Seth MacFarlane had plans. Big plans.
“When I graduated from art school,” says the 41-year-old producer/director, “I was planning on going to the Boston Conservatory of Music for musical theater. Then I got an offer from Hanna-Barbera to come work for them in Los Angeles right before I was supposed to go. It was just too good to pass up.”
What a different career MacFarlane might have had, had he not ventured into the wacky world of animation. With a baritone like his — deep, resonant, velvety — and a smile that brings new meaning to the word gleaming, there’s little doubt he would have ended up on the stage of some Broadway musical show, singing his heart out night after night, eight performances a week. Then again, given the intensely competitive nature of the theater world, he might have just as well ended up slinging fried clams at Howard-Johnsons.
That scenario is unlikely, given the measure of MacFarlane’s talent, but either way, the move to Hollywood eventually led to a Prime Time animated series on Fox — Family Guy — that forged a devoted following that produced, well… an empire.
Like anyone in the business, MacFarlane has had a few misfires. But his hits, Family Guy, American Dad, the movie Ted, about a foul-mouthed teddy bear (a sequel comes out this year), aren’t just massive — all had a lasting impact on our society and culture. If The Simpsons was the first tidal wave, Family Guy was our watershed moment.
MacFarlane brought back the shock value in television humor — he made it safe to be offensive again, albeit in a playful way. Most live-action sitcoms still endure a certain leaden ennui, a mind-numbing formulaic approach to their genre, but MacFarlane’s shows breathed life into formats badly in need of resuscitation. If The Simpsons proved that animation could compete with traditional sitcoms, Family Guy proved that it could better them. Animation is still basking in the glow of this golden age, what with popular shows like the warmly offbeat and incredibly funny Bob’s Burgers and hilariously performed Archer, all using their medium for humor in ways live-action comedy can only dream of.
The interesting thing about MacFarlane, however, is that he’s not just a creator, producer and director, but a performer, with a deep love and abiding respect for the musical form. And his shows, more than any other on television, reflect that adoration, as all boast a rich orchestral backing that’s just as central as his various off-beat characters and their ribald ways.
MacFarlane has parlayed his vocal performance work on Family Guy and American Dad (where he voices many of the leading characters) into a full-fledged musical career. He’s released two albums, 2011’s Music is Better Than Words and 2014’s Holiday for Swing. Recently, he’s been cozying up to live orchestras, performing last August with the John Williams Orchestra at the fabled Hollywood Bowl and again this past New Year’s Eve with the San Francisco Symphony. On Saturday, he’ll add the NSO Pops feather to his cap, performing a series of romantic standards on Saturday, Feb. 14 — Valentine’s Day. What better way to celebrate love than with a man who so clearly loves music — especially the old-fashioned kind that makes your head swoon and your heart soar.
METRO WEEKLY: You’re appearing with the NSO Pops this weekend, so I’d like to start with music. It’s so critical within your TV shows, from the big orchestral arrangements to the huge production numbers. And now you have albums out as a singer on your own merits. What is it that’s drawn you to music in such a powerful and obvious way?
SETH MACFARLANE: Well, it’s twofold. On the one hand, I grew up loving the sounds of great film scores. I was a colossal John Williams fan. Still am. I loved the big bands of the ’40s, which eventually led me to the Nelson Riddle and Billy May and Gordon Jenkins arrangements of the ’50s and ’60s. So it really comes from, more than any other place, a love of orchestras and the mixtures of sounds that you can get from a large ensemble in the hands of a skilled arranger/composer. It’s an obsession with that sound, the power and beauty of it. That is what drives me to stay involved with this facet of entertainment.
MW: You take that old-fashioned approach in the music for your TV shows and films.
MACFARLANE: I lament the state of film scoring in Hollywood right now. I think it’s rife with problems. We’ve lost too much respect for what it is a great composer can do for your film. I think, in a lot of cases, Hollywood views music as an intrusion and the less it’s heard, the less distracting it will be from the story. But look back at all the great film scores that we remember — they are as important to the story as any of the lead actors. You look at the work of John Williams, in particular. We remember his music as much as we remember Harrison Ford’s performance in Raiders of the Lost Ark. His music for ET is as iconic as the puppet was.
From a comedic standpoint, and as it relates to Family Guy and to American Dad, it has to do with the fact that music taken seriously can make the comedy work even better. When I look back at examples of filmmakers who did that well and really established that rule of thumb, I think of Monty Python. I look at the song “Every Sperm is Sacred,” from Monty Python and the Meaning of Life. It was obviously a ridiculous piece of business content-wise, but it was taken seriously from a musical standpoint. If you watch it, it’s a serious production number. The choreography is legit. The orchestration and songwriting and lyric writing are all legit. And as a result, it makes the whole thing that much funnier when you think this is a song about semen.
I also think of the Zucker brothers. Look at a movie like Airplane, which is probably the best example in the business of music played seriously while augmenting comedy. That was a movie that was as absurd as it gets, but the Zucker Brothers had the smarts to ask Elmer Bernstein, one of the great film composers of all time, to write a dramatic score. Now, by today’s standards, it would seem a little big, but at the time it was no different than a dramatic score for any straight disaster movie.
MW: You’ve used music to incredible satirical effect, on Family Guy in particular. The musical numbers on the show are huge, hilarious, stunning to watch. To anybody who remembers the old-fashioned movie musical, you get this extra layer of acknowledgment. It must be a lot of fun to create those.
MACFARLANE: It is. In a lot of cases, we’re using arrangements that haven’t been played in decades. And speaking specifically to the art of orchestration/arranging, it’s something that, in and of itself, has all but vanished in today’s musical culture. You look at the age of great orchestrators like Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins and Herbert Spencer, and it’s something that was an art in and of itself that was so respected and now is just oftentimes dismissed.
Take something like “Shipoopi” from the The Music Man, which we did in Family Guy. Half the fun of that was digging up the arrangement from the 1961 Warner Bros. film and playing it with the orchestra. The orchestra loved it, we loved hearing it, and you just realize how much great music Hollywood put out back then, how so much of it was taken for granted, and how hard it is to duplicate now.
Once you get past Jurassic Park, that stuff all starts to go away. Those hummable scores are not there. Part of that is, I think, the fault of directors. This idea of musical themes as characters is viewed as something that’s going to distract from the story. And I don’t think that has to be the case at all.
MW: You’re a director who has crossed over into singing standards with an orchestra. We don’t get many of those. Is this a dream come true for you?
MACFARLANE: I have a very windy path that I took to get to where I am. I did a lot of music theater when I was a kid. I was a member of a local theater group starting when I was about 9 years old. And I did a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan, which is about as good a grounding as you can get in music. To have to learn that stuff at that age — you put your brain in the right frame of mind to appreciate great music from thereon out.
I’d always had an interest in animation and filmmaking, as well. But I remember when I was in art school, one of the things I felt a little differently than some of my colleagues about was animation as a visual art versus a performance art. Most of the thinking I was surrounded by was that animation was a visual art first and foremost. I always thought of it more as a performance art — that animation was more closely related to theatrical arts than it was to visual arts. And I guess maybe that’s why I straddled both worlds for as long as I did.
MW: Singing live with an orchestra must be like night and day from doing your voice-over work for the series.
MACFARLANE: [Laughs.] It’s a little different. The voice-over work certainly keeps you in shape in its own way, but I love this music. It’s not hard to get to a place during a performance where you’re just enveloped by the orchestrations. I have the time of my life doing it.
MW: As an LGBT magazine, we’re obliged to get a little gay. Do you remember the first time somebody came out to you, and is there a story behind it?
MACFARLANE: You know, I don’t. And it’s probably because I come from a very progressive family, so it just wasn’t that big a deal. I have a cousin in my family who came out when he was in his early 20s, but it just wasn’t really that big a deal to anybody. So it’s not a specific day that sticks in in my memory. I’ve never had anyone come out to me directly.
In art school it was the same kind of thing. It was the ’90s, and we had reached the point, at least on college campuses, where it wasn’t that big a deal. It was just something that was already part of the normal landscape. Now, obviously, it’s come considerably farther than that, but I don’t remember it ever being something that really registered on my radar any more than what I had for breakfast.
MW: Is it remarkable to you to watch the movement happening in our society right now with regard to gays in the military and marriage equality? Standing as somebody who’s not necessarily in the thick of it, what does it mean to you to watch this happening?
MACFARLANE: There’s a line in Ted 2 that Amanda Seyfried has when she’s defending Ted on the stand: “In every civil rights conflict, we are only able to recognize the just point of view years after the fact.” It’s a complaint she makes that goes to the heart of how I feel about the issue: it always takes too long.
It seems like we should be much further along than we are. I know there’s a lot happening, and it’s all great, but it should have happened decades ago. The inability of people to process the difference between something like what’s happening now and the Civil Rights movement among the black community that happened decades ago is surprising. It’s surprising that we can’t just make the connection.
You hear from people that “This is different. The level of discrimination is not what it was for black people in America.” And as far as degrees are concerned, I suppose that’s true. But at the same time, the part of your brain that can say, “This person is lesser than this person for this trivial reason,” is the same part of the brain that works no matter what the situation is. So that’s how I look at it, in what are maybe oversimplified terms. Discrimination is discrimination no matter what the level of it.
One of the most surprising things to me is when I see a black pundit on television speaking out against gay marriage. That always surprises the shit out of me, because I think, “Gosh, you should understand this better than anybody.” As I said, people just aren’t able to look at history and see the similarities and go, “Oh, well, this looks like it’s kind of happening again in a similar fashion. Let’s not fuck it up like we did last time.” So, again, I’m always delighted with any kind of progress that’s made in regards to equality, but it just always seems like it takes too goddamn long.
MW: Well said.
MACFARLANE: The biggest piece of ludicrousness in the whole conflict to begin with is that we all know who’s going to win. At the end of the day, with every civil rights ordeal that comes about, the good guys always win. Eventually the younger generation gets older and they just don’t care. They’re open-minded and they’re fine with all kinds of people. When Prop 8 was getting passed I remember thinking, “God, you guys actually spent 70 million dollars on something that’s eventually going to die anyway.”
MW: Both Family Guy and American Dad have dealt with LGBT issues. You satirize them, make us laugh at them, do your best to offend us. Your shows take edgy chances and some risks. One of the biggest was the episode “Quagmire’s Dad,” where Quagmire’s father had transitioned to a woman, Ida. Critics, activists, and even GLAAD fired full force on you.
MACFARLANE: The “Quagmire’s Dad” episode is more of an example of how television viewership has changed and how all kinds of people — not just people in the gay/lesbian/transsexual community — are watching comedy differently. Look back at All in the Family — there was a show that tackled all kinds of issues, and Archie Bunker was at the center saying some really God-awful things. But we all laughed because we knew how it was being presented and we knew whose side the creator was on, we knew where the writers were coming from. We knew they were coming from the right place.
In this soundbite culture we’re in now, it’s very different, and I feel if that show aired now, people would be grousing over things that Archie said independent of the context — and that’s where the critical thought aspect of it to me is not as present as it should be.
It was a little aggravating reading those responses to the “Quagmire’s Dad” episode. And I thought, “The whole point of the story was that Quagmire was having trouble with his father having a sex change, but at the end of the day he had to acknowledge, ‘Look, this is the same person. This is just the way they’ve chosen to live their life.'” He’s still a Naval hero and he’s still someone to be respected — or she, in this case.
All [critics] could lock onto was the fact that Brian threw up because he had had sex with Ida. Well, it’s a comedy, you know? I remember when I was a teenager thinking, “God, gay guys must be just as grossed out by vaginas as we are by penises.” And that, in the simplest terms, is where Brian was coming from. It was a very simplistic point of view, but it’s a joke. And if you look at the larger context of the episode, Jesus Christ, we’re all on the same side here. So that’s what to me was distressing.
But I think there’s a much larger problem with how people process issue-related comedy and not so much a problem with specifically how GLAAD and organizations in that corner processed this particular episode of TV. We live in a society where there’s often more outrage in the press over jokes than there is about actual racial or homophobic episodes.
MW: Do you ever reconsider a joke in the wake of any of the criticism? Do you ever look back and go, “Oh, I wish we hadn’t done that.”
MACFARLANE: Yeah, and it’s usually not the ones you’d think. A joke always has to be justified in some way — and it’s usually whether you’re laughing at it or not. If you have a joke that’s really on edge, it’s gotta be really funny, it’s gotta be justified in some way comedically in your own mind.
There’s a joke here and there I wish we hadn’t done, mostly from the early days of Family Guy. There was a joke about a John F. Kennedy PEZ dispenser I think we could have done without, but generally, these aren’t things we do haphazardly. You have a room full of writers who are — who are we kidding? — predominantly progressive, who discuss these jokes at length and whether something is gonna be over the line or straddle the line. And even when they’re done with that you have a table reading in which you read the script in front of an audience of crew, of outside spectators, anyone you can find, just to get a real response. And you hear it all. You hear groans. You hear big laughs. You hear gasps. And when you hear gasps, you change the joke because you realize it’s over the line.
And even if those two gateways fail, you still have broadcast standards at Fox who are very responsible — despite the jokes that are being made about Fox on the show, they are very thoughtful and collaborative. So there’s a lot of thought that goes into those things before a joke even gets on the air. It’s like honing a standup act — you screen it for as many people as you can and if 12 audiences are horrified, the joke is not probably not funny, it’s probably offensive. If 12 audiences laugh their ass off and it is offensive, then it’s offensive but it’s still okay regardless of who whines about it. So it’s a process where you just have to discover whether you’re on the edge or over the edge.
MW: I can’t let you leave without asking the big question: Once and for all, is Stewie gay?
MACFARLANE: [Laughs.] No one knows. He’s a baby. That’s the honest answer right there.
Seth MacFarlane will appear with the NSO Pops in a special Valentine’s Day performance on Saturday, Feb. 14, at 8 p.m. in the Concert Hall. Tickets are $20-$88. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.