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).
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.