Talking to Seth MacFarlane is an odd experience. It feels as if you’re speaking to 15 different cartoon characters – like being on the phone to the staff of an adult Disneyland. For more than 13 years, MacFarlane has provided the vocals of, among others, Peter and Stewie Griffin, and Brian The Dog on Family Guy, the cartoon sitcom he created. Add to that characters in American Dad! and The Cleveland Show and he’s one of the most prolific larynxes on TV. Consequently, few people know the face.
“Actually, I do get recognised fairly frequently,” counters the 38-year-old. “Big Family Guy fans know me. They are generally very pleasant, although, once, one of them did just walk up to me, hand me a corned beef sandwich, say, ‘I love your show,’ and then walk off. It was a kind gesture. I did not eat the sandwich.”
MacFarlane is probably about to become recognisable, at least vocally, to a much wider audience thanks to his film directing debut, Ted, a superb, Eighties-tinged comedy about a boy whose imaginary bear comes to life (voiced by MacFarlane, naturally), then grows up with him and becomes a pot-smoking layabout. It’s already been a box office hit in the US, taking more than $160m (£130m) so far.
Seth MacFarlane started hearing voices a long time ago – sorry, not hearing voices, making voices. “It was something I did to get attention,” he says. “It got enough laughs from the grown-ups that I was encouraged to keep doing it.” This combined with an early love of drawing comics – he had cartoons published in his local paper before he was 10 years old – made a career in animation an obvious path. Straight out of college he began working at Hanna-Barbera, the fabled LA studio that produced The Flintstones, Top Cat and Yogi Bear. He worked on some of the studio’s weirder Cartoon Network output, such as Johnny Bravo, I Am Weasel and Cow & Chicken, developing his taste for comedy that’s a little off-centre.
It was only a few years later, in 1998, before he’d even reached 25, that MacFarlane successfully pitched Family Guy, the classic ‘useless dad’ sitcom with more of a perverse streak than you’d expect to find on any other primetime cartoon show. It was not an instant hit. It had a devoted but small fanbase and, after being kicked all over the schedule, was officially cancelled in 2002 after three seasons. However, in classic Hollywood style, the plucky little, foul-mouthed cartoon would not be kept down, and strong DVD sales, along with a fan campaign, meant Family Guy was brought back to life in 2005.
“I never expected it to go on so long,” says MacFarlane. “I ponder [the end of Family Guy] on a regular basis. It’s important to know when a show has overstayed its welcome before your audience does. All you can look at is ratings. The ratings are still great, so there are still people watching it.”
The show has not been without its critics, most notably Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who dedicated an episode of their show South Park to tearing down what they considered the haphazard laziness of Family Guy and its preponderance for random cutaway scenes. “The South Park episode was hilarious,” says MacFarlane. “They deserve credit, I suppose, because nobody had ever referenced our flashbacks as a negative until that episode. Now every critic who writes negatively about Family Guy will talk about the annoying cutaways. They’re all just aping Trey and Matt.”
As someone who “naturally gravitates towards things that terrify me”, MacFarlane started thinking about films several years ago. Ted was originally an idea for another animated TV show. “It was somewhat different,” says MacFarlane. “But it involved a teddy bear coming to life and growing up with a guy. However, the character had a family and kids and didn’t want the bear there any more. So the whole dynamic was different. This incarnation felt to me like it would be a lot warmer and have more legs.”
Studios were interested straight away, and after finishing the script, MacFarlane took it to Mark Wahlberg, to ask him to play the role of a guy deciding between his stuffed buddy and girlfriend Mila Kunis. “Mark’s Boston-ness was a big part of bringing him in,” says MacFarlane, whose film makes much use of Bostonians’ strangled vowels. “I thought he was one of the few guys who could get across the comedy and the drama at the same time. He was very positive from our first meeting, although he told me later he initially thought it was bizarre and I was crazy.”
Back to the Eighties
If you’ve watched Family Guy you’ll know MacFarlane has a thing for Eighties films – Star Wars and Indiana Jones are regular touchstones – and Ted has the feel of a kids film from that decade, with hints of Big, Turner & Hooch and even The ’Burbs. “The ’Burbs? Wow,” he says, laughing. “I love that movie. I think you and I might be the only people who enjoy that movie. But, what we wanted to capture was that excitement we used to have when we were kids, going to see Ghostbusters or Back To The Future. Movies that felt real and believable but had this weird, fantastical element.” Ted is that, just with a bear that swears an awful lot and has sex, somehow, with girls in supermarket storerooms.
The switch from animation to live-action was not an issue. “If anything, I found I had more control. Rather than relying on 300 people to bring something to life over the course of nine months, you’re relying on 30 people to bring something to life over the course of nine minutes.” It’s even given him a hankering to do live-action TV. “I have always been a fan of forceful, dramatic sci-fi on television, such as The Twilight Zone or Star Trek,” he says. “I’d love to do a thoughtful, non-dystopian sci-fi series at some point.”
Naturally, with Ted now officially a hit, there is already discussion of possible sequels. “If we find the right idea, yeah,” MacFarlane muses, cagily. But there’s a missing element; if we’re following the Eighties sequel rule, surely a baby – and all the surrounding chaos – has to enter the equation? “Logistically we have a problem there,” deadpans MacFarlane. “This is a stuffed bear. I mean, I think, scientifically, we’d have to be looking at adoption.”
Ted is at cinemas nationwide now
(Images: Rex Features, All Star)