Seth MacFarlane
Photo by Robby Klein

Seth MacFarlane: “There’s room for all”

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Short Profile

Name: Seth Woodbury MacFarlane
DOB: 26 October 1973
Place of birth: Kent, Connecticut, United States
Occupation: Actor, animator, screenwriter, film director, singer

Seth MacFarlane's new album Great Songs from Stage and Screen is out now.

Mr. MacFarlane, do you think that through comedy, you can empower people and maybe even change their way of thinking?

I think that’s a good question because when I was in my formative years, I loved Jackie Gleason. I loved Monty Python. Those shows probably influenced me most in my personal life. When I think of the things that influenced me as far as how I conduct my day to day life and what my code of ethics is, I think of shows like The Twilight Zone or Star Trek. You know, the phasers were always set on stun; they only killed when they absolutely had to. I actually see it as a direct descendant of that, the fact that if I find a spider in my house, I have to catch it and put it outside. I can't kill it! So in some ways, I would say dramatic storytelling can be more impactful than comedy, but they both have this power to point things out about society that are screwy and off kilter.

But comedy was a big part of your life growing up, right?

Yeah, it all sort of comes back to your family. Every member of my family, at least on my mother's side, moves in this odd space where they all love The Sound of Music, they all love The Wizard of Oz, they all had absolute wide open hearts for stuff like Simon and Garfunkel tunes, and Ann Murray songs.  And yet at the same time, they also had the most fucked up senses of humor that you can imagine! Things that I couldn't even begin to repeat on a call like this. There was no joke that I could ever have told that would have offended my mother — not a single one! (Laughs) There was this sense that there was room for all of these things. For me, it's always been a separatist situation where all these things can be compartmentalized.

“I’ve never bought into this idea that you should have an unwavering brand in what you do as an entertainer.”

A commenter on one of your YouTube videos remarked that you are a bit of a dichotomy: “Seth’s music has a level of class reserved for guys like Sinatra but his humor can be absurd and even obscene.”

I enjoy an Albert Brooks film, and I enjoy a Jackass film! For me, comedy, there's room for all. I don’t have a prejudice towards one type of comedy. I don’t have that sort of New Yorker rejection of certain types of comedy. But I also would argue that those very entertainers — Frank Sinatra, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, all those performers that I imagine they were thinking of in that comment — also had very ribald senses of humor. And in every biography I've ever read of any of those performers, the behind-the-scenes anecdotes are just incredibly crude! The difference was that they were less at liberty to express that kind of humor outside the locker room as they are now. Even Sinatra probably had a very, very blue sense of humor at times. There just wasn't a Fox Network back then.

Do you like that you have one foot on either side of the line? Does it help to keep people guessing when there seems to be two very different sides to your persona as an entertainer?

Yeah, I mean, to me that's just life. If you're talking to your grandparents, you show one side of your personality, if you're talking to your friend you show another side. I've never bought into this idea that you should have an unwavering brand in what you do as an entertainer. And I think it just depends on the project. If I'm doing something like Family Guy, I treat it with a very different set of rules than if I'm doing something like The Orville or Cosmos. It just depends on the project; I think you adjust your mechanisms accordingly.

You are working on so many different projects these days; you’re a writer, an actor, a voice actor, a singer, a director… How have you managed to not completely burn out?

There have been times in my career that I was really exhausted and really burnt out. I remember I finished doing A Million Ways to Die in the West and went straight on to Ted 2, almost without a break… I do get very tired because you're working 12 hour days, sometimes 13, 14 hour days. It's something we've all gotten used to. We tolerate it, but it's categorically wrong, that the crews are made to do that. It's no way to live. The one time that I really got the message, I’d been going so many years straight without a break, I had the flu, and I was still coming to work like an idiot. I was standing in my office and I just collapsed. I said to my assistant, “I think I might need to go to the hospital.” That was enough of a wake up call that it did cause me to change my behavior and set a limit as far as how much I would push myself, and sometimes injure myself, for the sake of my work.

Doing it all for the sake of the work seems to be a prevailing theme in comedy writing. You’ve previously cited a musical number from Monty Python as the ultimate example of that: a complicated and costly scene created and produced solely for the laughs.

(Laughs) Sure, I've always loved that movie since I was a kid. That number was such a lesson to me, as far as how to do that right. The song is called “Semen is Sacred.” That could potentially come off kind of crude unless you have some really great dancers and a really great arrangement backing it up. They had to have very serious choreography, rehearsals for the dancers… It was clearly so legit. It just was such a brilliant commitment to the jokes. And Family Guy tries to take a cue from that. We use anywhere from a 50 to an 85 piece orchestra each week for that show, depending on the needs of the episode. If there's a big musical number, we'll use more players. For a song like “Shipoopi,” I think it was something like 70 players and the arrangement was restored from the 1961 film. Everyone involved really took it seriously. And I can trace that back to Monty Python. If you're going to do something that's tasteless, you get away with it a lot more if you have a really great string section.

What else can you get away with as a comedian?

Okay, here’s an example. When I did A Million Ways to Die in the West, that was sort of my first turn as a straight up actor. I definitely found it challenging. It was always much easier to slip into a character voice to do Peter Griffin or Stewie on Family Guy. There's just a million hooks to lock on to when you're doing voiceover, it's like wearing a piece of prosthetic makeup — which I did once for The Orville and again, found that very liberating because I didn't have to hold back. I didn't have to worry about going too big or too broad. I could do it because I was under a piece of make up. So in that sense, I guess I would have been most at home on vaudeville! But in some ways, that's why singing comes easily to me because it’s a much more expressive, emotive, and in some ways broad tone, as far as what's required to communicate what you're trying to communicate than say, acting in a film.

“Your show has presence in a lot of households, and a lot of people are watching it. It does have a voice. But at the same time, it is a comedy, and comedy is based on imperfection.”

In that respect, is there a power in music that doesn’t exist within other genres?

In an upbeat Broadway musical number, there's a kind of fearlessness and a lack of self-consciousness. If you look at something like Gene Kelly singing “Almost Like Being in Love” in Brigadoon, there's just no pretense at all, there isn't this sense of, “Oh, shit, I’ve got to look cool! I’ve got to be sexy!” There’s none of that. With pop singers today, you know, the vowels are all twisted out of whack and it’s sort of a pretense, a way to hide behind something. So for me, the fun in doing records like Great Songs from Stage and Screen, where I get to dig up old material that hasn’t been explored, it’s really rediscovering these songs and doing them the way that these vocalists would have done in the forties, fifties, and sixties. It’s a real pleasure for me.

What about comedy? Does the genre also provide a different space in which to tackle subjects that might be taboo or tricky?

I mean, certainly, everyone from George Carlin to Key and Peele to Dave Chappelle… One of my favorite one person shows was Julia Sweeney's Letting Go of God, which  was all about Catholicism, religion, and atheism. I remember putting the CD into my car, that's how long ago it was, and driving home and then sitting in my driveway for two hours, I couldn't shut it off. It was so entertaining. So yeah, there's certainly a lot of that kind of stuff.

Does that also give comedians a unique responsibility to be more careful with what they’re writing or saying?

Comedically, yeah, I think you do have to know what you're saying, but I mean, there's no clean, universal answer to that. It does depend on varying factors. You want to be aware that your show is present in a lot of households, and a lot of people are watching it. It does have a voice. But at the same time, it is a comedy, and comedy is based on imperfection. Your characters can't be perfect. I think as far as making fun of politicians or celebrities or whoever, there's a difference between doing it yourself, say on Twitter, and hearing it through the mouth of a fictional character, like Peter or Stewie. I think those are getting very different reactions. We've rarely, almost never had negative responses from celebrities of whom we've made fun on Family Guy. In most cases, they call us up and say, “Hey, can I be on the show now?”