Bear with Me

8 minute read
Joel Stein

Seth Macfarlane relaxes by sitting in his tasteful mansion, listening to big-band albums, watching old musicals and playing piano; he works by sitting at the kitchen counter and scribbling fart jokes. The creator of the animated, highly offensive Fox TV shows Family Guy, American Dad! and The Cleveland Show throws enormous Gatsby-like parties at his house and books a full orchestra. He is polite and thoughtful, with an easy laugh. It’s as if you walked into the offices of Mad magazine in the 1960s and found out the editor was William F. Buckley Jr.

MacFarlane, 38, is visibly happy as he stands in a recording studio overseeing the 82-piece band that’s scoring the DVD extras for his first movie, Ted. One of the extras is a joke cut from the beginning of the film, when a bunch of Boston kids beat up a Jewish boy as a birthday gift to Jesus. “There were a lot of Jesus jokes, so we figured, Let’s go easy on the bastard,” says MacFarlane, after asking the composer to skip the diminuendo as the kid gets pummeled on the screen above him. “You pick your Christ humor carefully. You don’t go for both palms and feet.”

Ted (out June 29) is about a boy whose Christmas wish is for his teddy bear to come to life and be his best friend forever and how, 30 years later, having a pot-smoking, foulmouthed 2-foot-tall stuffed roommate can screw up your career and relationships. While the movie has all the R-rated verbal crudeness that MacFarlane can’t put on his network shows, it’s also got a gooier center. Which is pretty new for him. He wanted to replicate the generally sunny tone of 1980s summer movies like Back to the Future and E.T.–and MacFarlane himself has a very sunny attitude. Not just because when he sold Family Guy to Fox at 24, he became the youngest person ever to run a network show. Not just because when Fox gave him a five-year contract for more than $100 million in 2008, he became the highest-paid TV writer in history. The dude is just sunny. His favorite movie is The Sound of Music. He’d like to make a science-fiction show because, he says, “I feel like dystopia has taken over. Growing up, I watched Captain Picard on the Enterprise. It was a future you wanted to live in. Everything wasn’t coated in black oil. It took outer space and made it look like Dynasty.”

He might have the same liberal-tarian frustrations as his buddy Bill Maher–both are atheists who feel strongly about global warming, pot legalization and gay marriage–but he’s got none of the vitriol. MacFarlane liked his parents. (His late mom did administrative work at the Connecticut prep school where his dad taught; his sister Rachael now does voices on Family Guy and American Dad!) “The guys who can pitch five good jokes in a minute are miserable and had a tougher childhood,” he says. “It takes me a little longer. I have to work a little harder.”

MacFarlane is a meta-comedy machine, stacking towers of high and low cultural references, absurdism (a human-size chicken often appears to beat up the dad on Family Guy), deeply offensive humor (a bouncy tune called “You Have AIDS”) and Family Guy’s impossibly concise 10-second cutaway jokes, like one in which an indie director remakes Brokeback Mountain from the horses’ point of view. MacFarlane is a hero to young men–Family Guy is the No. 1 scripted show among men ages 18 to 24–which is why in 2008, the Obama campaign took the risk of having him stump for the candidate in Ohio.

When Mark Wahlberg’s agent, Ari Emanuel, asked him to read a script about a guy with a teddy bear written by a guy who writes cartoon shows, Wahlberg tried to say no. Emanuel harped on him; Wahlberg read it and liked it. Then he watched an episode of Family Guy. “I said, ‘O.K., it’s a cartoon, so I’ll watch it in front of my children. It’s on regular TV,'” Wahlberg says. “Stewie poops in his diaper, so he makes the dog eat the poop and so he throws up and makes the dog clean up the puke. My wife starts screaming at me and shuts it off. That was it–I was an instant fan.”

Ted is about a boy-man who must grow up, and it’s not surprising that MacFarlane made it at this point in his life. Since getting that $100 million contract, he has hired a trainer, lost 35 pounds, gotten his teeth whitened and slicked back his hair so he looks more like the Rat Pack entertainer he wants to be (he took six months of tap-dance lessons) than the nerd he is (he took six months of tap-dance lessons). Last year he released a Grammy-nominated swing album, Music Is Better than Words. After short relationships with models and young actresses such as Eliza Dushku and Amanda Bynes, he says he’s been looking for a more serious relationship. “Actresses have a lot of daddy issues,” he says. “If you’re an asshole, it kind of works in your favor. I refuse to wear jewelry, so that makes it harder.”

But the main reason he finally made Ted wasn’t his own increasingly grownup life–it was technology. MacFarlane first planned Ted as another animated TV show but decided to do a live-action movie after seeing how motion-capture animation (seen in Avatar and The Lord of the Rings movies) could make lifelike characters. He thought motion capture would be even more powerful in comedy, where realistic expressions and gestures are more crucial than in science fiction. So MacFarlane directed a $50 million movie while wearing a spandex suit with balls stuck on it, so he could jump into scenes to perform the voice of the teddy bear.

His greatest skill is as a voice actor. He does three of the main voices on Family Guy (which is basically The Honeymooners, animated), the lead on American Dad! (The Honeymooners making fun of Republicans) and one on The Cleveland Show (black Honeymooners). “I’d been at The Simpsons too,” says Rich Appel, a co-creator of The Cleveland Show, “and with the best voice actors, it’s immediately apparent. He seamlessly shifts from distinct character to distinct character.” MacFarlane, who studied animation at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), also draws all his characters. When Mila Kunis, who plays Wahlberg’s girlfriend in Ted, had to fly from the movie’s Boston set back home to L.A. to put her dog Shorty to sleep, MacFarlane drew her a picture. “He cartooned Shorty and Family Guy–ed him. It made me cry,” says Kunis, who has known MacFarlane since she was 15 and began voicing the daughter on Family Guy. “And it was amazing. He drew it from his memory. He remembered what Shorty looked like.”

No one questions MacFarlane’s talent. The only criticism he’s gotten, besides from decent God-fearing people everywhere, is that those talents don’t lead to deep-enough work. South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone will not let up. One South Park episode portrayed the Family Guy writing staff as manatees poking balls labeled with random ideas and jokes down a tube to generate episodes. “That was hilarious and spot-on. It made us rethink our cutaway style,” MacFarlane says. “But I’ve never quite understood the venom they let loose in interviews about Family Guy and about me. I’ve only met Matt and Trey a couple of times, and I don’t remember sodomizing them. Maybe that’s the problem.” He pauses. “Those are the things you shouldn’t say.”

MacFarlane is always calm and hyperrational. On Sept. 10, 2001, he gave a lecture at RISD; the next morning, he arrived too late at Boston’s Logan Airport to make his flight home. That flight hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. But MacFarlane has said it never haunted him, that it was a random close call with no deeper resonance. He’s passionate about getting America to be less superstitious and more aware of basic science. After meeting astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, he became a producer on Tyson’s new version of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, which MacFarlane persuaded Fox to air in prime time next year.

“He called to have lunch and asked me 20 questions about the big bang, the early universe, cosmic background radiation, dark matter and dark energy,” Tyson says. “A few months later, Stewie’s time machine on Family Guy takes him back to the big bang. During the end credits, I noticed I was credited as science consultant. Seth is always working, even when he’s just hanging out.”

Maybe Ted is about how MacFarlane is working on himself instead of just working–sitting in his office writing and drawing until he collapses and has to go to the emergency room, which happened early in his Family Guy career. Maybe Ted is a signal that he now wants to write stuff with heart, get married, have kids, slow down. That sounds right. Except that at the end of Ted, after the guy gets the girl by growing up, he keeps his teddy bear.

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