Seth MacFarlane, during an appearance on "The Tonight Show" last week, attempted to pre-empt critics by presenting his own comic headlines for yet-to-be-written reviews of his upcoming movie, "A Million Ways to Die in the West." Among his offerings: "'A Million Ways' Almost Makes up for Oscars Tragedy.'"
That line marked a double dose of self-effacing humor from MacFarlane, the voice and creative force behind "Family Guy" and "Ted" who delivered his trademark bawdy humor (including a musical salute to nudity in film) during a frequently funny, if generally critically scorned, 2013 Academy Awards hosting stint.
Now he faces a bigger – and dual – challenge: carrying a major movie comedy as a leading man while going up against memories of the greatest Western-themed laugher of them all, "Blazing Saddles."
MacFarlane’s "Tonight Show" bit at least suggested he’s largely undaunted by the critics, who haven’t impeded his success. “Family Guy” survived an early cancellation to recently complete its 12th season. MacFarlane’s Oscars gig drew a million viewers more than the previous Academy Awards outing. "Ted," the story of a profane teddy bear, pulled in nearly $550 million worldwide in 2012.
MacFarlane’s humor has proved an acquired bad taste – much like that of Mel Brooks, whose "Blazing Saddles" marked its 40th anniversary this year. While almost universally beloved now, the 87-year-old Brooks wasn’t always a critics’ favorite himself (The New York Times’ middling review of "Blazing Saddles" in 1974 noted that "one remembers along with the good gags the film's desperate, bone-crushing efforts to be funny").
Brooks, in a recent interview with Esquire, not so humbly declared his Western epic the funniest movie of any kind of all time – and gave MacFarlane his thinly veiled blessing. "It would be hypocritical of me to take issue with anything in questionable taste, seeing that I invented bad taste in films," Brooks told the magazine. "I'm sure Seth MacFarlane is pushing it a little further."
That seems likely, judging from MacFarlane’s history and previews of "A Million Ways to Die in the West" that pay a gassy homage to Brooks’ hilarious campfire scene in "Blazing Saddles."
MacFarlane, who excels at celebrating pop culture’s past while mocking it (see his inclusion of William Shatner at the Oscars or just about any "Family Guy" episode), also taps into Bob Hope’s classic 1948 comedy "The Paleface" and its 1968 semi-remake, "The Shakiest Gun in the West," starring Don Knotts. Both films, like MacFarlane’s "A Million Ways to Die in the West," feature comical cowards paired with sharp-shooting, sharp-looking ladies.
In MacFarlane’s case, the lady in question is played by Charlize Theron, who is part of a strong cast that includes Liam Neeson, Neil Patrick Harris and Sarah Silverman. But in the end, MacFarlane, like all Hollywood gunfighters, will stand alone at showdown time.
As MacFarlane saddles up for the riskiest ride of his career, check out his “Tonight Show” appearance and a trailer for “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” which opens Friday:
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.