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Seth MacFarlane

Seth MacFarlane was born October 27, 1973 in Kent, Connecticut. By age two, MacFarlane was drawing primitive versions of Woody Woodpecker and Fred Flintstone. His first paying job came at nine as a cartoonist for his local newspaper. MacFarlane attended high school at The Kent School and graduated from Rhode Island School of Design where his thesis film, Life of Larry, drew attention from Hanna-Barbera Productions. MacFarlane's work on Life of Larry, Larry & Steve, and Johnny Bravo caught the eye of Fox, who gave MacFarlane just fifty thousand dollars and six months to create the pilot for Family Guy. He signed with Fox at the age of 24, and Family Guy premiered in 1999. Family Guy enjoys the rare distinction of having been cancelled twice by Fox and resurrected on each occasion, due to the popularity of its reruns and its DVD sales. MacFarlane’s next show, American Dad, debuted in 2005, followed by The Cleveland Show in 2009. In 2008, MacFarlane inked a $100 million deal with Fox, and his Family Guy empire is currently estimated at over $2 billion. MacFarlane, and by extension his shows, are often lightning rods for criticism. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park, are two of his most determined nemeses, dedicating entire episodes to attacking MacFarlane's work. Like him or hate him, MacFarlane’s influence is difficult to ignore. He is a skilled actor, voice actor, animator, screenwriter, comedian, producer, director, and singer. Last year [2011] he was nominated for a Grammy for his Great American Songbook album Music Is Better Than Words, and will be making his feature-length directorial debut this summer with his film Ted, starring Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis [2022 note: this interview was conducted in 2011].

Spectator Magazine: So Seth, you grew up in Kent, Connecticut, which is right on the New York line and, as you know it’s home to the Schaghticoke Indian reservation as well as to Henry Kissinger; it’s kind of a unique place. Could you describe growing up in Kent in the 70s and 80s, and what you and your best friend might do around town when you were just hanging out and goofing?

Seth MacFarlane: Well, you know I was…uh—that’s right Henry Kissinger lived there—I was lucky enough never to meet Henry Kissinger, but, you know, I loved Kent, it was a very old fashioned, very idyllic, in many ways 1950’s style town. It was a great place to grow up. It was very rural. I think the closest movie theater was about a half-hour away, at least. And so there wasn’t really a lot to do, you know. If you wanted to go to the movies or go to a restaurant you generally found yourself driving out of town for a good 30 minutes or so. You know, it’s funny, I was so obsessed with what I wanted to do, that I don’t really remember doing a whole lot of bumming around town, or hanging out at the pizza parlor, or any of that stuff. I think I was so hungry for the film business, that I spent as much time as I could, you know, trying to make films, and drawing in my room, and uh, you know, trying to make animated films that would hopefully one day get noticed.

SP: So you were an introverted kid growing up—who were your idols? Who did you really look up to? Who spoke to you?

SM: Uh, you know, there was a handful of people in various wings of the comedy business—Jackie Gleason, Woody Allen, Gary Larson of Farside fame, are three that come to mind. I was so hell bent on getting into this business I, you know, kind of looked up to people who had sort of done it right and done it correctly over and over.

SP: How would you describe the New England sense of humor?

SM: The New England sense of humor, I suppose, covers a broad range. It can be very erudite, very high class and intellectual—almost stuffy at times—or it can be the Peter Griffin variety, which is the other end of the spectrum, where you just kind of let whatever’s funny come out of your mouth without doing any kind of internal editing process beforehand. That’s illustrated in Peter Griffin. That’s sort of the genesis of this character—is that type of New England guy with just a good heart but no sense of propriety. But I think the New England sense of humor—it covers a pretty broad spectrum from high to low.

"I was so hell-bent on getting into this business, I looked up to people who had done it right over and over."

SP: Speaking of Peter Griffin, you once told Terry Gross, in an interview on her NPR show Fresh Air, that your father had a lot of friends like Peter Griffin. Where did you see your father interacting with them, in real life?

SM: You know, there…there were a lot of uh, god, there were a lot of them all over the town where I lived. My father was a particularly—my father was a teacher so he was a particularly intelligent guy, and I think that also served to…uh…accent the opposite qualities in many of the guys that he hung out with. You know, there was a lot of outdoor building, beer drinking, and construction that went on. He’d get together with his buddies—he was always the smartest guy there—and it was interesting to…to look at his friends from an outside perspective and kind of see how real and how inherently hilarious they were—

SP: But he was a transplant, right?

SM: He was. He was raised in Massachusetts and came down to Connecticut. But again, you know, it was rural New England, so, you know, you had a lot of New England meatheads.

SP: What do you think attracted your father to them?

SM: I think they were the only guys who were around.

SP: Limited choices.

SM: Yeah, yeah. You know, the closest house was up the street, a five minute drive so you took what you could get.

SP: Gotcha. Switching gears, or at least switching characters—what in your life did you draw on as a source for Meg Griffin?

SM: You know, nothing really in my life. It…it was really…um—That was a character we really struggled with at the beginning. You have…uh…a bunch of comedy writers in a room, most of whom are guys, trying to write a…a sixteen-year-old girl character, and we had a lot of trouble at the start. And, you know, we went through two voice actors and it wasn’t until Mila Kunis came in, that we really kind of locked in on that character and, you know she actually deserves more credit than anybody I think for…for helping to find who that character is, because we had a lot of trouble beforehand and she brought, you know, a real kind of fight to it that we—that allowed us to write stories like “Meg Goes to Prison,” or “Meg Becomes a Bully,” or “Meg Goes Crazy and Falls in Love with Brian.” She allowed us to explore that character in some crazy ways. So…uh you know, it has really less to do with any development that I did and more kind of finding the character through the actor.

SP: Well, obviously—the whole family obviously does not like Meg very much. She’s constantly told to go away and worse—so where did that come from?

SM: Well it…it’s twofold. On the one hand, you know, she’s the middle child—oh no, actually that’s not true she’s the oldest, isn’t she?

SP: Yeah.

SM: Alright, well—

SP: Just make it up, Seth, just make it up (laughing)—

SM: That’s…that’s what I’ll do, that’s what I’ll do (laughing). The other component really dates back to those first couple years when the writers just didn’t know what to do with that character and in a way the family…uh, you know, taking shots at Meg was essentially the writers saying damn you… why can’t you... why can’t you develop? Why can’t you tell us what you’re supposed to be as a personality? Why can’t you be easier to write? You’re keeping us here ‘til midnight. So, it’s almost a remnant of the early days when it was the writing staff that was frustrated with Meg because they didn’t really know what to do with her, and it just ended up being something that was just a funny, reliable, comedic device that just seems to...seems to have a lot of legs and a lot of duration.

SP: Speaking of writers, what do you look for when you’re recruiting a writer for your staff, or your staff as a whole?

SM: You know, when you’re hiring a writer generally look for somebody who has—well it’s a two-fold process. read what’s called a spec script, which is usually a script that a prospective writer has written for another show—it doesn’t have to be a produced episode, you know—somebody will write a Seinfeld script that wasn’t an episode of Seinfeld ever, but it was this particular writer’s take on what their own episode of Seinfeld would be, and if you read that script and...and it feels like they’ve written Jerry and George and Kramer and everyone else well, then there’s every reason to believe that if they can capture the voice of the show that you’re hiring them for. And then the second part of that process is you pick a meeting with that person and you spend 20 minutes to a half hour with them in a room and if you click with them and you get a good vibe from their personality then you hire is kind of... it’s kind of a strange process. I mean, you’re literally being asked to sum someone up and decide whether or not you like them within 20 or 30 minutes sitting in a room, and meeting them for the first time. So, it’’s a very imperfect process but it does work a lot of the time.

SP: Yet your track record is pretty good regarding chemistry. When you meet these prospective talents you’re pretty good at zeroing in on 'I like that guy.'

SM: Yeah. I mean, we’re wrong from time to time but luckily not that often.

SP: How diverse is the writing staff? Is it still running about 17 people?

SM: Yeah. It’s about 17 people. It’s predominantly male, which is oddly something that has... has plagued the comedy writing industry for a while. Not necessarily so much in drama, but in comedy, it’s a lot of guys. We have two female writers— but the ages of our writing staff actually goes from late 20s to about 60. So it’s a pretty age-diverse staff and it’s pretty evenly spaced within.

SP: Mostly white?

SM: Uh, mostly. There’s... there’s a couple Asians.

SP: Like Wang, right, in The Life of Larry? (laughing).

SM: Right. (laughing).

SP: Do you feel like America is getting pretty anti-intellectual these days?

SM: Yeah. I do.

SP: Do you think the demographics of your audience—the thick part of that curve—is intellectual or anti-intellectual?

SM: You know, honestly I have no idea. I would tend to think...I would tend to think that it runs both ways. And I look atand I’m not comparing our show by any means to All In The Family— but if I look back at All In The Family there were people who watched that show and recognized that Archie was a satirical character, and they were looking at him from the outside and seeing what Norman Lear was commenting on in…in American culture at that time and getting a laugh off of it, and then there was the other set of viewers that....uh... would watch and say “Archie’s right! He’s right! I agree with him! I love this guy!” So, I… I think probably it runs both ways. There are Family Guy fans — I’ve been approached by all kinds of people and, you know, I’ve been approached by people who are... fairly refined, and intellectual and...and, you know, appreciate the show at a higher level, and I’ve been approached by people who think it’s funny when Peter farts. I think you could split that in the middle.

"There's nothing that's worse for your brain in every sense than the reality show."

SP: You comment on American culture all the time. So, where do you think America’s heading and does it worry you at all?

SM: Yeah, absolutely. In the simplest possible terms, it’s becoming viewed as a negative thing to be smart, to be educated, or to be intelligent, which is a very bad thing. And...and if that’s where we’re headed, we should hang it up right now, because we’re, you know, we’re not going towe’re… we’re not going to win any victories in any sense, by taking that course. I mean, the fact that, you know, the President of the United States can be harangued for suggesting that people should go to college, uh—the fact that that’s even something that’s being taken seriously and being not good at all and it should embarrass everyone who lives in this country. And I think it’s a relatively recent thing. I think there was a time when, you know, scientific, intellectual, technological, medical progress were all viewed as....aswe were...we were proud of those things as a country and, you know, what’s happened to our space program in recent years a perfect example of how we’ve let that go. We just, we don’t care about new knowledge anymore. We...we want the quick fix. We want Doctor Phil. We want, you know, the evangelical healer. We want it done fast and we don’t want to ask any questions. We don’t want to know how it was done. So I think that’s... I think that’s something everyone should be very concerned about.

SP:  Where do you think this trend is coming from, and do you think it’s reversible?

SM: Uh, I think it’s… I think it’s coming from a lot of different places. I think there has been a resurgence of certainly religious fanaticism….in America, which...which is always going to butt heads with scientific progress, it’s just inherent. That’s gonna happen. I think...uh...I think reality shows have a lot to do with it (laughing). I think there’s nothing that’s worse for your brain in every sense—than...than the reality show. And I think...uh...the combination of the reality show mentality, and the prevalence of social media, you know, can also be blamed for people getting meaner, in a lot of ways. You know, you see all these confessionalsit goes all the way back to The Real World on MTV— you see these confessionals with people just, you know, tearing each other to pieces over and over, and it almost-at this point it’s become the norm. It has become the norm for a lot of people. You see it on Facebook, you see it on Twitter, you see it everywhere online. It’s just the norm for people to make snap decisions without any kind of critical thought. I think… I think those things can be blamed in part. I know I sound like I’m ninety years old—

SP: Oh, not at all, not at all!

SM: But I think there’s some truth to it. But, yeah, I mean, it would probably take half an hour break down all the... all the causes. But...uh...those are the first ones that come to mind.

"It's becoming viewed as a negativeas a negative thing to be smart, to be educated, to be intelligent, which is a very bad thing. And if that's where we're headed, we should hang it up right now."

SP: Yeah, and we know your time is valuableyou’ve got a new movie coming out, Ted, with Mark Wahlberg. I’m sure that’s keeping you busy! But one last question— You’re a hard working guy. You’re good at seemingly everything you do. Any regrets?

SM: Um, you know, not..not yet...not yet. I’m...I’m working on that. I’m working on racking—I’m working on racking up a few (laughing).

SP: Where’d you get your confidence?

SM: (Pause) I don’t—I have no idea what you’re talking about (laughing).

SP: (Laughing): Hey, thanks for your time. And best of luck with all your upcoming projects.

SM: Alright, you bet. And you guys, you take it easy too.

—Seth MacFarlane for Spectator Magazine, 2011

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