Seth MacFarlane is the perfect host. Just ask the flu virus that has taken up residence in his system.
Three weeks before the Oscars, the first-time emcee of the show is sick as hell with what seems to be the same bug that waylaid Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, and Jennifer Lawrence as they traveled the trophy circuit in recent weeks. ”I’ve literally been to the doctor every day over the past week because I’m so ravaged by this,” MacFarlane says, with a noticeable rasp in his usually smooth-jazz radio voice. ”I’m legitimately concerned.”
The 39-year-old creator of Family Guy and last year’s blockbuster comedy Ted has no time to wallow. He has three animated TV shows to run and is in preproduction on a comedy-Western film that starts shooting this spring. Of course, he’s also about to headline an Academy Awards telecast (Feb. 24 on ABC) that is particularly song-and-dance heavy. MacFarlane is just trying to hold it together.
Luckily, he was able to convalesce for a few days, as telecast producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron met with the show’s top staff to reschedule his dance and singing rehearsals, comedy-routine taping, and monologue writing — adjusting locations to cut down on drive time.
A few days later, MacFarlane is back on his feet, walking through the Dolby Theatre as workers build the stage where he’ll stand before an audience of tens of millions. He doesn’t say much, which is unusual for the rapid-fire funnyman. Pensive? No, just a sore throat. ”I’m feeling my voice f—ing go and having a private panic attack,” says MacFarlane, sitting in one of the basement dressing rooms, where he cuts short an interview after just 20 minutes, hoping to save his voice for a pretaped musical bit scheduled afterward. ”If I’m croaking my way through this, I’m f—ed,” he says apologetically.
The next day, he looks and sounds better, sitting at a booth in the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Polo Lounge, knocking back cups of coffee. His voice is back, and with all the characters he plays, it’s wild to realize that this one is actually his own.
How much has being sick set you back?
For the Oscars it’ll be fine; it’s Family Guy that’s always a nightmare. Anytime I get sick it just backs up the schedule, which has always been a fundamental flaw in the way that the show works.
You write, produce, and voice Peter Griffin, evil Stewie, Quagmire the perv, and Brian the dog. Does that cause havoc with your vocal cords?
Generally, they can take pretty much anything after a night’s sleep. But when I was 25 I could record for six hours at a time and be screaming into a microphone and I’d be fine. That I can’t do anymore.
And like you said, there’s no holding back if you’re not well.
Sometimes I have no choice but to record even if I’ve got a cold, and you can hear it in the fact that Stewie, Quagmire, and Peter all have a cold at the same time.
Are you equally involved with all your shows? The Cleveland Show feels like it has a slightly different voice. Do you have to delegate more now?
At this stage, I’m still more involved with Family Guy from a writing standpoint than with the other shows, but I’ve definitely stepped away in the past couple of years. Everything still comes across my desk, but it’s been a while since I’ve physically been in there writing on the show every day, which the network would probably kill me for saying, but…it’s like common sense.
With the Oscars, there’s kind of a tug-of-war for your attention.
At the moment there’s room for everything that needs to get done. It’s the dancing that’s just kicking my ass. I’m not a dancer. I know my limitations.
Are you learning?
[Shrugs] That’s one of the theories.
With all your other work piling up, what convinced you to host the show?
You know, if something sounds interesting and challenging, and it sounds like something I could f— up and do badly, I’m generally interested in making the attempt. They called me and I was like, ”Well, this is something I could screw up pretty good.” [Laughs]
It’s going to be a music-heavy telecast this year. Since you recorded a 2011 album of swing-jazz songs, Music Is Better Than Words, was that part of the appeal?
Yeah, the show is the performance style that I enjoy, very old-fashioned. I like that Sinatra and Dean and Crosby and those guys used to just get up and sing without having to go through a workout on stage.
No dancing — they’d spill their drinks.
[Laughs] Exactly. That’s one of the things that struck me about the Super Bowl. During that halftime show I was like, ”Wow, [Beyoncé’s] not even really singing. She’s just exercising and barking orders at the crowd.” Just sing the song, for Christ’s sake!
Is music what you do with your free time?
I have very little free time. But I play the piano. I’ve played the piano for about 17 years. And um, surprisingly I should be better than I am. I’ll read books, watch movies, catch up on TV shows…. I’m surprisingly illiterate when it comes to contemporary pop culture because I have so little time to absorb it.
Okay, pop culture is a challenge. Dancing is a challenge. How’s the rest of your Oscar prep going?
Everything else is more or less as expected. It’s the time commitment I just don’t think I could do again. It will have been almost six months that I’ve been working on this. [Laughs] And I’m still going to get savaged in the press, so…
Oscar hosting is a thankless job.
Tina [Fey] and Amy [Poehler] will do it next year and they’ll get rave reviews. [Laughs] But I just don’t know that I could do it again. I just can’t take that kind of time out of my schedule.
You make a lot of jokes at other people’s expense on your shows. Sometimes you even get them to play along, like Flash Gordon star Sam J. Jones in Ted. How do you talk people into that?
We called Sam Jones, and he was totally game. We would like to have him back in the second one in some capacity.
But in Ted there’s also a brutal Brandon Routh joke, just ripping his movie Superman Returns. Do you ever think, ”This might totally destroy a guy”?
Yeah, from time to time. With that one, I think we slept a little bit easier at night knowing that the joke was more about the movie than about him. So it’s the rich studio fat cats that we’re making fun of. Not the very kind and very sportsmanlike Brandon Routh.
Do you ever hear from anyone you’ve mocked?
Occasionally. Every once in a while someone gets really mad. Adrien Brody got mad. It was our Agatha Christie show ”And Then There Were Fewer,” where they wrestle Tom Tucker, the newsguy, to the ground after they decide that he’s the killer in their group. He punches Joe, the cop in the wheelchair, as he’s trying to escape, and Joe goes, ”Just for that, when the movie of this story comes out, I’m going to make sure Adrien Brody plays you.” And Tom goes, ”Well, I guess that means you don’t want anyone to see it.”
That’s not so bad.
As these jokes go…pretty benign! I saw him at a party and I had just seen Splice, which I thought was really f—ing good, so I went up to him and I said, ”Hey, I really dug your movie, I think you’re a truly talented actor, and hopefully there’s no hard feelings about our joke,” and I…I was met with a less than enthusiastic response.
Do you hear from people with the opposite reaction, who think it’s funny when they turn up on Family Guy? Johnny Depp says he’s a huge fan, and you’ve mocked him from time to time.
Oh yeah, he came on and did a gag for the show, actually. It’s funny, the quickest way to make sure that you never get made fun of on Family Guy again is to call us up and tell us you thought our gag was funny. Then we’re like, “Oh God, you’re a nice guy. Okay, you get a free pass forever.”
Amanda Seyfried and Charlize Theron are in talks to join a comedy Western you’re making, where you are a timid farmer who learns to become a gunslinger.
A Million Ways to Die in the West. [Online] they compared it with Blazing Saddles. It really is not anything like that, and I’m a huge Blazing Saddles fan. This is very much of today. Because Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, the writers I wrote Ted with, and I, we all love Westerns. It’s funny that all these guys who stand for everything that I hate [politically], I find so watchable. Charlton Heston, John Wayne, Craig T. Nelson… It’s a genre that is just ingrained in our American culture and yet nobody’s really touched it comedically with any kind of effectiveness since Blazing Saddles, and that was 1974.
How does your personal life affect your creative life? You’ve been linked to [Game of Thrones‘] Emilia Clarke. Would you now like to discuss the details of your romantic situation in a national magazine?
I’m always so habitually, instinctively silent about that stuff. I will say, she is an incredibly kind, supremely talented person and one of the hardest-working people I have ever met. It’s a pain in the ass because if you date, at a certain point you’re in a relationship and at a certain point you’re playing the field. It becomes this thing of trying to find places where you can have some privacy, where you’re not going to be accosted by people and suddenly linked to someone as if you’re in a serious relationship.
[Laughs] And you don’t want the press to help sort that out for you?
It can particularly f— with people, if you’re dating somebody who is not in the industry, who isn’t accustomed to being chased by paparazzi. If it’s somebody of quality, they don’t like it. I’ve had that happen where they’re like, “I don’t really like this.” And to me there’s no better mark of somebody you actually want to be with than somebody who has that reaction. But it can be a real issue. It’s really kind of creepy.
Your family sometimes turns up in your work. Your sister, Rachael MacFarlane, is a voice actress who has done work on your shows. And your father, Ron, has turned up too. You did a video where he was not so impressed to hear you were hosting the Oscars. Will he be part of the show?
He’s going to the Oscars…but I don’t know. [Pauses, then smiles] Yeah, hell, maybe I’ll call him up. He’s definitely a little more shy than I am. I think I used to be more like that, and because of my job I’ve had to shake some of that off.
Your mom passed away in 2010. Both of your parents were teachers?
My dad was a teacher, yeah. Retired. My parents both worked at private boarding schools. He taught. My mother, she worked in admissions at one point, then worked in college guidance. She was much more outgoing than either of us. I don’t consider myself a gregarious, outgoing, social person. At least, not sober. [Laughs] My mother could be in a room with three other people having a conversation, and you could stand in another room and it would sound like there were 20 people in that room. She was full of an energy completely unique within the family and very much missed.
What kind of energy?
Every movie that my mother went to see was the best movie ever. She spoke only in superlatives. I remember my mother coming out of The Terminal, saying, “That is the BEST that Tom Hanks has EVER been in his entire career.” And this is what I love, she said this without irony: “He was even better than he was in The ‘Burbs.”
I love that. And I love The ‘Burbs!
I do too! And I quote that with great pride in her honesty and sense of quality.
Since they worked at your boarding school, were you more or less likely to get into trouble?
I think if you have a close relationship with your parents, you are less likely to be in trouble a lot. My last year I went behind the dorm one night and smoked a bunch of cigars…. But ironically, they were cigars that my father had given me. So it doesn’t even count. I was too obsessed with what I wanted to do to blow off energy on defacing buildings and that kind of thing.
Did drawing cartoons at that age count as cool among your classmates?
I was definitely not a cool kid. You have to play sports to be a cool kid. But I would make little flipbooks and experiment with animation in the corners with my textbook. And people were curious about that stuff. I was serious enough about what I wanted to do that I got enough of a quiet respect from people who otherwise might have been trying to kick my ass.
You’re one of the most successful TV producers in the business. A multibillion-dollar industry unto yourself. Do you feel like one of the cool kids now?
[Laughs] No, no. I never have. There are a handful of shows that are darlings in the media, of the award-show community… Family Guy has always been on the outside.
But you’re an Oscar nominee now (for co-writing the song ”Everybody Needs a Best Friend” from Ted). Was that a surprise?
Oh yeah. It’s so ingrained in me that ”oh, we must be hated by everybody.” So it’s become this sort of inability to process any kind of positive feedback. We all focus on the negative, you know.
This has been fun. Anything else you want to add?
Hopefully I didn’t come off too depressing and negative.
What’s next for you today?
I have my therapist today, but now we can skip that. [Laughs] A couple of little Oscar things, a [Jay] Leno pre-interview.
[Smiles] And then dance class.
The World of Seth MacFarlane
Family Guy‘s origins go back to MacFarlane’s college days at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he started making animated shorts about a loutish man kept in check by his wise dog. ”My degree project is floating around on YouTube — Life of Larry,” MacFarlane says. ”Peter and Brian are very much Larry and Steve. Those are very much the same characters.”
American Dad (2005–present)
The toughest voice character MacFarlane plays is CIA honcho Stan Smith on this send-up of neocon values. ”It’s harder to [go] more than an hour like that. It’s like doing an opera,” MacFarlane jokes. ”Everything is from the diaphragm.”
Music is Better Than Words (2011)
Despite his boundary-pushing humor, MacFarlane has very old-fashioned musical tastes, as evidenced by the crooning on his 2011 album. ”There’s a lot of great music, but it’s conspicuously all in the past,” he says, adding, ”I don’t ever see myself singing professionally. It’s a fun side gig, and that’s all.”
The stuffed star of the twisted comedy was originally going to be much harder on the eyes. “When I wrote the first draft of the outline he was going to be missing an ear, he was going to be missing an eye, there was going to be stuffing coming out and stains,” MacFarlane says. “It got to the point where he wasn’t going to be cute anymore, so I toned it down.”
The Cleveland Show (2009–present)
MacFarlane turned to mellow sidekick Cleveland Brown to headline this Family Guy spin-off. ”There had been talk of [focusing on] Quagmire, but the problem is Quagmire is such a reprehensible character,” he says. ”Cleveland was more introverted and complex and had more to him.”
Stewie’s Advice For Seth
Family Guy‘s Little Hellion offers a few tips on hosting the Oscars
1 Don’t just start using my voice when you get nervous.
2 Repeatedly point to Jack Nicholson, even if he’s not in the crowd this year.
3 Do at least one bit in a beautiful lady’s gown.
4 If you trip, turn it into a cartwheel.
5 Don’t try tokiss Halle Berry. She’ll probably get one of her white guys to beat you up.
6 When they’re giving the Humanitarian Award, that’s a great time to take a dump.
7 Do a quaalude and some applesauce before the show.
8 If Ted wins for Best Picture, make sure you — ha-ha, just kidding.
9 When you first come out, make sure you wear a name tag. No one over 40 knows who you are.
10 Don’t drink fruit punch too close to the ceremony so your lips don’t get too red.
11 Let Nick Nolte sniff your hand before you try to touch him.
12 Wear a black ribbon in memory of all other ribbons.
13 Say we need to find a cure to some fake disease and see if anyone claps.
14 Chris Rock, David Letterman, Anne Hathaway, James Franco, and Hugh Jackman are all trained performers. But I’m sure you’ll do great.
15 As host, you get free hot dogs. Don’t let the guy at concessions fool you.
16 Make the two different guys who played Hitchcock fight on stage.
17 If the ceremony starts going long, just flick the lights off and on so everyone leaves.
18 After the show, have everyone fold up two chairs on their way out the door. You’ll get the place cleaned up a lot faster.
19 Use my tux guy. Don’t worry if he touches your penis, you’re gonna love the way you look.