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In an era of fractured viewership and hard-to-come-by hits, Seth 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. Last year alone, his programming generated nearly $200 million in ad revenue, according to Kantar Media.
That empire includes American Dad!, The Cleveland Show, an update of the classic animated series The Flintstones, a revamp of the 1980s PBS series Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey, an untitled animated series he’s preparing to pitch, a feature film due out next summer called Ted, a surprisingly well-reviewed big band album (Music Is Better Than Words), a recurring gig as Comedy Central’s celebrity roast master (most recent victim: Charlie Sheen) and the series that made them all possible, Family Guy.
“This is a business where hyperbole — ‘genius,’ ‘whiz kid’ — can be thrown around, but Seth is really one a of a kind,” says Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly, who keeps a framed picture of the Family Guy characters signed by MacFarlane in his office.
The scope of MacFarlane’s ambition is revealed by those he counts as role models: Woody Allen, George Lucas, Frank Sinatra and mentor Norman Lear. Like MacFarlane, each are one-man industries.
“I need to clone him 10 times over,” jokes MacFarlane’s longtime agent, WME’s Greg Hodes, who 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.
Among the most surprising things senior television writer Lacey Rose turned up in her cover story on MacFarlane, appearing in THR’s Showrunners Issue:
HE’S AMBIVALENT ABOUT ‘FAMILY GUY’S’ CONTINUED SUCCESS
“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 tenth 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. 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.” As he sees it, there’s something to be said for wrapping up the series 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 amount of people employed by the series, some 300 people 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.)
HE’S NOT MUCH OF A DISNEY FAN
Though he dabbled in theater and then stand-up comedy (an impression of Bill Clinton talking to Scooby Doo was a standout) during his time at Rhode Island School of Design, MacFarlane was there to become an animator. A career at Disney, which had just released Beauty and the Beast, was his dream job. “That’s until I found out that it was essentially Theresienstadt,” he cracks, referencing the Nazi concentration camp known for what appeard to be a thriving cultural scene. 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 explains, arguing if The Simpsons was animated by Disney, it would be “a hundred times” less funny.
HE’D LOVE TO REBOOT ‘STAR TREK’
MacFarlane is particularly eager to reboot one of his favorite franchises, Star Trek, for TV. “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 they have 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.”
‘THE FLINTSTONES’ IS ONE OF MANY PROJECTS IN THE WORKS
In addition to upcoming projects The Flintstones and Cosmos, both expected to premiere on Fox in 2013, MacFarlane is about to take out another animated project to the networks, this time with Family Guy‘s Alex Borstein (aka the voice of Lois Griffin) and Will & Grace executive producer Gary Janetti, who has written for Family Guy. There are also live action series projects in preliminary stages, including one with fellow Family Guy and Ted writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild.
THE NEW ‘FLINTSTONES’ WON’T BE TOO DIFFERENT FROM THE OLD ‘FLINTSTONES’
To hear MacFarlane tell it, there isn’t a tremendous amount that needs refurbishing with The Flintstones, 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 of a series efforts that will be broader and more accessible, a la The Simpsons, as opposed to the bawdier, more irreverent Family Guy.
HIS BROADWAY AMBITION DOES NOT MATCH THAT OF THE ‘SOUTH PARK’ GUYS
MacFarlane has been approached about doing Broadway, an idea he hasn’t ruled out. 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?’ “
DON’T EXPECT ANY ‘SIMPSONS’-STYLE SHOWDOWNS WITH FOX
MacFarlane doesn’t foresee having Simpsons-esque troubles with his voice actors, 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.” (The Simpsons was recently renewed for a 24th and 25th season following a public contract battle between Fox and the show’s voice cast.)
HE GOT HIS START DOING WEEKLY NEWSPAPER CARTOONS FOR $5 APIECE
MacFarlane has been drawing — the Flinstones, Woody Woodpecker, whatever he saw on television — since he was two-years-old. Growing up the son of a butcher in Kent, Connecticut, 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 doodlings, which undoubtedly hold value now. (His recently widowed father has many more pieces saved in his nearby Los Angeles home.) By nine, 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 later upped to $10.
To read the full cover story on Seth MacFarlane, click here.
This story appears on the cover of the Oct. 21, 2011 Hollywood Reporter magazine.
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