hour telecast. Ted didn’t specifically disparage anyone, and though the connotations of donating to Israel might suggest otherwise, being money-grubbing wasn’t a characteristic attributed to the Jews. MacFarlane didn’t come on to the Oscars purporting to be safe, and while some were also put off by his alleged sexism and racism, I think most people got what they expected from this boundary-pushing comedian who, to be frank, didn’t push the envelope all that far. Ricky Gervais closed one of his Golden Globes telecasts by thanking God for making him an atheist, and MacFarlane’s sins wee hardly more severe.