Seth MacFarlane: The Restless Mind of a Complicated Cartoonist
Seth MacFarlane secretly wishes "Family Guy" would end as he expands his multibillion-dollar empire with "The Flintstones," a shockingly well-received singing career, talk of a potential "Star Trek" reboot and an astonishing ambition to not be pigeonholed.
This story appears on the cover of the new Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It's a steamy day in early September and the Family Guy writers and producers are huddled in the lobby of a nondescript third-floor office in Los Angeles. 20th Century Fox TV chairman Gary Newman checks his watch while his partner Dana Walden makes small talk with Fox's Kevin Reilly and Peter Rice. They're all waiting on the man of the hour: Seth MacFarlane, who's 20 minutes late.
"I just called him," says one writer, shoulders shrugging at his boss' perpetual tardiness.
"He's on Seth time," another one quips. Ten more minutes pass before MacFarlane appears, his mop of jet-black hair seemingly unbrushed and uniform polo shirt and jeans wrinkled. He rips a pair of iPhone buds out of his ears, takes a seat at the head of a conference room table and turns to page one of Family Guy's 200th episode script. Unlike the boisterous staff seated before him, MacFarlane seems uncomfortable with the fuss being made of the milestone. With others around the table still cheering, he holds up the 43-page script with a nod that suggests it's time to begin. For the next 15 minutes, MacFarlane transforms into his characters, ping-ponging between a martini-swilling dog and a matricidal baby. As they're whipped through a fictional time machine that has vomit flowing backward, MacFarlane's corporate bosses, now crammed into a row to his right, have let any earlier frustration with his delay give way to wide grins.
How can they not? In an era of fractured viewership and hard-to-come-by hits, MacFarlane, 37, is at the white-hot center of a multibillion-dollar empire, one that continues to deliver younger viewers, hefty syndication revenue and the kind of merchandise studio heads drool over. Not to mention the practical piece: MacFarlane's characters never age. Last year alone, his programming generated nearly $200 million in ad revenue, according to Kantar Media.
And what the Emmy winner lacks in time management, he makes up for in output, as evidenced by the many other projects he's added to his resume in recent years. There's American Dad!, now in its eighth season, along with Family Guy spinoff The Cleveland Show, upcoming offering The Flintstones, passion project Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey and a fifth animated series he's preparing to pitch shortly. That's in addition to his feature film directorial debut, Ted (out next summer), his surprisingly well-reviewed big band album, Music Is Better Than Words, his rash of talk show appearances including HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher and his string of gigs as Comedy Central's roast-master (most recent victim: Charlie Sheen).
"This is a business where hyperbole -- 'genius,' 'whiz kid' -- can be thrown around, but Seth is really one of a kind," says Fox entertainment president Reilly, who keeps a framed picture of the Family Guy characters signed by MacFarlane in his office.
"He's a comedy savant," Newman adds of a man whom his studio signed to an unprecedented five-year, $100 million-plus deal in 2008. In a celebratory speech following this day's table read, Newman suggests MacFarlane verbally commit to re-upping for the entirety of the studio chief's tenure.
Keeping MacFarlane engaged will be the greatest challenge for Fox executives. Over lunch at Bouchon on Sept. 13, a single MacFarlane, fresh off of his R-rated Sheen skewering, utters the words they fear most. "Part of me thinks that Family Guy should have already ended. I think seven seasons is about the right lifespan for a TV series," he says of a show that launched its 10th season last month.
"I talk to the fans and in a way I'm kind of secretly hoping for them to say, 'We're done with it,' " MacFarlane continues between bites of a croque-madame. (He refuses to touch the green salad that his personal chef has called ahead to order with the meal.) "And there are plenty of people who say the show is kind of over the hill … but still the vast majority go pale in the face when I mention the possibility."
His News Corp. bosses fall among the latter, and Nielsen ratings would concur. "For the larger company, these type of shows have been multi-billion-dollar assets that have had historic runs," notes Reilly. Family Guy, for instance, is the No. 1 show among male teens and a top five show among young adults, which justifies its $220,000 30-second ad rate, according to media-research firm SQAD Inc. What's more, they're triple threats in that they repeat well (particularly impressive in an era of DVRs and infinite options), stream well and syndicate well. Adds Reilly, "The enormity of these brands and the upside economics are just incredible."
Still, MacFarlane doesn't want the show to follow the trajectory of its predecessor The Simpsons, which Fox renewed for a 24th and 25th season following another public battle with the show's voice cast. As for the contractual issues, he doesn't foresee having such troubles with his voice actors, all of whom he considers close friends. "They know I have their backs, and I know they're never going to gouge us to an excessive degree," he laughs. "So I don't anticipate us having the standoffs that The Simpsons have had." He isn't as eager to be done with American Dad! or Cleveland Show, though he's admittedly less involved in the day-to-day production of both. (Critics argue that the quality suffers as a result.)
As he sees it, there's something to be said for wrapping up Family Guy and doing a movie once every couple of years. "Creatively, that would be the way to do it for me. Do a really fantastic final episode while the show is still strong," he says, acknowledging that there are plenty of powerful reasons -- including the viewer demand and the number of people employed by the series, some 300 in total -- to give him pause. (There is a deal in place for a Family Guy movie, which he is writing with series co-producer Ricky Blitt; it's now a matter of finding time in MacFarlane's schedule to make it happen.)
The desire to move on begins to make sense when you consider MacFarlane's level of devotion to the series, which his longtime producing partner Kara Vallow argues is "unproducible" without him. "Family Guy is so much the voice of Seth," she says, noting that not only does he have a hand in the writing, voices and story-breaking, he looks at every storyboard panel, edits frames and concerns himself with such things as the show's sound effects. "He touches everything."
He's similarly unwilling to settle for anything less than perfection from those around him, adds Alex Borstein, who voices the part of Lois Griffin. "He makes you sweat," she says, acknowledging that it can be frustrating at points. "A lot of times you'll record something three times and it's not exactly what he's got in mind, so he makes you do it again -- and again."
MacFarlane has been drawing -- the Flintstones, Woody Woodpecker, whatever he saw on television -- since he was 2. Growing up the son of a butcher in Kent, Conn., he got his practice scribbling cartoon characters on customers' grocery bags. "It was a small town, so everybody knew everybody else and the locals tolerated it," he shrugged, acknowledging that some kept his doodles, which undoubtedly hold value now. (His recently widowed father has many more early pieces saved in his nearby Los Angeles home.)
By age 9, he was hired to do a weekly cartoon strip titled "Walter Crouton" for the local newspaper, The Kent Good Times Dispatch. The gig, which he kept until he went off to college at Rhode Island School of Design, initially paid him $5 per strip but was upped to $10. During that time, MacFarlane also was making short animated films on an 8mm camera his parents had given him.
Though he dabbled in theater and then stand-up comedy (an impression of Bill Clinton talking to Scooby-Doo was a standout) at RISD, MacFarlane was there to become an animator. A career at Disney, which had just released Beauty and the Beast, was his dream. "That's until I found out that it was essentially Theresienstadt," he cracks, somewhat smugly suggesting this reporter look up the concentration camp reference.
During those college years, he became fixated with a newer series called The Simpsons, which he believed was rewriting all of the rules of the primetime animation genre. (He still watches on occasion.) Among the draws was its less-is-more visual style, which MacFarlane claims is the secret to the genre. "It's the simplicity," he says, arguing that if The Simpsons was animated by Disney, it would be "a hundred times" less funny.
"That show really changed the direction of what it was that I wanted to do," he adds, noting that his thesis film was very much in the Simpsons vein. The project, titled The Life of Larry, was similar in tone to Family Guy and served as an earlier, cruder version of the Fox show. Through his college instructors, Amy Kravitz and Steve Subotnick, his film was submitted to a competition at Hanna-Barbera (the cartoon factory responsible for The Flintstones), and MacFarlane was offered a job as a writer-animator. "My professors were caught between being unbelievably supportive and invaluable in the education that they gave me and being completely horrified by the type of work I was doing," MacFarlane says of Kravitz and Subotnick, who admit decades later that they were, in fact, impressed and terrified by MacFarlane's work. Recalls Subotnick, tickled by his former student's comments, "It was done really well and it was hilarious, but as you can see from what he's produced, it's humor that thrives on being right at the edge of what's tolerable." Adds Kravitz: "But he was always lots of fun, and looking at Family Guy now, he's actually at his best being the most outrageous."
MacFarlane worked on a series of cartoons at Hanna-Barbera, including Johnny Bravo with Vallow, before catching the eye of Fox executives seeking more animated fare to join King of the Hill and The Simpsons. They gave MacFarlane $50,000 to produce a pilot presentation (he drew all of the frames and did most of its voices, including a Rex Harrison-inspired Stewie and a Peter who resembled the New England types he knew growing up), which was ordered almost immediately and set to premiere in the plum post-Super Bowl spot in 1999. He was 25 when the series aired, making him the youngest showrunner in history. (His younger sister, Rachael, has since joined him as a voice actress on Family Guy and American Dad!)
What happened next has become the stuff of industry legend. Family Guy, about a dim-witted father, a diabolical baby and a talking dog, was bounced around the Fox schedule, only to be benched in fall 2000 because of its narrow appeal. It was brought back months later and then yanked again in spring 2002 when it failed to pull in new viewers.
In the nearly two years that followed, as MacFarlane threw himself into a passed-over pilot and consulting work on Mike Scully's The Pitts, a growing swell of viewers -- many of them in the prized younger demographic -- discovered the show on DVD and in repeats on Cartoon Network. The disc sales along with the international revenue and potent cable ratings (on some nights even beating the broadcast networks' late-night shows with young male viewers) made 20th TV executives reassess the show's value and decide to revive it with a 35-episode order. Cable networks like Cartoon Network expressed interest in acquiring the originals, but Fox opted to give the series a third shot.
Sandy Grushow, then chairman of the Fox Television Entertainment Group, recalls being in his office on a Monday morning while weighing the decision to bring the series back when Newman came barreling in. Newman had given a speech on a college campus that weekend, and all hisaudience wanted to hear about was Family Guy. "It was one of those moments where we all looked at one another and said, 'We've just got to make more,' " says Grushow, who was part of the regime that greenlighted MacFarlane's second series effort, American Dad! Four years later, Family Guy spinoff The Cleveland Show joined them, making MacFarlane responsible for three-quarters of Fox's Sunday animation block.
"He's become a machine, a brand, an industry," says Grushow, noting that a successful network tends to have a kind of powerhouse the way Fox has MacFarlane or CBS has Chuck Lorre. "You look for that individual who somehow is able to put his or her finger on the pulse of what your network stands for in the minds of its audience, and Seth has really become that guy."
Like Lorre, whose success has afforded him the freedom to share his often headline-making opinions through his show's vanity cards, MacFarlane has garnered a reputation for his irreverence, onscreen and off. During the 2007-08 writers strike, for instance, he responded publicly to Fox's desire to edit episodes of Family Guy without his participation by saying it would be "a colossal dick move." Last month, he shared his thoughts about one of the network's fall marketing campaigns: "I adore my dear pals at Fox, but the award for the most God-awful, cringe-inducing promo line ever goes to 'Simply adorkable' #NewGirl," he tweeted to his 1 million-plus followers. Asked if he had heard from his bosses days later, he says no, noting that if he had a show on the bubble he likely would have been less vocal. "It was terrible," he adds of the campaign, "and completely logically speaking, I'm also aware of my position in that company." (MacFarlane insists the only major argument he's ever had with his corporate bosses came years earlier when they insisted he didn't include a jab at The Simpsons in an episode of Family Guy. He submitted the gag anyway, leaving Fox to edit it out.)
Fortunately for the network, he's heavily invested in making more hits. Already, he's at work on The Flintstones, which is being co-produced by rights owner Warner Bros. Television and expected to premiere in 2013. While details are being tightly guarded, he's about to take out another animated entry, this time with Family Guy's Borstein and Will & Grace executive producer Gary Janetti, who has written for Family Guy. There are plenty of other projects in preliminary stages, including one with fellow Family Guy and Ted writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. The one he's eager to reboot for the small screen: Star Trek. "I don't know who would give me the keys to that car," he jokes, acknowledging that the films have been so profitable for Paramount that he isn't so sure it has a lot of interest in getting back into the TV business. "But I'd love to see that franchise revived for television in the way that it was in the 1990s: very thoughtful, smartly written stories that transcend the science fiction audience."
For MacFarlane, The Flintstones, too, has been a passion project. Years earlier, he sat down with Warner Bros. TV president Peter Roth -- who was at Fox when MacFarlane pitched Family Guy -- to discuss his desire to revive the franchise, which will be broader and more accessible, a la The Simpsons, as opposed to the bawdier, more irreverent Family Guy. Despite significant interest, the project was held up due to the rival studios' uneasiness in sharing assets as valuable as The Flintstones and MacFarlane.
"Warner Bros. doesn't want to share one of its most iconic brands with 20th Century Fox TV, and 20th TV doesn't want to share one of its most potent, talented creators with Warner Bros.," says 20th TV's Newman. "There's probably no one else in our business who could have gotten this show made other than Seth MacFarlane." Adds MacFarlane, "For them to embark on a co-production is tantamount to a sort of temporary alliance during war."
As MacFarlane sees it, there isn't a tremendous amount that needs refurbishing, outside of such things as the characters' devices, which he suggests were prehistoric versions of 1960s technology in the original version. (Expect iPads in the MacFarlane version.) The updates will be more evident in the series' writing: "Fred skipping out on the opera to go to the lodge is something that probably would need to be a little fresher in 2011," he says, his boyish excitement on display.
On this late summer evening, MacFarlane isn't hiding behind any of his cartoon characters. He sits perched onstage before a 16-piece orchestra, a microphone in one hand, a glass of whiskey in the other. With the exception of a few prepubescent boys out past their bedtime, he has filled a stuffy Bel-Air jazz club with an audience far outside Family Guy's demo.
"I'm a little under the weather, so if I sound like Joy Behar, forgive me," he says to big laughs before belting out a song list that includes "The Night They Invented Champagne" from Gigi, "You're the Cream in My Coffee" and "Anytime, Anywhere." That he's played to sold-out audiences at London's Royal Albert Hall and New York's Carnegie Hall becomes evident as he consistently hits his notes, weaving in the occasional imitation (Stewie, Peter, Kermit the Frog) as the only reminder of who MacFarlane is in his other life.
On this night, he's promoting his album, Music Is Better Than Words, which had a New York Times reviewer declaring him "a latter-day Dean Martin." When he set out to make the record with American Dad! composer Joel McNeely, he had one goal in mind: to introduce others to the kind of music -- including many obscure songs from the 1940s, '50s and '60s -- he has been listening to and loving since he was a boy. In a nod to his idol, he recorded the vocals with the actual microphone Frank Sinatra used on many of his classic albums. (According to McNeely, there's already talk of a brief East Coast tour this year and a desire to make a follow-up album.)
"Seth is probably more knowledgeable about this music than anybody I've ever known," says McNeely, who has spent his career ensconced in that world. "If you name a song off of a particular album from that era, he'll be able to tell you not just who arranged it, but what studio it was recorded at, probably the year that it was recorded and who some of the players were. It's a little freaky."
On the surface, it's as incongruous as his other passions. But the more time you spend around MacFarlane, the more you realize how dangerous it can be to pigeonhole him.
"He has a huge inner drive and imagination, but also he's able to ignore the idiot in himself," says Vallow, who has worked closely with MacFarlane for more than a decade and is in awe of his ability to throw himself headfirst into what is seemingly the "absurd," such as the album, movie or roasts, without a fear of failing. "He never dips his toe in the water on anything; it's always all in."
One need only look at the latest addition to his TV resume: a reboot of Carl Sagan's 1980s PBS space exploration series, Cosmos, a notable departure for a man best known for his edgy -- at times even puerile -- comic sensibility. The project, which MacFarlane brought to Fox, came about through his involvement in the Science and Entertainment Exchange, an organization designed to bring together writers and scientists with the goal of infusing more scientific accuracy into entertainment programming. (MacFarlane, a well-known Star Wars and Star Trek lover with a desire to do a thoughtful Rod Serling sci-fi drama, is a board member.)
Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan, who was with MacFarlane at their production offices a day earlier looking over scripts and storyboards, can't help but gush. "Seth is a guy who is completely in touch with popular imagination and taste at all times, but at the same time is motivated by very big ideas," she says, noting that without him, the project would not have been possible.
To know MacFarlane is to know he has little interest in slowing down -- much less being confined to one medium. "One of the things that I'm enjoying about my career is that it encompasses many different disciplines. Nothing ever really gets dull," he says, noting that his hobbies -- reading (science-related, mostly), watching movies (Jackass, Annie Hall, Star Wars), playing piano, discussing politics, working out with his personal trainer (9 a.m. daily) and spending time with his friends (famous and non-famous) -- are similarly diverse. More recently, he has taken up horseback riding, which like getting onstage for the roasts he finds freeing.
Mark Wahlberg, who stars as a seemingly normal guy who happens to have a walking, talking, skirt-chasing teddy bear (voiced by MacFarlane) in Ted, jokes that he's spent the past six months trying to find flaws in the first-time director. "I'll find something wrong with him eventually, but I haven't yet," Wahlberg says of a man he describes as a "visionary," "creative genius" and "goofball."
Push MacFarlane to define his brand and he'll try to convince you that it can't be done. He'll point to Family Guy and tell you that it's more than just a sophomoric comedy, as many assume. He'll argue it has its share of "character comedy, satirical comedy, dare I say even highbrow comedy?" he says of a mix he enjoys. "Then there are the shit jokes."
What MacFarlane, who counts Woody Allen, George Lucas and occasional lunch date Norman Lear as role models, will add to his plate next depends on what he has time to say yes to. His longtime agent, WME's Greg Hodes, regularly fields calls for him to do everything from directing or starring in films to producing live-action shows or digital series to taking on Broadway. "I need to clone him 10 times over," Hodes says, laughing.
Fittingly, all are things MacFarlane has dabbled in or would consider, but don't expect a theater run to look like Book of Mormon from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. "If I did a Broadway musical, I'd probably want to do something a little bit more old-fashioned," he says, himself a Broadway junkie. "I wouldn't necessarily do something that was as edgy as what they have done. The challenge to me would be more along the lines of, 'Gosh, can somebody write Oklahoma! for 2011?' "
Although he'll say his litmus test for deciding which projects to take on is "Will I have fun doing them?" you get the sense there's more at play here -- the album and concerts, the guest spots on Real Time With Bill Maher, the emcee gigs for Comedy Central. (MacFarlane admits he likes the idea of hosting the Emmys as well but imagines the crude nature of the roasts have likely killed any chance of that happening.) Perhaps it's a desire to achieve the one thing he hasn't yet in his career: recognize-me-on-the-street fame.
Asked if that's appealing, MacFarlane shrugs. "There's not an active, aggressive desire, but it amuses me when that happens," he says, pausing to give the question some thought. Then, with a shrug: "Everybody likes to be credited for work that they've done."