Seth MacFarlane – he’s the “Family Guy”

The man behind the voices of Peter Griffin, Stewie Griffin, Glenn Quagmire and Brian, the intellectual, martini-drinking dog explains all...

For fans of Family Guy, that’s virtually every aorta of the beating heart of the show, and it’s the fans that MacFarlane and his team of writers owe their very existence too.

Cancelled after just a couple of seasons in 2002, high DVD sales and large viewing figures for the reruns on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim convinced FOX to resume the show in 2005: it’s one of the few television shows to be canceled and revived by the power of its fans, and is now in production on it’s sixth season.

Speaking by phone as he drove to the production offices, MacFarlane talked about Family Guy and a new live action sitcom that he is producing featuring Rob Cordrey from The Daily Show:

“It’s called The Winner, and is written by Family Guy writer Ricky Blitt. He wrote a pilot for it about three or four years ago, but the single-camera filming didn’t work with an audience. I thought it was so funny and I vowed that if I could ever resurrect the show, if I ever had some pull, then I would. Now it’s multi-camera, and a million times better.”

MacFarlane has his hands busy with Family Guy and American Dad! so he’s just a producer on this show – “a kind of overseer” – but he explained that it’s in the same tradition as his animation favorites:

“(The Winner) is an odd combination of racy and traditional. Seinfeld was sort of the mould, but this is maybe a little edgier. Cordrey is hysterically funny.” 

Racy and traditional are certainly words that can be applied to Family Guy. Much stronger ones have been applied, as their battles with the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) – famously parodied in song-and-dance in one episode - have proved:

“The people who get offended aren’t the ones you think, just the hardcore, right-wing Christian folks who are offended by everything. Every week we get letters saying “Jesus this, Jesus that” and “You’re all going to Hell”. We don’t single out anyone (on the show), whereas if it were, say, the Chinese and nothing else, there’d be trouble. We always poke fun at everybody, because no-one wants to be in a bad spot.”

When he was asked what the reaction had been to the show around the world and whether it differed from country to country, he was stumped for a moment:

“That’s a good question. I can’t imagine that anyone is more offended by it than people in America – mind you, we don’t show it in South Korea. There’s been good feedback from the UK, and Germany.”

MacFarlane happily admits that the humour of the show owes a lot to vaudeville: “and there’s a lot of English humor in it too, like Monty Python”.

There are also some similarities to 80s British sitcom The Young Ones, and there’s a huge nod to the parody and spoofs associated with the Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker movies such as Naked Gun and the TV series Police Squad!

For those who haven’t seen the show, Family Guy is a half-hour comedy animation show that features the Griffin family, who all live and work in Quahog, Rhode Island, a fictional suburb of Providence.

MacFarlane, 33, was born in Kent, Connecticut and studied animation at the Rhode Island School of Design, which inspired the hometown of the Griffins. Many background shots in the show feature three skyscrapers, which reflects a row of buildings in the actual Providence skyline.

It was during his time at college that he created a short film entitled The Life of Larry, an early ancestor of Family Guy. After graduation he was hired by the legendary Hanna-Barbera Productions and later worked as an animator and writer for Cartoon Network’s Cartoon Cartoons series, which included Johnny Bravo, Dexter's Laboratory and Cow and Chicken.

In 1996, MacFarlane created a sequel to The Life of Larry called Larry and Steve, which featured the bumbling middle-aged Larry and his highly intelligent dog Steve.

This new incarnation Larry first hit the screen in 1999 during the Super Bowl commercial break, and it caught the attention of 20th Century Fox, who asked him to create a series based on the characters.

Head of the Griffin family is Irish-American Catholic Peter, an obese and bespectacled man who is just a big child – and has other roots beside his Irish ones, including African-American, Spanish, Scottish and German. He’s known for his trademark laugh and phrase, which is borrowed from Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners: “Pow! Right in the kisser!”

As is the way in American family sitcoms, his wife is the sexy, trim Lois (voiced by Alex Borstein) and they have three children, the lumbering and goofy Chris (Seth Green), endlessly unpopular Meg (Milka Kunis), an intellectual talking dog called Brian, and  pseudo-villain baby Stewie who, despite the family’s origins, sounds very English:

“Ah, thanks for saying so! I’m a big Rex Harrison fan – Dr Dolittle and so on - and I ripped off Stewie’s voice from him.” 

As with supposed arch-rivals/friends The Simpsons (depending on which website you read), Family Guy has had its share of movie, TV and music stars queuing up to be immortalised on screen, even if it’s going to be high parody or in a very less-than-flattering way:

“We get about a half and half success. A lot of people do call us up and say: “Hey, I love the show and I’m happy to do it. Drew Barrymore was one of those, and when we went to her to ask her to do a show, she ended up staying as a character for the whole season. Chris and Meg attend James Woods High School, and when he found out about it he called us up and said it was hilarious. He wanted to be in the show too”.

As for the inspiration behind the Irish side of the Griffin family, MacFarlane revealed that his background wasn’t from the Emerald Isle at all:

“No, my family is from Scotland. Loch Lomond. When I was growing up, my father had lots of friends: big, vocal, opinionated New England, Irish Catholics. They were all bursting at the seams with personality, and Family Guy came out of a lot of those archetypes that I spent years observing.”

The show relies on non-sequiturs, usually in the form of flashbacks, for a lot of its humour, and there are endless references to music, movies, popular culture and a lot of surreal – but funny – nonsense.

Unusually, the writing team gets more involved than other animation programs, especially in some of the long, improvised scenes that often crop up:

“About half of the stuff that sounds improvised is already scripted, and we have to deliver it so it sounds like it was improvised. The reason it works so well is because we let the writers do voices for the characters they have written, and it’s kind of unique – few people ever notice it. The reason we do it is that is that improvisations sounds so stilted with professionals, so we base the animation around their own “hums” and “hahs”, rather than take them out.”

Judging by footage of table reads on the DVD from recently-releases season 4, everyone on the show finds the scripts truly funny, although MacFarlane has to be careful to avoid the pitfalls of long days and nights writing in the office:

“I can’t drink coffee, it gives me a headache. I go for tea, something like Earl Grey, which I drink like it was water”.

MacFarlane is a skilled pianist and singer who, as a young man, worked with the same vocal coaches as Frank Sinatra. He’s a big fan of musicals, and often uses song and dance routines in Family Guy, although he despairs at the current state of music and the charts:

“Today’s music is just a wasteland. Nothing lasts more than a couple of years, and now so much rests on the performer, whereas it used to be about the writers – Cole Porter, Lerner and Loewe and so on. We still hear those tunes today, but what will be listening to in 20 years time?”

Discussing Alvin Sargent, writer of Spider-Man 2 and the upcoming Spider-Man 3 at over 75 years of age (Sargent’s first Oscar nomination was for Paper Moon in 1973 and he’s won two since), MacFarlane mentioned television, and especially the HBO series The Sopranos:

“The average writer on that show is in his 50s or early 60s I think, which is why the show is so good. Ricky Blitt – though he’ll hate me for telling you this – is in his early 40s, and The Winner has that same kind of edginess without being shallow, although there’s warmth and backbone too. He’s a seasoned writer, and there’s experience there.”

And animation?

“The Simpsons has definitely earned its place in the Hall of Fame, even though some say it’s lost its edge recently. It’s been around nearly 20 series now? I’ll be astonished if we make it that long.”

As for the future, MacFarlane thinks that there will be more straight-to-DVD movies, such as Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story and we may be seeing the Griffin Family on the big screen as well, though MacFarlane himself might be branching out further:

“I periodically gets offers for acting, but I dance round it with a kind of trepidation. I’ll probably take a stab at it at some time. Voiceover is so different though – it’s vaudevillian.”

In relation to this, MacFarlane mentions one of the reoccurring “toppers” in Family Guy: a man wearing a striped waistcoat and a boater does a short musical number, then shouts to his rinky-dink bar pianist below to “play him out”:

“Yeah, so few people get that. The way the pianist turns and looks at the audience – he wants your approval, just like we do!”

But with all those famous characters in his voice box – MacFarlane sounds most like Brian when he talks – is he in danger of being cast for his vocal talents alone, like the guy from the Police Academy movies?

“That’s a question, yeah. You’re voice becomes kind of your brand, but when you are on camera (as an actor) you’re only playing one character.”  

MacFarlane is an avid fan of Star Trek, and appeared as the engineer Ensign Rivers on Star Trek: Enterprise in a couple of episodes. Since then, Patrick Stewart has had a recurring role as the director of the CIA in American Dad! (and also reprised his famed role of Jean Luc Picard in an episode of Family Guy):

“He’s one of the greatest male leading actors of our time. He’s tremendous comedian.”

American Dad! was first shown after Super Bowl XXXIX in early 2005, and focuses on Stan Smith, a fanatical conservative and CIA agent, and his family, which includes two children and Roger, the extraterrestrial alien who rescued Stan from Area 51. Oh, and another talking animal - Klaus the goldfish, who hosts the transplanted brain of an East German Olympic skier.

MacFarlane provides the voices of Stan and Roger, and it’s due to run for at least two more seasons.

Last year, MacFarlane was invited by Harvard University to deliver the “class day” address, and he spoke as himself, Peter, Stewie and Glenn Quagmire. At the end of his speech, he was presented with an honorary degree, which isn’t bad going for a 33-year-old guy who had been publicly chastised by his former Kent School headmaster for his “low” brand of humour. It’s all very much a reflection of how he feels about going to work every day:

“Sometimes we get all the things we hope for.”

As for his company, Fuzzy Door Productions, where did the name come from?

“That logo was designed by an old college roommate, and it’s an illustration of our college door. Orange fuzz was stapled onto the door, and was there when we arrived – probably had been there since the 70s. When we became known as the “fuzzy door” house, we thought we’d better leave it as it was”.

Perfect kitsch, and as the sexually-voracious Family Guy bachelor Quagmire might say: “All right!”