“Look, we dismiss critics, but it’s always nice to read good stuff about yourself from them, I’m not gonna lie,” says Seth MacFarlane, the force behind Fox’s animated comedy series Family Guy, which first went on the air 20 years ago, and the network’s live-action sci-fi dramedy series The Orville, which recently wrapped its second season. As we sit down in The Orville‘s writers room in a nondescript office building in Beverly Hills to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast, MacFarlane is clearly feeling a sense of vindication — and relief. Family Guy has always had a loyal and enthusiastic (if not massive) following among the public and critics, even through two cancellations and renewals. The Orville, on the other hand, pleased general audiences but also endured harsh critical knocks during its first season, which has made its second-season rebound — propelled by a sharper and more ambitious story (including a two-part episode), cinema-level visual effects (showcased best in an eight-minute space battle) and a greater willingness to play things straight (as opposed to shoehorning in humor) — all the sweeter for its 45-year-old creator. “I’m reading all of these great reviews of the show, which is a relatively new experience for me,” MacFarlane remarks, “and, you know, it does feel good.”
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MacFarlane, the son of a teacher and a college guidance counselor, was born and raised in sleepy Kent, Connecticut. Most kids regard cartoons as amusement; he, however, for as long as he can remember, was captivated by how they were made. His efforts to recreate them revealed an innate talent for drawing, which led to his first paying gig as an animator — at the age of 9: creating a weekly comic strip, Walter Crouton, for $5 a week, later increased to $10. That occupied some of MacFarlane’s time over the ensuing decade before he went off to college, but he was comparably fascinated by music (especially film scores and big bands), acting (he did local theater) and comedy (with an edge that wasn’t then featured in TV animation). “Prior to the emergence [in 1989] of The Simpsons,” he says, “I really wanted to be a Disney animator — and, it turns out, eventually I got there [a joking reference to the recent acquisition of Fox, with which MacFarlane currently has an overall deal that will expire in May, by Disney].” He continues, “It was an absolute career-trajectory shift when that show came out,” adding, “Without The Simpsons, there would be no Family Guy.”
After enrolling at the Rhode Island School of Design, MacFarlane declared himself a film major, with a focus on animation. As a student film project, he created Life With Larry, “a very rough version of Family Guy,” which brought down the house when it was shown to classmates, and which a professor brought to the attention of the now-defunct Los Angeles-based animation studio Hanna-Barbera. Hanna-Barbera, in turn, offered MacFarlane a job upon his graduation, but MacFarlane, reluctant to move across the country and away from friends and family, applied to and was accepted into the Boston Conservatory of Music’s graduate program for musical theater, forcing a tough decision. He eventually made the fateful choice to stick with animation, and not long after his arrival in L.A., Hanna-Barbera’s head of development Adam Shapiro, hoping to get back into the primetime business himself, took MacFarlane to Fox to show Life With Larry to the studio’s heads of alternative comedy. The suits were impressed and gave MacFarlane $50,000 and six months to develop a pilot based on the short, which, they imagined at the time, they would use as inserts within Mad TV (much like The Simpsons had originally been commissioned to serve as inserts within The Tracey Ullman Show). In order to meet his deadline, MacFarlane would work a full day at Hanna-Barbera, and then spend the rest of his waking hours toiling on the project he now called Family Guy.
Fox, upon seeing the fruits of MacFarlane’s labor, scrapped the idea of inserts and ordered Family Guy to series, making MacFarlane, at just 24, the youngest executive producer in the history of television. Ratings woes resulted in his show being canceled twice within three years, but its passionate supporters — both within Fox and amongst the general public, which was purchasing DVDs of the show and tuning in to reruns of it on the Adult Swim network in large numbers — caused it to rise from the dead not just once, which would have been unusual, but twice, which was unheard of. And, in a comeback story for the ages, Family Guy became, in 2009, the first animated series in 48 years to be nominated for the best comedy series Emmy.
Family Guy has always courted controversy with its edgy humor, which many describe as frat-guy humor. “I’ve always found it amusing that people associate Family Guy with this ‘frat-guy humor,'” MacFarlane says with a chuckle. “It’s like, ‘I went to an art school!’ How many comedy writers do you know who were frat guys? These are the betas, these aren’t the alphas!” Whatever its source, MacFarlane’s humor resonated in a major way with young males, whom advertisers particularly covet, and so he wound up creating several other animated shows for Fox, including American Dad (“I didn’t intend to have two shows on the air, and for a while it was a huge pain in the ass”), Bordertown and The Cleveland Show. Eventually, MacFarlane began to step back from day-to-day involvement with Family Guy to pursue various other ideas, including one for another animated series, which morphed into a feature film released in 2012: Ted, on which MacFarlane made his feature directorial debut and also voiced the title character, and which became the highest-grossing R-rated comedy that is not a sequel or remake ever.
After Ted, MacFarlane could do jut about anything he wanted. Almost immediately, he accepted an invitation from Neil Meron and the late Craig Zadan to host the 85th Academy Awards on Feb. 24, 2013 — “It was an immediate ‘yes,'” he says, noting, “I recognized what it could do for me professionally.” (Despite media uproar over him singing a song about actresses who had performed topless scenes called “We Saw Your Boobs,” he says he was asked to return as host the following year — and declined.) And then, not long thereafter, he began exploring the possibility of making a show along the lines of Star Trek, which he grew up watching with his father, with a dash of M*A*S*H, as well. The result was The Orville, a story set 400 years in the future, about a captain and his first officer who were once married, then divorced but still have to work together. MacFarlane plays the captain, Ed Mercer; has been a writer on most of the show’s episodes; and has directed the first episode of both seasons, and several others during season two, as well. “I had always wanted to do a show of this type,” he explains. “I secretly wanted it to be the dramatic show that it eventually became. I think there was a little bit of fear of [not] getting traction on that, because people would expect a certain thing — and one of the pleasant surprises of my career is seeing how ready people are to embrace what I really wanted this thing to be. It’s been hugely gratifying.”