Monday, August 27, 2012


There’s a joke more renowned among comedians than audiences – it was the subject of a documentary directed by Paul Provenza; my review here – which, in its most basic iteration, goes something like this: A man walks into a talent agent’s office and says, “Hey, I’ve got this amazing act.” The talent agent says, “Yeah? Let’s hear it.” The man says, “Me and my wife come on stage, I’m wearing a tux, she’s wearing an elegant ball gown, and we defecate and urinate all over the stage, wallow in our own filth and violate each other. Then we take a bow.” The talent agent is shocked and says, “What the hell do you call an act like that?” The man says, “The aristocrats.”

There are many different tellings of the joke, with the middle section – i.e. the description of the act itself – presenting something of a blank canvas for the teller to embark upon ever more scatological flights of the imaginative. The punchline is always “the aristocrats”, or “the sophisticates” or suchlike. The joke is in the juxtaposition of crass vulgarity and the revelation of the supposedly elite and cultured social group engaging in said behaviour.

Seth McFarlane’s ‘Ted’ is a 105-minute reimagining of the “aristocrats” joke, but with a plush teddy bear instead of the nobility. It’s a joke, moreover, whose telling is its own punchline. Here’s the set-up: in the mid-80s, a friendless eight-year-old boy gets a teddy bear for Christmas and wishes it could be real and his friend forever. A shooting star auguries a miracle. Ted (voiced by McFarlane) comes to life. The kid’s parents, initially horrified, are quickly won over. Ted enjoys minor celebrity. Eventually, though – as Patrick Stewart, whose measured tones narrate this prologue, explains – “no matter how big a splash you make in this world whether you're Corey Feldman, Frankie Muniz, Justin Bieber or a talking teddy bear, eventually, nobody gives a shit”.

Fast-forward twenty-seven years and John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is thirty-five, a stoner, his best friend is still his teddy bear and the only aspect of his life in which he’s demonstrably got lucky is his girlfriend of four years, the gorgeous Lori (Mila Kunis).

Ted has grown up (if that’s the right phrase) with him: Ted now drinks beer, smokes pot, parties with hookers, and spouts the kind of profanity that would make a truck driver blush. This is the one joke that McFarlane sustains, sometimes quite magnificently, for an hour and three quarters.

Narratively, we have three strands: the potential implosion of John and Lori’s relationship due to Ted’s bad influence, with Lori’s lecherous boss Rex (Joel McHale) waiting in the wings to assume suitor duties; Ted’s attempts to strike out on his own, white trash girlfriend Tammi-Lynn (Jessica Borth) in tow; and creepy stalker Donny (Giovanni Ribisi)’s obsession with acquiring Ted for his corpulent and equally creepy offspring Robert (Aedin Mincks). This latter shifts the tone from cheerfully low-brow to something darker in the last third. Imagine the scenes in ‘Toy Story’ involving Sid re-edited as a post-Eli Roth horror movie.

The overall aesthetic, though, is reminiscent of McFarlane’s small screen magnum opus ‘Family Guy’: cutaway gags, bonkers celebrity cameos, and the kind of dialogue that’s not just unreconstructed but positively backwards-looking. From Ted urging a child in a hide ‘n’ seek game “no peeking or you’ll get kiddie-cancer” to his exchange with Norah Jones …

Ted: Wow, look at you – half American and half Muslim and you’ve sold 37 million records.
Jones: Actually I’m half Indian, but thanks.
Ted: Thanks for 9/11.

… you’ll spend an equal amount of time laughing, stifling your laughter and gathering your jaw from the popcorn-strewn section of the floor right in front of seat, dumbfounded that they actually went there. If McFarlane’s cultural touchstones in ‘Family Guy’ are the ‘Star Wars’ trilogy and James Woods, the corollary in ‘Ted’ is ‘Flash Gordon’ (cue the high point of the film: an extended sequence where John and Ted get royally fucked up with Sam Jones as a party at Ted’s shitty apartment turns into a farrago of alcohol, cheesy 90s music and proscribed substances) and Tom Skerritt. The payoff to the running joke with various characters claiming acquaintanceship with Skerritt is as tasteless as you’d expect from McFarlane.

In the wake of the Judd Apatow blueprint for success circa ‘Knocked Up’ and ‘Superbad’, Hollywood went into overdrive with low-brow comedies, many of them terminally unfunny and desperate in their scatological barrel-scraping. ‘Ted’ is as potty-mouthed and shot through with nerd-boy humour as any of its contemporaries, but it’s a damn sight funnier.


Bryant Burnette said...

I want to like Seth MacFarlane. I really do. But his movies and tv shows just leave me cold.

The funniest thing in "Ted," to me, was the first scene in which Wahlberg and Ted are sitting around watching "Flash Gordon." That was funny because it just comes out of nowhere; why would someone in 2012 be watching that movie?!? And yet, it felt real in some bizarre way.

Then, Sam Jones shows up, and that's kinda funny. But the joke -- like so many of MacFarlane's jokes -- then got stretched so far that before long it no longer resembled a joke so much as a drunk person telling you the same joke for the ninth time in one night.

MacFarlane seems like a cool guy, though, so I'm happy for him to have had a big hit.

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