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Seth MacFarlane talks funny

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Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy, has a new film out. It’s called A Million Ways To Die In The West and it’s by far the most puerile thing you’ll watch this year. Partly because it’s just Ted with MacFarlane in the role of a live-action cowboy instead of a CGI bear, and partly because you can expect to find yourself laughing at everything from gags about killer cows to the inside of Charlize Theron’s vagina. The kind of stuff that’s only funny in a MacFarlane film.

Maybe it’s because the 40-year-old’s comedies hold up a cartoonish mirror to the slightly nerdy audience who adore them. Which is why Peter Griffin saying the wrong thing to his disabled friend rings true – like something we might say by accident and then feel guilty about for life. Maybe it’s that MacFarlane, like his fans, enjoys high-brow humour. But more than likely, it’s because he knows the biggest laughs come from films that have absolutely no interest in being respectable…

Blazing Saddles is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a funny western. Were you thinking of Mel Brooks when you wrote this movie?

I love Blazing Saddles. I saw it when I was a kid and I thought it was hilarious and brilliant. I loved it so much. Now, as a comedy writer, what I realise Mel Brooks got so right is that Blazing Saddles is set in the 19th century, but it’s also very much set in 1974. Gene Wilder is straight-up playing a Seventies dude, that is why it is so funny, so that’s what we tried to do in our movie too. I wanted us to be very modern, in a period piece. If you can achieve that, there’s your humour, yet so many period pieces over the years have failed to grasp that.

The girl I saw your new film with didn’t laugh half as much at the jokes as me. Do you think that men tend to get your humour more than women?

Not necessarily, I think it differs by personality type more than gender. With our test screenings for A Million Ways To Die In The West, we found that we were split down the middle in terms of men and women who get the humour. It’s just a personality thing. Your friend might just be a stiff.

True. It’s fair to say that your style of humour polarises opinion.

At times. It depends on the project because Ted had a little less of that factor. Some people loved it to the point they got tattoos, and others thought it was completely stupid, but there was a bunch of people in the middle who just kinda found it OK. For Family Guy, I would say you’re either in or you’re out. And when you’re in, you’re hugely in.

What’s the most intense reaction you’ve had from a Family Guy fan?

The ones who show up in your house probably fit that bill.

In your house? That’s happened?

A couple of times. Not fun, but I guess it comes with the territory.

Is there anywhere in the world you can go on holiday where you can escape Family Guy?

I’ve never been to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, but I wouldn’t be that surprised if I saw someone wearing a Peter Griffin T-shirt there.

Is there anything that you wouldn’t joke about?

Of course. A lot of it is timing. It’s an old rule that tragedy plus time equals comedy. You can’t make a joke about a plane crash two days after it’s plummeted into a mountain, but you can make a joke about the Titanic, where hundreds of people died in equally horrific circumstances. You need to time these things right or you’re just being horrible.

Have you ever crossed that line?

There are jokes here and there on Family Guy that I maybe wish we hadn’t done, but in general the process has a lot of fail-safes, so you can’t go too far. A movie, and even a TV show, takes a crazy long time to produce, so you’re thinking things over, watching them again and again. And so many people are involved, if you’re crossing the line, you can tell because the crew aren’t laughing. And when they don’t laugh, nobody will laugh. It’s a self-policing mechanism that works very well.

Why is the scene in A Million Ways… where a couple burn to death so funny?

The whole essence of comedy is to surprise; if you’re not surprised you’re not laughing. That’s why it’s so hard to know at times if the jokes you’ve written are funny. You’re not surprised, because you know what you’ve written. So it helps to write in a team, which I always do.

You’ve always been very good at laughing at the British. What is it that makes us such easy targets?

I’ve always been a huge fan of British comedy. Monty Python, Benny Hill, The Young Ones, Blackadder – in my little town, we were able to get our hands on some of that stuff. I like to laugh at the British because the British are always so good at laughing at themselves, and I just want to be part of that thing. Americans are terrible at laughing at themselves.

Westerns tend to be factually inaccurate, but do Americans believe the genre actually documents their heritage?

I don’t know. In some ways it is surprisingly accurate. The biggest exception is the showdown, which was never as glamorous as we have been led to believe. Most of those outlaws got shot in the back. But a lot of what else you see in those old western films really isn’t that far from what was going on out there.

Do you think you would have made a good cowboy?

No, I would have made a terrible cowboy. I won’t even get on a freeway without a GPS system.

Do you even like horses?

I’m not a huge fan of sitting on horses, but I could hang out with a horse for a while. It wouldn’t upset me, at least.

Do you own a gun?

I do not. I have shot a real one, but I didn’t like it.

What about spitting – can you spit like John Wayne?

Not really much of a spitter, unfortunately. My mouth always tends to be dry due to some kind of stress-related disorder.

Were you nervous about being a leading man for the first time?

I get excited about things that make me nervous. I’ve watched my performance and I’m happy with it, and I credit that entirely to Charlize. One of the things that I have learned over the years is that the quality of your performance depends on what you are getting from the other actor in the scene, and she is someone just exploding with talent. She was just a powerhouse in every way and I am forever in her debt.

She’s known for Monster. Is being funny something that comes naturally to her?

She is this big ball of talent, and she can do anything. As a rule I would say that I always prefer working with actors to comedians. Good comedy is about the writing, and our style in particular doesn’t need people to gild the lily. We just require people to deliver the line in a truly believable way. An actor who can do that, for me, is tapping into the heart of comedy. Take a ridiculous line and play it like it’s the most honest, heartfelt thing in the world, and that’s just beautiful.

Finally, do you ever laugh at your own jokes?

Every once in a while, particularly if there’s something where the actor delivering the joke has brought something additional to it, then, yeah, I might lose it a little. There were a couple of instances in this movie. There’s a line that Charlize says, which was a sort of ad-libbed reaction, that still makes me laugh out loud every time I see it because I just wasn’t expecting it.

A Million Ways To Die In The West is at cinemas nationwide from 30 May

(Image: All Star)

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