Parade: Celebrity

Saturday, Feb 23 2013 04:00 AM

Seth MacFarlane Gives Oscar a Lift

By Parade Magazine
From Carson to Crystal to ... Seth MacFarlane. How the creator of Family Guy and Ted landed Hollywood's toughest job—and his hopes for a surprising Oscar night. Watch behind-the-scenes video from MacFarlane's cover photo shoot and read his PARADE cover story below.


Seth MacFarlane is hoping for a streaker. A few one-armed push-ups could work, too. Or maybe this year Steven Spielberg will proclaim himself king of the world. As he embarks on the most high-profile gig of his career, hosting the 85th Academy Awards, MacFarlane’s open to all showstoppers. “The worst thing to happen at the Oscars would be if nothing happened,” he says with a sly smile. “You want something unscripted, something to riff on, something kinda out there.”

Frankly, having MacFarlane onstage is out there enough. He’s Oscar’s least recognizable emcee in a long, distinguished line that includes Fred Astaire, Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Whoopi Goldberg, and Billy Crystal. But he surprised many with his polished turn as host of Saturday Night Live last fall, and as the creator of irreverent animated series like Fox’s Family Guy and the R-rated romp Ted, he brings with him a huge, young fan base. “Ask your kids,” he says in one of the Oscar ads introducing him.

Nobody familiar with MacFarlane’s outrageous brand of humor is expecting business as usual at this year’s awards. Announcing the nominees last month, he drew facepalms for dropping a Hitler joke and ribbing actors like Robert De Niro and Tommy Lee Jones. Even now, over a lunch of grilled chicken in Los Angeles, he treats the nominees with less than genuflecting respect. Asked what he thinks of Les Misérables, up for eight Oscars including Best Picture, he hmmms and deadpans, “I only watched the first four and a half hours. I’ll try to get through the next three and a half tonight.”

With Family Guy characters. “Reporters say to me, ‘I love the show,’” MacFarlane says, “but no one will write that.”
Wisecracks aside, it’s a golden time for MacFarlane. Family Guy reached its 200th episode last November; its sister series, American Dad!, has been picked up for a ninth season, and Family Guy spin-off The Cleveland Show recently wrapped production on season four. All those cheeky, pear-shaped characters have made MacFarlane the highest-paid TV writer in history; the contract he signed with Fox in 2008 earned him $100 million. Meanwhile, Ted, about a potty-mouthed teddy bear (MacFarlane co­wrote, directed, coproduced, and did the talking), raked in half a billion dollars ­worldwide, becoming the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time (it also earned MacFarlane an Oscar nod for the song “Everybody Needs a Best Friend”). Says Ted’s Mark Wahlberg, set to appear at the Academy Awards with his ursine costar, “I honestly don’t know how Seth does so many things so phenomenally well. I think there might be a team of Seth MacFarlanes out there.”

It feels that way when you meet this man of many contradictions. Baby-faced at 39, he looks like the chilled-out dude next door (“I get a lot of ‘Hey, aren’t you Peter Brady?’” he says, rolling his eyes). But he’s a serious singer and musician who’s sold out New York’s Carnegie Hall and London’s Royal ­Albert Hall and whose 2011 album of standards, Music Is Better Than Words, earned two Grammy nominations. And while his characters mock almost every religion, ethnic group, public figure, physical challenge, and bodily function, MacFarlane himself can be quite sensitive to criticism. After Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker, a longtime MacFarlane critic, pooh-poohed the idea of him as Oscar host, MacFarlane called Tucker out personally on Twitter: “Please tell me how I may earn a review as glowing as the one you gave Urkel.”

“I think at times I read too much of my own press,” he admits. “I wish I was better at taking in how great my life is, but that’s surprisingly elusive. I tend to be very hard on myself and insecure about failing no matter what happens.”

Born in 1973 in tiny Kent, Conn., MacFarlane knew he wanted to be an animator from the age of 5. “If Seth wasn’t watching Fred Flintstone or Bugs Bunny, he was in his bedroom making flipbooks and drawing on anything he could get his hands on,” says his sister, Rachael, who voices the character of Hayley Smith on American Dad! How would she describe her big bro? “Ridiculously focused,” she says. In fact, MacFarlane got his first paying gig at 9, penning his own comic strip for the Kent Good Times Dispatch for $5 a week.

MacFarlane at about age 3. “He wasn’t a kid who had lemonade stands,” says his sister, Rachael. “He was working hard at cartooning.”
Life at the MacFarlanes’ was traditional in many ways. Seth’s ancestors William and Mary Brewster were Mayflower passengers. His parents, Ann and Ronald, had a fierce work ethic, at one point juggling three jobs each. But the rules at home were loose: Cursing was okay. The TV stayed on during dinner. Off-color jokes got no push-back. “There wasn’t this puritanical fear of certain areas of humor or behavior,” says MacFarlane, who defines himself now as superliberal and religion-averse. “I remember my parents watching The Cosby Show and complaining about what terrible parents the Huxtables were, because they were so militant with their kids.” The laid-back approach worked for MacFarlane, who says, “I’m one of the few people in Hollywood who actually had a good childhood.” Sadly, MacFarlane’s mother passed away in 2010 of cancer. “She spoke in superlatives all the time,” he says, “and we kind of joke that since she had used them all up, what would she have said about [my hosting] the Oscars? But in all seriousness, I would have liked for her to have seen my movie. I would have liked for her to see the Oscars. It would have been nice.”

In college, at the Rhode Island School of Design, MacFarlane created a bawdy 10-minute cartoon for his senior thesis, The Life of Larry, which won him a job animating for Hanna-Barbera in Los Angeles. It wasn’t long before he sold Family Guy, which made him, at 24, the youngest person ever to run a network show.

If you haven’t seen Family Guy, picture an Archie Bunker type named Peter Griffin at the head of a blue-collar New England household. His wife’s a kleptomaniac who once dated Gene Simmons from Kiss; the dog drives a Prius and likes his martinis dry; and baby Stewie, whom MacFarlane voices in a British accent, is precocious beyond all reason (and once scoffed at his future self for still reading PARADE). Canceled in 2002, the series was revived after fans flocked to it in reruns and on DVD. At this point, though, MacFarlane thinks the end might be near regardless. “How much more is there to find out about these characters?” he says. “You don’t want to start concocting things like what if Peter finds out he’s half Chinese. I’ve never heard of a TV show that after nine seasons goes into its best years. It would be arrogant to assume that we’ll be the first.”

A movie version of Family Guy has long been rumored (“I think at some point that’ll happen,” he says). A Ted sequel is also in the works. But MacFarlane plans to make a western comedy first, à la Blazing Saddles, and he’s working on a live-action sitcom for Fox called Dads, about two young men whose fathers move in with them. He’s also the unlikely coproducer behind an earnest reboot of the Cosmos miniseries, hosted in the 1980s by famed astronomer Carl Sagan. The project, due on Fox in winter 2014, feels necessary right now, he says. “There’s been an unsettling rejection of science in the past couple decades. We used to have national pride in space travel. Now we only care about vampires and witches.”

For all his popularity, MacFarlane keeps a rather low profile. He lives alone in a Beverly Hills villa he bought a few years ago for $13.5 million. He says he has no real hobbies other than playing piano. He splurged on a horse he hasn’t seen, let alone ridden, in many months. He owns a DeLorean car that’s exactly like the one Marty McFly drove in one of his favorite movies, Back to the Future. Though he’s been linked romantically to Cameron Diaz, Amanda Bynes, Eliza Dushku, and, most recently, Game of Thrones beauty Emilia Clarke, MacFarlane folds his arms over his chest when the conversation turns to dating. “Do we have to?” he asks, but then obliges. “I’m wide open to getting married, but actors are not easy people to date. You end up sharing that person with this other mistress that is their career. I very much like the traditional courtship method of making a date. That’s what they do in normal places, but Hollywood’s not normal.”

Not normal might be okay tonight, actually. “You want Sacheen Littlefeather to come up and accept an award,” MacFarlane says, recalling other classic Oscar moments. As host, he’s looking to “find a balance somewhere between Billy Crystal and Ricky Gervais,” he says, though it was former emcee Hugh Jackman whose advice hit closest to home. “He told me, ‘Don’t be too kind. Shake it up a little bit.’ ” As if anyone needed to tell MacFarlane that.

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10 Little Known Facts About the Oscars

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