Q&A: Seth MacFarlane
Which Fox exec risked being fired to bring back the show, the actor who stormed the writers room after being mocked and the plan to call Jon Stewart for Oscar-hosting advice.
On Nov. 11, Family Guy will air its 200th episode, a milestone rarely achieved in television's increasingly fractured landscape. Even more impressive? The 20th Century Fox Television-produced juggernaut's journey to get there -- a path that included the then low-rated series being canceled in 2001 before being revived courtesy of a successful run on DVD and in repeats on Adult Swim. Today, Fox's brash animated series, featuring the voices of show creator Seth MacFarlane, Mila Kunis, Patrick Warburton, Alex Borstein and Seth Green, regularly delivers 8.5 million viewers, many of whom fall within the hard-to-reach young, male demographic. Family Guy -- about the Griffins, a dysfunctional family, and their anthropomorphic pet dog -- has spawned a spinoff (The Cleveland Show), has been licensed in roughly 170 countries, including Hong Kong, Russia and Turkey, and sold more than 44 million DVDs around the world.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: Looking back at the 200 episodes, which stands out as your favorite?
Seth MacFarlane: There are the episodes that were the most fun to work on, and there are episodes that I thought were the most visually successful. The Agatha Christie episode, "And Then There Were Fewer," was probably the most fun to work on in all capacities. It demanded an actual story that really kept the audience guessing and, at the same time, it was a degree of richness in the animation that we had not really achieved up to that point. As far as the all-around best episode, "Road to the Multiverse" would have to be up there.
THR: Do you have a sense of how you want the show to wrap up?
MacFarlane: Not yet, no. Really, I never imagined we'd still be on the air. I always figured we'd wrap up the show with a nice Cheers-style final episode after a few seasons. But the ratings stayed strong and the audiences stayed there, so there's been every reason to continue making the show. When that time comes, I think we'd allow ourselves a little bit of genuine sentimentality. We would maybe step away from our cynicism just for a little bit. It's a hard thing to say, because I couldn't tell you when the show will end. Our production offices could be on Mars the way things are going.
THR: When we spoke in 2011 for your THR cover story, one of the things that you said was that a part of you wishes that the show had already ended.
MacFarlane: Boy, did that bite me in the ass.
THR: What differentiates the Family Guy writers room from all of the others in Hollywood?
MacFarlane: I haven't been in too many other writers rooms, but I've been told that one of the things that differentiates ours is the social closeness of the staff. Everyone is very tight, and there are a lot of genuine friendships in that room that go beyond the show, and I think that's evident in the amount of relentless ribbing that takes place in the room. We all just go at one another's throats. People who come in to watch are just shocked. They don't understand why we're not all stabbing one another. And I think that's really the result of the comfort level and the fact that a lot of these people have worked together for so long. They're going to hockey games together and having barbecues together.
THR: What do they rib you about?
MacFarlane: Like I'm going to f--ing tell you; come on.
THR: I was hoping you would.
MacFarlane: Well, you come in with a baseball cap on backward, and you're going to get shit for the rest of the day. God forbid you come in wearing any kind of hat. One of the guys arrived wearing one of those hipster train engineer hats four years ago, and he's still getting eaten alive over it. And definitely do not wear sunglasses in the office during the day. Anything that would classify you in any remote way as a douchebag, you're just asking for it. No clever slogans on T-shirts. If you're growing a beard, just f--ing grow it. Don't do the closely shaved stubble, carefully groomed, Adrien Brody thing. It's just not going to end well for you.
THR: During the course of 11 seasons, the show has made many the butt of your jokes. What's the best reaction you've received from someone you've parodied?
MacFarlane: I'd say the best reaction in a while came from Cary Elwes [best known for his role in The Princess Bride] just a few days ago. We had done a gag where Peter had written a fan letter to Cary Elwes, and out of nowhere Cary Elwes walks into the Family Guy writers room and reads aloud his return fan letter to Peter. Suffice it to say, there was some satirical humor at his expense in the Peter letter -- as oftentimes there is on Family Guy -- and he came back with an equal salvo of his own. The way he did it was just so epic and classy and hilarious that we now know we've got to bring him on the show for real. He instantly became an incredibly beloved individual in the Family Guy writers room. We just thought it was very, very cool.
THR: You've had everyone from Ricky Gervais and Drew Barrymore to Carrie Fisher and Bill Maher guest star on the show. Who is left on your wish list of guests?
MacFarlane: There are people who we'd love to have that we've gone after in the past that we still can't get. People like Dustin Hoffman and Woody Allen. It's not a show that really leans as heavily on stunt casting, though, and when we do it, it's rarely a love letter. It's generally with the cooperation of somebody who's gung-ho to parody themselves. Ryan Reynolds is the perfect example. He just came in with such a willingness to completely ridicule himself as a character on the show, and he really did a tremendous job.
THR: Where are you guys on the Family Guy movie front?
MacFarlane: It's a question of timing. Is it better to do it while the series is still on, or is it better to do what they did with Star Trek and wrap up their series and then do movies? It's a little less taxing on production to do that. To me, I think in a perfect world that would be when we do the movie. Of course, there's something to be said for a show still being on the air when the film comes out. It certainly worked well for The Simpsons. [In 2007, The Simpsons Movie grossed $183 million at the domestic box office.] At this point, there is no game plan.
THR: Do you know the story that you'd tell on the big screen?
MacFarlane: Way back when the show got canceled, we were talking with the Fox animated feature department, which was run by Chris Meledandri and John Cohen at the time, and we were talking about the Family Guy movie. Chris said something to me that still resonates: With an animated show like this, you can do just about anything on television, so there would have to be a story that you could only tell as a movie. I've held onto that idea, and what we've come up with I can safely say we could not do on television. I'm afraid I can't say any more than that right now.
THR: At this point, how often are the Fox censors telling you to take things out? And what are you still trying to get in?
MacFarlane: It's still a lot of the same issues as it's always been: sex and religion, which are very touchy subjects. But I'll say this: We've always had a nice, collaborative relationship with Fox standards. They are the stewards of the line between a successful, edgy show that's breaking new ground and a show that's breaking so much new ground that we're all getting fined by Washington.
THR: In season four, you took on the FCC with an episode all about being censored. The episode was nominated for an Emmy Award. Did you ever hear from anyone at the agency after it aired?
MacFarlane: I believe they requested to view the episode, but what I heard is that they thought it was funny. I will say, it would have been a political mistake for them to fine us over that particular episode because it would have looked petty. I heard that they genuinely were amused by it.
THR: In the 200th episode, your characters go back in a time machine. If you were able to reverse the course of time and go back to the beginning of Family Guy, what would you do differently?
MacFarlane: Gosh, I can't think of anything. That probably sounds incredibly arrogant. But I've been very happy with the direction the show has taken.
THR: Your schedule has gotten far busier over the years, now with several TV shows, a film career and the Academy Awards gig. How has your process with Family Guy changed as a result?
MacFarlane: This show has reached the point where I have a support staff that is extremely competent. These are people who are very able to handle things when I'm not there. People like Richard Appel, who is running the show for the most part when I can't be there, and Kara Vallow, who has run our animation division from day one. Even with Ted and the Oscars and everything else that comes about, I do stay involved as much as I can with every episode. I give notes on every story, and everything still does go through me.
THR: What advice would your characters give you about hosting the Oscars?
MacFarlane: Peter would say, "Whatever that envelope says, you open your mouth and you say, 'Mark Harmon.' "
THR: Have you reached out to anyone for advice?
MacFarlane: I have not. I exchanged e-mails with Jon Stewart [who hosted the Academy Awards in 2006 and 2008], so I will probably be calling him for tips.
THR: How are you feeling as Sunday, Feb. 24 approaches?
MacFarlane: I suppose I should be nervous as hell, but the whole thing feels like a very good fit. The producers are great. It really couldn't be going better. Everything that we've talked about just feels very fresh and at the same time very comfortable.
THR: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler will be hosting the Golden Globes, which air a few weeks before the Oscars. Does that make you nervous?
MacFarlane: No, they're great. And it's a very different type of ceremony, too. It feels like an appropriate fit on both ends. They're hilarious. It'll be great.
THR: You have told me in the past that you didn't think the Emmys would trust you to host, and now you've convinced an awards show that's arguably more prestigious to let you emcee. What gives?
MacFarlane: My opinion hasn't changed. I still don't think that they would trust me to do the Emmys, but the Oscars will be OK.
THR: Where's the logic in that?
MacFarlane: Oh, there is no logic in that.
THE VOICES OF FAMILY GUY: THEIR FAVORITE EPISODES
Alex Borstein as Lois: "My favorite episode is "8 Simple Rules …," but only because it contains my all-time favorite moment on television: Peter and the gang having an ipecac-induced puke-off that culminates in Lois entering with a pot asking, "Who wants chowder?"
Mike Henry as Cleveland, Herbert: "Selfishly, some of my favorites are "To Love and Die in Dixie," as it introduced Herbert and "The Cleveland Loretta Quagmire," which I wrote with my brother, because we really got to know Cleveland. My all-time favorites are the Star Wars parodies, because they're flat-out funny as shit."
Patrick Warburton as Joe: "My personal favorite was the one where Meg has an obsession with Joe ("The Hand that Rocks the Wheelchair"). It's really kind of silly and awkward. It was fun, being that Joe's an ancillary character, I kind of lucked out when Seth invited me to be on that show. Since usually we record solo, on that episode Mila Kunis and I got to record together for a couple hours, which was a memorable experience because she may be the sexiest woman in the world, but she's also a really cool lass and all-around good person."
Seth Green as Chris: "I've always liked the first "Viewer Mail" episode. It was the first big break in the format that I remember, and it allowed the family to do things they'd never done. Chris gets super powers and exacts revenge on a student for fairly benign teasing. It's a great, silly episode that makes me laugh every time."