One of the big stories to come out of this year’s Oscar ceremonies is the appearance of the host, Neil Patrick Harris, in his underwear in one presentation. It goes without saying that this marks a decline in our culture. This is not the sort of thing that one can as easily imagine Johnny Carson or Billy Crystal doing. They seemed like men who understood that their job was to be amusing in a somewhat decorous way–to be funny without being obnoxious.
But why does it show a decline in our culture. or what do I mean by saying it is a sign of decline? It’s not really an issue of moral decline in this case. A man appearing in his underwear does not look much different than a man appearing in his swimming trunks. No big threat to public morals here.
Rather, the stunt is a sign of intellectual decline. Aristotle noted long ago–in his Nicomachean Ethics–that there is an important difference between wit and buffoonery. Wit, Aristotle held, was one of the social virtues. Like all the virtues it struck a mean between two vicious extremes. The vicious extremes in relation to humor, he said, are boorishness on the one hand and buffoonery on the other. The boor is the person who does not like humor, who thinks every joke is offensive or inappropriate. The buffoon is the one who goes too far to get a laugh. The witty person strikes the mean in between. He knows how to be funny while still respecting certain standards.
As this discussion implies, wittiness requires wit or intelligence as well as respect or decency. The person who wishes to be funny within certain standards of moderation needs to know how to think of something that is both funny and respectful. This is one reason why the Harris stunt represents a kind of decay: almost anybody can think up the idea of stunning the audience by sending the host out in his underwear. No intelligence is required to come up with it, and intelligence is in fact a positive impediment to finding it funny. It is in fact the kind of thing that adolescent boys of mediocre character would think of.
There is another problem, too. The witty person should not only try to respect public standards of decency, but also the standards appropriate to the occasion. A person delivering a eulogy at a funeral, for example, does a good thing by finding something funny to say. But it had better be something funny and affectionate about the deceased. He will bear in mind that the main object of the gathering is to show love for the person who has died and for his family.
Similar considerations apply to an awards program. A good host would bear in mind that the main point of such a program is to honor the people who win the awards. In view of that purpose, anything you do that attracts more attention than the awards themselves is inappropriate. Again, my memory suggests that the hosts of days of yore understood this: their job was to keep the audience pleasantly amused and in a good mood without unduly distracting from the awards themselves.
The Oscars should be fun, of course. But they are the awards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This name makes it sound like the awards are something important, something of which the nominees and winners could be proud. That sense is inevitably destroyed by something like the underwear stunt.
One final and interesting thing about this is the role of the Hollywood establishment in it all. Obviously Harris did not think the thing up on his own, or do it without the assistance of the production team. And nobody that I have heard of has complained about it. Of course not. To complain about it would be to make oneself appear to be a kind of fuddy duddy or wet blanket (a role that I, of course, have no problem taking on!). This is a sign of how off-kilter our culture is by Aristotle’s standards. We are so used to buffoonery and like it so much that nobody wants to condemn it for fear of being called a boor.
But this development has grave consequences. In the end, the buffoon will make fun of anything to get a laugh. A society that not only permits but honors the buffoon cannot honor anything else. He’ll ridicule anything, and everyone will laugh with him, and that kind of society cannot take anything seriously that deserves to be taken seriously.