Inside Oscar's Big Gamble on Seth MacFarlane

Seth MacFarlane

The "Family Guy" creator remembers a call from the king.

The Academy, which went with a risky choice for host, is now holding meetings on how to introduce the "Family Guy" scribe to a wider audience.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Seth MacFarlane never has been to the Oscars -- not as a nominee, a presenter or even a plus one. Nonetheless, the crude comic voice behind Fox's Family Guy and Universal's summer hit Ted will be front and center at the 85th Annual Academy Awards on Feb. 24. It's a risky choice for both the Academy and the show's producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. The R-rated Ted has grossed $434 million worldwide, and because of his three TV shows, MacFarlane has built a loyal fan base of young males, attracting nearly 3 million Twitter followers (far more than 2012 host Billy Crystal's 235,000). But the Oscars on ABC are looking for the largest possible audience -- the most recent show attracted 39.3 million viewers -- and its audience traditionally tilts older and more female. To that crowd, MacFarlane, 38, is a relative unknown.

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"This probably benefits Seth more than the Oscars," says Horizon Media's Brad Adgate. "He's very funny but doesn't have the high recognizability of a movie or TV star. This is an attempt to bring in a younger audience, the way the Grammys do. But his core audience are typically light viewers of the kinds of movies that usually get nominated -- or of awards shows."

Aware of the challenge ahead, Academy officials and MacFarlane's reps have begun meeting to plot how to introduce him to a wider audience in advance of the big show. Says one of the participants: "If done right, this could be a real opportunity to launch him and make the Oscars feel fresh. People could tune in because they will be curious to see exactly what he will do."

Zadan and Meron reject suggestions that they settled on MacFarlane in an attempt to grab a younger demographic. Instead, Zadan says they were looking for "the most versatile person we could get [who] would give the show the diversity that we wanted." Although he mostly has worked behind the camera, MacFarlane has been courting an increasingly public profile as an all-purpose song-and-dance man. In 2011, he released his first album, a collection of standards titled Music Is Better Than Words, picking up two Grammy noms.

Then, on Sept. 15, he hosted the season premiere of Saturday Night Live, complete with an opening musical number. (Ratings among adults 18-to-49 were up 4 percent compared with the previous season's opener hosted by Alec Baldwin, a past Oscars host.) That performance clinched the deal for the upcoming Oscar show's producers. "This will be that moment when he crosses over on all platforms," says Meron. Calling the assignment "an honor," MacFarlane also couldn't resist joking, "I just hope they don't find out I hosted the Charlie Sheen roast." He expects to be "very involved in the writing," he says, but doesn't intend to rely on Family Guy-type gags because, he says, as an emcee, it's his job to tailor jokes to the occasion.

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Still, the choice took most of traditional Hollywood by surprise. Earlier this summer, the Academy stumbled when outgoing president Tom Sherak made overtures to Lorne Michaels to produce and NBC Late Night's Jimmy Fallon to host. When ABC execs raised objections about showcasing a rival network's star, the plan was scrubbed, and it was back to the drawing board.

When newly elected Academy president Hawk Koch then tapped musical comedy veterans Zadan and Meron in August, the speculation about possible hosts focused on musical veterans like Hugh Jackman, who handled the role to general applause in 2009. But that never was a possibility because the actor is finishing The Wolverine then segues into promoting Oscar contender Les Miserables, opening Dec. 25, limiting his availability. Another possibility bandied about was Queen Latifah -- Zadan and Meron are executive producers on her Steel Magnolias, which airs Oct. 7 on Lifetime, and exec produced 2002's Chicago, for which she was nominated for an Oscar -- but that apparently didn't progress beyond an initial conversation.

When they did settle on MacFarlane, ABC didn't raise objections despite his close association with some of Fox's signature shows because he largely works behind the scenes. The stakes are huge: ABC has extended its deal to air the Oscars through 2020, but recent shows have failed to reach the 45 million-viewer average achieved during the 1990s.

As for whether MacFarlane is up for the high-profile job, speaking from the experience of working with him on a similar, though nontelevised, awards show, producer Spike Jones Jr. thinks the Academy made the right choice. As executive producer of the WGA West's 2010 awards dinner, Jones sought MacFarlane to emcee because he wanted "somebody who was a little bit edgy and topical. And I knew he sang and was terrific on his feet."

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Jumping in enthusiastically, MacFarlane and his writers devised an opening number satirizing unscripted reality programming, with MacFarlane performing a tricky parody of The Music Man's "Ya Got Trouble." The WGA had no budget for the show, so MacFarlane kicked in $10,000 to $20,000 of his own money to record a music track and bring in singers. "He wanted it to be terrific, and it came off great," says Jones. The number had plenty of inside industry jokes -- as well as a healthy dose of four-letter words that, if repeated, would give ABC censors a heart attack -- but it also had plenty of pop-culture references, dropping such names as the Kardashians, Snooki and American Idol. "He plays to an industry audience," says Jones, "but if you saw him on SNL, you can see he'll play to Middle America as well." One more thing, recalls Jones: When the WGA said MacFarlane was hosting its show, "the guild got more ticket sales than it had had in years because he brings a sense of danger. People didn't know what he was going to do."