Squashed politely into a corner of a Los Angeles office block, FHM is sweating. It’s not the midday pressure-cooker heat of the Hollywood Hills outside, nor the unwisely large American breakfast gurgling in our stomach. Instead, it’s the presence of, arguably, some of the funniest people in the world.
Around us, the cast of hit cartoon series American Dad! are preparing for a read-through of the latest hot-off-the-typewriter episode. And although voice actors Wendy Schall and Steve Grimes are chatting aimlessly (about whether avocado trees can talk to each other, strangely), the tension is palpable. And as the office’s frosted door slides open, all fall silent. Ever so quietly, a bloke in his mid-thirties shuffles in and takes his seat at the top of the table. He’s small, slightly chubby and has spiky black hair. Unremarkable. But FHM can’t help just… stare.
This is the man, after all, in sole control of over $1 billion worth of some of the planet’s best comedy. On whose hunched shoulders the success of both American Dad!, and his other better-known series Family Guy, rest. The man who’s just added to his workload with a spin-off called The Cleveland Show, plus his own hugely successful YouTube channel and a feature-length Family Guy movie. The man who writes, animates, produces, composes the music and even provides the voices. The man who is Peter Griffin, Stewie Griffin, Brian Griffin, Glen Quagmire and Tom Tucker. And the man who is being paid an incredible $100m to do so – but only as long as he keeps being funny.
FHM watches him. Surely carrying the weight, the pressure of all this must be breaking his soul? We look up at the chubby guy. The chubby guy looks back and then turns to his two staff members, focusing his keen business mind.
“So… Barack Obama is having a shit in a swimming pool. Thoughts?" Welcome to another day in Seth MacFarlane’s weird world.
Born 35 years ago in Connecticut, MacFarlane has had animation in his blood since he was small. By the age of eight he’d drawn his first comic strip for a local paper. A decade later, he’d secured a degree in animation from the Rhode Island School of Design, and began working for cartoon giants Hanna-Barbera, drawing the likes of Johnny Bravo. But by night, MacFarlane was busy working on something bigger. Far bigger. With an apparent disregard for food and sleep, he wrote, drew, voiced, produced and directed two shorts about a middle-aged moron and his intelligent dog. Following attention from the Fox network, the characters developed into a pilot called Family Guy.
"Ross Kemp, Kanye West and Seth Rogen have all publicly aired their devotion to the MacFarlane brand, the latter even going as far as willingly parodying himself on Family Guy."
By the mid-’90s, aged just 24, MacFarlane had become the youngest executive producer in TV history. And today, with his own separate production company, Fuzzy Door Productions, he’s more in control than ever.
After seven seasons, 127 episodes (including a pair of feature-length specials), two brand new shows and a massively popular YouTube channel (Seth MacFarlane’s Cavalcade Of Cartoon Comedy), he recently negotiated a $100m, three-year retainer from 20th Century Fox TV. And thus became the highest paid writer and producer in history.
True, the shows are not massively original. But it’s their dysfunctional families and the unique characters within them that continue to make Family Guy and American Dad! Fox’s biggest audience-pullers. Take Stewie Griffin, for example – the rugby ball-headed, homicidal infant who talks with an accent straight out of a Rex Harrison film. Or Roger, the sexually ambiguous, alcoholic extra-terrestrial taken in by the Smiths in American Dad!. Both are responsible for perpetuating MacFarlane’s reputation for dangerously close-to-the-knuckle gags and a sense of humour that shocks as often as it entertains.
And it’s not just frat boys setting their Sky+ boxes every week. Ross Kemp, Kanye West and Seth Rogen have all publicly aired their devotion to the MacFarlane brand, the latter even going as far as willingly parodying himself on Family Guy. No wonder, perhaps, that the show’s won three Emmys.
But not all the feedback is universally positive. MacFarlane’s old school headmaster publicly spoke out against his humour, and even asked Fox to stop airing Family Guy. And critics have been no less scathing – many taking aim at Family Guy’s reliance on cutaway gags as opposed to plot-driven humour, and at American Dad! for its striking similarity to Family Guy. And the parents? They’re even angrier. Family Guy alone has scooped the Parents Television Council’s “Worst Show of the Week" award 18 times (which MacFarlane likens to “getting hate mail from Hitler".) But for the harshest criticism, look no further than South Park. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone devoted an entire episode to expressing their hatred for MacFarlane’s show, depicting the Family Guy writing staff as a tank full of manatees, who string an episode together by punting a labelled ‘idea ball’ into a tube at random.
So how does MacFarlane cope with the burden of his critics? Of a $100 million contract? Of devoted yet unforgiving fans? No one seems to know; notoriously private, he gives only two interviews a year. But no matter – FHM snared one of them, so flew to LA to find out.
Filling in the bits
Thirteen hours later, we step out of the lift at MacFarlane HQ and smile at the receptionist. She’s a small, nervous woman for whom the novelty of spending nine hours a day flanked by 6ft tall cardboard cut-outs of Peter, Stewie and the rest of the Griffin family seems to have worn off. “Seth shouldn’t be long," she says. “Are you okay to wait on the sofa?" We nod as if we regularly experience a busy schedule and sign in.
Forty minutes later, we’re still sat there. A family-sized full American breakfast, that FHM wolfed down an hour beforehand, is shifting uneasily in our gut. One of his two assistants emerges, right hand extended. “Seth’s running a little late. Should be here in about half an hour. Why don’t I show you around the place?" We grunt a yes – and after taking in the writing room, recreation area (complete with ping pong table and arcade cabinets) and a well-stocked lunch bar, we end up on a blue suede sofa in MacFarlane’s personal office. Minus a solid gold chair and a few lasers, it’s exactly as we’d imagined it.
His affiliation to Barack Obama and his Democratic Party is immediately obvious, for a start – which makes a joke about the President crapping in a pool all the more surprising. Propped up against an antique-looking mahogany desk is an Obama-inspired ‘Hope’ portrait of Adam West, who surreally lends his voice and Batman-era likeness to play the town mayor in Family Guy. On the rear wall, perched on top of a wooden cabinet, is a silver tray of spirits, centred around a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s. A substance which, eight years ago, was indirectly responsible for saving MacFarlane’s life. He was due to be on the American Airlines flight that hit the North Tower of the World Trade Centre on September 11, but missed the flight by ten minutes because he’d been boozing the night before. Though MacFarlane claims to have been relatively unaffected by the experience – “like avoiding a bus when crossing the street" – it’s hard to believe it didn’t drive his subsequent successes a little. But as he commented at the time: “I need to put reflecting on things like that to the back of my mind – after all, I’m a comedy writer."
On a wall to our left hangs the original score from Back To The Future III, signed by composer Alan Silvestri. Above it is a solid steel, capable-of-slaying-a-room-full-of-people Klingon Batleth sword, a nod to his two guest appearances as an engineer on Star Trek: Enterprise. FHM runs an index finger along its razor-sharp edge, as $24 worth of American breakfast dances a fandango in our stomach. Suddenly, a voice emerges from the doorway.
“Hey, how’re you doing?" Startled, we spin around to face its origin, inadvertently burping a monstrous pocket of gas. And although we manage to suppress the sound, it’s not enough to prevent us greeting TV’s richest man by exhaling a cloud of second-hand pork product directly into his face. We both pretend it didn’t happen and return to the sofas. We set down a Dictaphone and hit record. With the first hint of businesslike sensibilities, he places his own next to it. Needless to say, it’s bigger and has more buttons.
"He was due to be on the American Airlines flight that hit the North Tower of the World Trade Centre on September 11, but missed the flight by ten minutes because he’d been boozing the night before."
“I had the cowboy theme from Back To The Future III as my ringtone, and it went off while the composer was on a visit to the studio," he explains, after we compliment his geeky shrine. “So then he sent me down the score. It’s definitely the coolest piece of memorabilia in the office."
For a man who makes it his business to lampoon the famous and powerful, he’s got a lot of famous, powerful friends. Including George Lucas, who not only approved, but actively encouraged, the making of Blue Harvest – MacFarlane’s re-telling of Star Wars: A New Hope, with the Family Guy cast in place of Luke, Han and co. “Lucasfilm have advanced with the times. They’ve learned how to make the age of YouTube and user-produced content work to their advantage. And I think you see it in the continued relevance of an almost 35-year-old movie. There are plenty of classic movies that aren’t as relevant these days. Movies that were as big as Star Wars that aren’t as relevant now because they’re over-protected."
He jostles in his seat as he receives what smells suspiciously like green tea from his assistant. “We’d like to do it with the Star Trek movies," he continues, sipping cautiously, then recoiling. “But we haven’t even been able to clear music from Star Trek with Paramount half the time. So I suppose it can be broached. Now that there’s a business model for it, it's something that maybe we’ll look into. It would be fun."
Wait – “business model"? The man whose animated creations include a randy geriatric paedophile, is talking to us in the sort of language we’d expect from that jowly woman on Dragons’ Den.
“The Indiana Jones movies – at least the first three of them – are something that we’d love to do something with," he continues. “Back To The Future I feel like we’ve sort of done the whole thing in pieces, but I’d still love to do that again. That’s one of the best movies ever made."
But it’s not all cocktails and high-fives at Skywalker Ranch. A good portion of Hollywood considers MacFarlane’s shows as little more than rip-offs of The Simpsons.
“There’s the perception of a feud with South Park. But it doesn’t really exist. I don’t even know those guys. The Simpsons has lobbed a few fastballs at us, and we’ve tried to do the same. It’s funny, the first time that we tried to lob one back, Fox had an anxiety attack and told both shows that we couldn’t do it any more. Which was kind of ridiculous. They’ve since changed that policy. I think it’s because we’ve managed to convince them that we’re not enemies. It’s not like they have two children who are fighting. Matt Groening is a friend of mine. I know a lot of people on that staff who are amazingly gifted writers. I have enormous respect for them. And I’m the first one to acknowledge that everyone in this office has a job because The Simpsons changed the playing field 20 years ago."
And it’s not hard to believe him. Homer Simpson’s face cropped up constantly during our tour of the offices, in poster, action figure and coffee cup form. And he’s not the only one. Pretty much every available surface is populated by the brightly coloured characters of everything from Top Cat to Futurama (for which he once sang the opening credits). We wonder if MacFarlane now has prohibited subjects even he won’t joke about.
“I think at one point," he recalls, “there was a joke pitched about Kirk Douglas and his current condition. And that was swiftly put to bed: it was deemed just too nasty. He was fucking Spartacus, you know. Leave him alone." He pauses and grins. “But I don’t give a shit what Britney Spears thinks of me, so we’ll just continue poking at that set of chops."
Unsurprisingly, she’s one of MacFarlane’s favourite targets, most recently seen using one of her babies as an ashtray in Family Guy.
But it’s going to be awkward when he inevitably bumps into her at some swanky Hollywood bash, surely? “I physically did bump into her at a party one time. But she just sort of moved right past. I can’t imagine what we would talk about. I don’t really know enough about the bible." He sips at his now cool tea, smirking, as if recalling a private joke.
An eye for an eye
It’s the first indication of a much-publicised sinister side to MacFarlane’s character – a bit like Stewie Griffin as an adult. Sometimes his retribution is public: after persistent bitchy reviews from Entertainment Weekly journalist Ken Tucker, Stewie is seen breaking his neck in one Family Guy episode, while Peter wipes his arse on the magazine in another. But sometimes it’s quieter. When LA’s swanky Crown Bar denied him entry late last year, MacFarlane responded by sending them $6,000 worth of flowers. A menacing retort for a man so apparently averse to attention. But it seems MacFarlane doesn’t pick on people senselessly. Between experiences with money-grabbing executives and voice artists who hold their characters to ransom, he’s earned his cynicism. But he’s a good boss, too. He recounts tales of team outings to Vegas, chilling out during the writers’ strike and his reaction to Family Guy getting cancelled, twice, en route to becoming one of the biggest shows on US TV. “It didn’t really faze me. I was still under contract with the studio, so they were basically saying we’re still going to keep paying you, you just don’t have to work."
He laughs to himself again, his face barely creasing. And not for the first time FHM is a little jealous. Sure, he’s worth $100 million – and has recently purchased a $13.5 million house. But more than that, it’s the vision every nerd has of himself: a successful, rich, pop-culture-referencing star. The one they pledge to start working towards once the boxsets of Heroes and Battlestar Galactica have been seen to. He’s a lot of us, made good.
"Getting cancelled didn’t really faze me. I was still under contract with the studio, so they were basically saying we’re still going to keep paying you, you just don’t have to work."
We scan him again. He’s dressed in neutral, unambitious black jeans, black Converse trainers and a blue shirt. Which would be perfectly acceptable. Were it not for the thick, bright white sports socks. The sort that’d make Gok Wan hyperventilate and clutch his chest in agony. The sort that we can’t, no matter how much we try, stop staring at. Catching our gaze, he uncrosses his legs, partially concealing the dazzlers. We hastily turn the conversation towards the shows’ writing process.
“It’s a feeding frenzy. But everyone has a pretty thick skin and is perfectly willing to throw out their own ideas if they don’t work. We all sit around a big table and throw out ideas and if something sparks and looks like it could possibly evolve into something, then we’ll discuss it as a group." He sees our mild disappointment that there’s no actual manatees with idea balls. “Yes, on paper it sounds oddly corporate. So picture that corporate tone in the room, but with like a cunt joke every five minutes."
Gynaecology aside, MacFarlane also relishes in subtler, political mockery. An episode in the latest series of Family Guy sees cerebral hound Brian and homicidal baby Stewie travel back in time and mug a group of Nazis for their uniforms. One of which bears a large “McCain/Palin" badge. But will the show’s unique cynicism suffer now there’s someone who knows what he’s doing is in the White House? “You always have to make fun of the president. You always have to find a way. And I think we’ve found something that’s pretty funny. But at the same time, there’s an underpinning of respect for the man that we just did not have for his predecessor."
There’s a knock at the door. Seth’s assistant is peering through the porthole window, and he’s tapping his watch. Our time’s nearly up. And there’s just one last thing left to ask. With $100million in the bank, how d’you not go completely off the rails?
“That’s all upbringing. My parents laid the groundwork well enough that I’ve managed not to blow it all in MC Hammer fashion. I’m pretty conservative with the money. But I did just buy…" He pauses, the business brain kicking back in to life.
“Okay …I invested in a jet. It’s a big white plane. Looks like a big Tylenol." He extends his hand and smiles. That’s it.
Discreetly leaving the office, we briefly consider a last-ditch request for him to “do the voices" for our answer machine message, but think better of it. He’s not the type – a man who seems to fluctuate between the hilarious and the deadly serious. As much as he’s capable of moments of on-the-spot comedy gold, speaking out of turn could easily earn you a faceful of mashed-up petunias.
But most glaringly of all, he’s a man who doesn’t fit with the pompous pretence of the Hollywood A-list. Nor does he appear to aspire to. This man is king of the nerds. The acne’s been replaced by an impossibly perfect LA tan, but the awkward touches that signify the sci-fi enthusiast remain. He’s still living the American dream – and the dream of every one of us who wanted to sit around making crude jokes for a living. He’s just doing it in white socks.
After dumping a big wad of paper on his desk, MacFarlane’s assistant ushers us hastily out of the room. Outside, we spot a table literally covered in Post-It Note phone messages. Forty minutes ago, it was empty. It seems great power really does bring great responsibility. And in this case, responsibilities include calling back Luke Perry’s lawyer. Presumably not to organise lunch. FHM
American Dad! Volumes 1-4 and Family Guy Seasons 1-7 are all available to buy on DVD now. Family Guy Season 8 will be released in November.