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When you talk to him on the telephone, Seth Woodbury MacFarlane doesn’t sound at all like Peter Griffin, or Stewie Griffin (he’s the homicidal baby), or Brian Griffin (he’s the intellectual family dog). He comes across, actually, as entirely normal-sounding — masculine, even — and not at all like a guy who is heading up a twisted cultural touchstone like “Family Guy.”
Born on Oct. 26, 1973 in the New England town of Kent, Conn., MacFarlane studied animation at the Rhode Island School of Design and shortly after graduation was snapped up by Hanna-Barbera Productions (now Cartoon Network Studios) working as a writer and animator on the shows “Cow and Chicken” and “Johnny Bravo.”
It was a failed deal to write animated interstitials for Fox’s “Mad TV” via a pair of animated shorts titled “The Life of Larry” and “Larry and Steve” that ultimately led to his being tabbed to write a pilot for a Fox series. That would become “Family Guy,” which MacFarlane created and was all of 25 years old when the show launched on Fox (the first of two launches) on Jan. 31, 1999. It made MacFarlane the youngest executive producer of a primetime series in TV history. He was anointed a youthful wunderkind from whom greatness was expected.
After enduring two cancellations, MacFarlane, having just turned 34 on Friday, has gone from young flameout to powerful brand in the course of a scant five years. While his first Fox creation was on what turned out to be an extended hiatus, he created and began producing another animated series for the network, “American Dad,” which premiered in February 2005 and continues to play Sunday nights at 9:30 on Fox following “Family Guy.”
It happens that MacFarlane’s charmed life extends beyond merely his chosen career. He was ticketed to fly on Sept. 11, 2001, aboard American Airlines Flight 11 — which was hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower — but his travel agent screwed up and gave him the wrong flight time, so he arrived 10 minutes after final boarding ended and was denied a seat.
On the eve of “Family Guy’s” 100th episode that airs this Sunday at 9 p.m. on Fox (following a series retrospective at 8:30), MacFarlane took time out from his hectic schedule of writing, production and voice work to speak on the telephone with The Hollywood Reporter’s Ray Richmond about what goes on in his warped mind, why his show gets away with everything it gets away with — and why he doesn’t believe it was the hand of God that kept him off of that doomed flight on 9/11.
The Hollywood Reporter: I’ll bet you never thought you’d be talking to a reporter about “Family Guy” making it to 100 episodes.
Seth MacFarlane: (laughing) Well, 3 1/2 years ago, we were still canceled and nowhere close to 100. And you simply don’t get un-canceled in this business.
THR: Except you guys did — after two years of being off the air. That has to be unprecedented.
MacFarlane: Oh absolutely. We were certainly the first show ever to be brought back from cancellation based on sales of a DVD. As far as I know, at that time the TV shows-going-to-DVD phenomenon was not something that had even really emerged yet. Fox released the episodes on DVD almost as an afterthought. Before that, the prospect of new episodes was out of the question.
THR: And then a million or so DVD copies later…
MacFarlane: Yeah, there’s nothing like an unexpected financial windfall to help change your mind about a property you had already dumped.
THR: I won’t ask you the natural question of how you sleep at night — I’m guessing you sleep just fine — as a result of assaulting the world with so much purposely offensive material. Is the justification still simply to make sure you spread the nastiness around so no group is singled out?
MacFarlane: Generally that’s the theory. Except when it comes to Carol Burnett, of course. We’ve learned to stay away from her. The truth is there really hasn’t been that much objection, or at least that many lawsuits.
THR: Carol Burnett was upset that you used her Charwoman cleaning lady character without permission and wanted a bunch of money — but I guess it was thrown out by a judge in June who said it was parody protected under the First Amendment. Then you just got sued again in October — right? — for copyright infringement by the publishers of the song “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
MacFarlane: Yeah, that’s the latest suit. But we really are protected under legal protections governing parody. It protected us with Carol Burnett, and I’m confident it will protect us this time around too.
THR: But are there times, even after the fact, where you fear you’ve maybe gone too far from a moral standpoint? I mean, you’ve got a character in Herbert who is cast as a “loveable pedophile.” You had a JFK Pez dispenser where the candy came out the top of his head. You had a newborn left for dead in a dumpster on prom night singing mournfully about being abandoned.
MacFarlane: (laughing) And your point is?
SCRIPT WORK: MacFarlane (left) with executive producer David Goodman at a table reading.
Reporter: I’m wondering where your own personal line is. Does being funny trump all — the means be damned?
MacFarlane: In a word, yes. We have a very democratic process on what’s funny and what isn’t at our table reads, which each week draw a really big crowd of our writers, producers, voices and staff. They’re some of the funniest people I know. I trust their taste. They represent a pretty impressive cross-section. Anything that gets a gasp rather than a laugh probably won’t stay in the script. We’ve even done a few jokes where we kind of dance around 9/11, because they got a good response at the table read. Would we do a 9/11 joke the week after 9/11? No. You use your judgment. We’re not out to simply piss people off. It’s not about being as offensive as we can be. It’s about being funny.
THR: And so you never wrestle with your moral conscience over any of the material?
MacFarlane: Moral? No. It’s a cartoon. If a joke crosses the line, if there’s anything that’s just too crude, it means we aren’t trying hard enough. And it won’t survive the table read.
THR: But something that did survive the table read was Peter and his buddies making like a barbershop quartet to tell a man in the hospital that he was dying of full-blown AIDS — and do it in a song-and-dance number. You got a lot of flak from AIDS groups and gay organizations over that one.
MacFarlane: Our defense for the “You Have AIDS” song is, that was just Peter being an idiot. It wasn’t us saying “Ha! Ha!” to people with AIDS. Most of the time, the stuff that’s really on the edge like that usually comes from one of the characters saying something inappropriate. Yeah, we got shit from the gay community, which was kind of odd because it wasn’t specifically a gay joke. Besides, we also did one entire episode where we got onto a soapbox in support of gay marriage. That’s where our real priorities are.
THR: So nothing is off limits?
MacFarlane: Not if it’s legitimately funny. We feel like our job is to make people laugh out loud as many times in that half-hour as possible. Not all sitcoms are funny. Nobody watches sitcoms for the great stories. They watch for the jokes. That’s why we pack as many jokes in there as we can, like “The Simpsons” does. What impressed me when I was in high school was how densely packed with almost an impossible number of jokes that show had in 22 minutes. I remember thinking, “Boy, people really get their money’s worth here.”
THR: Then I guess there’s irony in the fact that “Family Guy” has been mocked on episodes of “The Simpsons” where it was implied you copied their humor and style. And then there was of course the “South Park” two-parter “Cartoon Wars” in April 2006 that was fairly overflowing with the disdain Matt Stone and Trey Parker have for your show. It felt pretty mean-spirited.
MacFarlane: First off, let me just say that if anyone wants to take two half-hours of their airtime talking about “Family Guy,” that’s fine with me. I’d be a giant hypocrite were I to take any offense at all given the number of people we skewer regularly. I certainly have to be able to take it as well as dish it out. With “The Simpsons,” none of it feels personal. Matt Groening is a friend of mine, a wonderful guy. There is a large chunk of guys who work on “The Simpsons” who are friends. They take pokes at us, but no matter how harsh, it doesn’t matter. They’re good people. What Matt and Trey did felt like it came from a darker place. They’re somewhat resentful of us, and I’m really not sure why. They’re at the top of their game. We should be no threat to them.
MacFarlane: The truth is that it is not an unpleasant process. Our standards people are not the enemy. Our common enemy is the FCC because it’s so uptight. I’m looking at some notes right now and it’s, like, a page and a half. Maybe nine items. It usually runs no more than three pages, and there’s a negotiation period. I’ll win some battles on this list, and I’ll lose some. It’s about bargaining.
THR: It just seems that “Family Guy” gets away with appreciably more in terms of what might be considered offensive and tasteless than any other show in network primetime — probably ever. Would you agree?
MacFarlane: We prefer to think of it as working with smart, reasonable, balanced, understanding people. Our main broadcast standards guy has been around forever. He also handled “The Brady Bunch.” I asked him what standards he had to flag for that show, and he said, “Oh, you know, the length of the skirts the girls wore, making sure the kids spoke respectfully to their parents…”
CULTURE VULTURE: MacFarlane joins likenesses of “Family Guy” characters Stewie and Brian at a party for the fourth season DVD release.
THR: How times have changed. Now it’s OK to have babies emerge from a dumpster swinging their umbilical chord while doing a Broadway number.
MacFarlane: Yeah, well, our standards guy has evolved with the times. He really does a phenomenal job of presiding over us, I must say. He keeps things in line but also does everything he can not to take away any of our edge. And he puts himself on the line to take any potential bullets fired by the FCC, if there are any.
THR: What is the name of this heroic man?
MacFarlane: Roland McFarland (who is senior vp of broadcast standards and practices for Fox Broadcasting).
THR: Well, that might help explain why he bends over backwards for you. He might think you’re related, given how you have nearly the same last name.
MacFarlane: Whatever works, I say. But despite what we’re able to do, I worry about the FCC’s influence, the idea of these bureaucrats who are so removed from what we do getting their fingers into us. All they do is react to angry letters from housewives who don’t even watch us. It’s just an effort to control content and legislate morality, to the point where it becomes a taste and humor issue. The United States is basically getting what the FCC thinks is OK to laugh at, and nothing more.
THR: But so far, so good, huh? Looks like they find the “You Have AIDS” tune funny.
MacFarlane: We’re probably just fortunate they never saw it. Or at least, the angry housewife didn’t.
THR: You earlier mentioned how the show has flirted with some 9/11 humor despite your having barely missed being on American Flight 11 that morning. Don’t you have any lingering trauma over having such a close call?
MacFarlane: The truth of that is nothing actually happened to me. It was just something that could have happened. I don’t see it as anything God did to save me. For one thing, as anyone who has seen “Family Guy” might be able to guess, I’m not a religious person. I’m somebody who believes that Julia Sweeney says in her terrific one-woman show “Letting Go of God” — coincidences do happen. That morning was a coincidence that happened to be fortunate for me. Without a bad travel agent, I die. But it was still just a coincidence.
THR: We’ve started to hear the drumbeat for a “Family Guy” feature film. Where does that stand?
MacFarlane: Of course, we would like to see it happen as much as the fans would. The question is how to get it done. To me, the best way might be to wait until the series is finished, rather than do X-number of years of the show and then try to do the movie and the show simultaneously.
THR: When do you see the series wrapping, if you had your druthers?
MacFarlane: I think another three or four years maybe, have a really cool final episode, then do movies. That would take us to 10 years. I admire “The Simpsons” for going 20 (actually 19 at present), but I see 10 as being plenty. We just finished writing season six, so we’re still a ways from being done. But that sounds appealing — you know, finish the show, then maybe do a series of movies, like how “Star Trek: The Next Generation” did it where they made 7 seasons of show and then features after that. I hope that’s possible.
LET THEM EAT CAKE: MacFarlane cuts into a celebratory cake at a celebration of the show’s 100th episode. (From left): executive producer Chris Sheridan, voice talent Adam West, Mila Kunis and Seth Green, Fox Broadcasting president of entertainment Peter Liguori, executive producer David Goodman, MacFarlane, voice talent Mike Henry and Alex Borstein, 20th Century Fox president Dana Walden and executive producer Danny Smith.
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