Seth MacFarlane does not want to talk about sin, which is weird given that his entire career has been more or less devoted to the subject. Maybe not specific sins, but in a general way it’s at least been sin-friendly.
In the wildly popular animated series he’s created—Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show—characters do horrible, indefensible things to each other on a regular basis. Perhaps the only mainstream entertainment with more sexual assault than a Seth MacFarlane cartoon is the Old Testament. Make no mistake, we love it, but let’s call a spade a spade: the 38-year-old writer-producer-actor makes dirty jokes for sinners, and it would be ridiculous to claim otherwise. His feature film directorial debut, Ted, which hits theaters in July and stars Mila Kunis, Mark Wahlberg, and a bong-ripping, chocolate bar–fellating teddy bear, promises to be more of the same.
So we thought it could be fun to ask MacFarlane a series of questions loosely based on the Seven Deadly Sins. We figured that an avowed atheist who likes to irritate god-fearing bigots and push the boundaries of good taste would be up for a friendly conversation about how every creative venture he’s been involved in thus far—from his TV shows to the Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen to Ted—should, according to pretty much every religious belief system on the planet, result in the eternal damnation of his soul to the fires of hell, were such a place to actually exist (which it doesn’t). We figured wrong.
After making it through just four of the Seven Deadly Sins, the phone mysteriously cut out. A week later, his publicists tried to schedule a follow-up call, but wanted a more detailed overview of the questions we’d be asking. Could it be that MacFarlane, a man we fully intended to describe in this piece with adjectives like “fearless,” was seriously uncomfortable having a conversation about sin? That’s like Paula Deen not wanting to talk about deep-fried okra. Or Ron Jeremy refusing to discuss his gigantic penis. Ultimately, MacFarlane’s team decided to cancel the interview, which is a shame because we were getting to the good stuff.
Eric Spitznagel: I’ve been thinking about the Seven Deadly Sins and which one most relates to your new movie, Ted. I guess the closest is probably sloth, right? Because it’s all about nostalgia, and nostalgia is a kind of sloth, isn’t it? It’s a refusal to look forward.
Seth MacFarlane: Let me just make sure I understand this. I have to connect one of the Seven Deadly Sins to Ted?
No, not at all. This is just a jumping-off point for us to talk about your work. We’re not writing a college thesis or anything.
Okay. [Laughs.] You must hate your editor.
I think it’s a fun idea.
Can’t people just talk anymore? Can’t people just have a conversation?
This is still a conversation. It’s just a conversation about sin.
[Laughter, followed by a long pause.] Okay.
In general, do you consider yourself nostalgic? Are there things in your past that you can’t let go of?
Oh yeah, absolutely. That is clear to anyone who’s ever seen Family Guy. We’ve done a number of nostalgia-related gags. And I’ve got a lot of nostalgia for pop culture brands and icons that were meaningful to me as a kid. And certainly we reference those types of things on Family Guy, perhaps more often than we should.
You’re doing a TV reboot of The Flintstones, which could be argued is a kind of creative sloth.
[Laughs.] You’ve really got me down this aggressive path, don’t you?
Was that mean? I wasn’t trying to be mean. I just meant because it’s not your own idea. You’re taking something that’s already been created, that’s a part of your pop culture memory and nostalgia, and making an identical version of it.
I suppose so. One of the appealing things to me about doing The Flintstones is the thought of seeing something that looks the same as it did 60 years ago, but is also brand new on primetime television in this point and time. We don’t want to change much at all about the look of The Flintstones. I think there’s a comfort level that people are going to feel, turning on their televisions in 2013 and seeing Bedrock and the Flintstones’ house and Fred and Wilma.
Was it a hard sell to the network?
It was and it wasn’t. The franchise wasn’t really being exploited at the time. I think Viva Rock Vegas was the last time they’d done anything with The Flintstones franchise, which is probably why they haven’t done anything with it in awhile. We all know how that turned out.
It did suck pretty hard.
Yeah, but I’ve got to stop shitting on that movie. It’s such an easy punching bag.
It’s also a great example of sloth. If nothing else, it’s lazy storytelling.
It is, yeah. And I think that’s why Warner Bros. wanted to make sure a new Flintstones series would be handled with care. They don’t want to see this turn into something as controversial as Family Guy, and I agree with them. It’s still The Flintstones and there’s no reason for it to be full of the more questionable types of jokes that we do on that show.
It would be disconcerting to watch Fred Flintstone say a Family Guy line like “You’ll make some Jew a great wife.”
It would, yeah. It needs to be edgier than it was in the ’60s. And it needs to be surprising, because all contemporary comedy should be surprising. But I think it’s about walking a balance. It’s not going to be another Family Guy in terms of offensive content.
You seem like the least gluttonous of animators, at least judging by your physical appearance. I expect all cartoonists to look kind of schlubby and pear-shaped, and always dressed in sweatpants.
I thought gluttony had to do with food.
That’s what I mean. When you’re making cartoons all day, doesn’t the lifestyle encourage a lot of Hot Pockets and afternoon drinking?
Oh yeah, absolutely, especially the afternoon drinking. It shouldn’t be abused or overused, but it is sometimes a wonderful device for idea generation.
Have you ever gotten stoned and tried to write?
This will be shocking to those who watch the show, I’m sure, but I don’t find that to be a useful tool. I think people assume that we get stoned all day while working on Family Guy. I believe in the legalization of marijuana without question. But every time I try to smoke pot, I have some horrible reaction to it.
When were you last high?
I tried a pot candy bar over Christmas and I was terrified to leave my house. I haven’t had the best luck with marijuana. I know there are other writers who swear by it.
So what’s your recreational poison of choice?
I will have a glass of Jack Daniels from time to time, or more often than that.
But not as a creative tool?
I think any kind of narcotic- or alcohol-based writing usually bites you in the ass. You’re eventually going to wake up, come out of your haze, look down at the page, and realize that you’ve only written one sentence in the last 48 hours. It just doesn’t work.
Unless you’re Charles Bukowski.
Right, right. It’s an image that I think is very comforting for a lot of people. They want to imagine the Family Guy writer’s room in a smoked-filled pot haze. But nobody has ever done drugs in the room. They may have been taking drugs during the coffee breaks, but I don’t know about that.
Do you have a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy when it comes to drugs?
I wash my hands of that. If they want to use, that’s fine. But personally, I’ve never found it helpful. I think I took a Vicodin once, and I was useless for the rest of the afternoon. For me, the occasional Sudafed is about as racy as it ever gets.
Every article about you mentions at least once that you’re rich.
[Laughs.] Do they?
Your net worth is something like $100 million dollars. Does that spur you on creatively? “Gotta write more shows, throw more money on the heap.” Or at this point is it just, “Eh, whatever”?
The money actually never crosses my mind. Each show comes from a place that has nothing to do with profit. American Dad was created when we thought Family Guy was canceled, so as far as we knew at the time, it was the only show we were doing. There’s really been no monetary goal in any of this. It just sort of happened the way it happened.
Have you ever lit a cigar with a 100-dollar bill? Everybody who gets rich is supposed to do that at least once.
I’ve never defaced American currency, no. Never done anything like that.
How about a 20-dollar bill? Those are like nickels to you, right?
Not really prepared to do that either. I think the only way anyone ever makes an enormous amount of money—and I’m sure there are exceptions to this—is by not caring about money. It should be all about the work and all about the passion you have invested in that. If you don’t care whether you’re making five bucks or five million, then I think you’re more likely to have success.
That’s good advice. But once the passion and the work ethic pays off and the money starts rolling in, how often do you take a bath in gold coins, like Scrooge McDuck?
I’ve never done that.
You’ve never been curious about what it’d feel like to bathe in gold?
That sounds like a way to get some kind of blood disease. Being in a bathtub with all that metal? That can’t be healthy.
Let’s move on to wrath. This is probably your sin money shot. All you do is inspire wrath.
[Laughs.] It does sometimes seem that way.
Are you even fazed by hate mail anymore? Does it take something extra special to get your attention?
I don’t even hear about most of it. I’m shielded from a lot of it by the Broadcast Standards department at Fox. When, say, the Catholic Church gets bent out of shape about something, generally the network will field those calls and deal with the situation as they see fit. That’s not something that comes across my desk.
What about when Sarah Palin gets her panties in a bunch about a Down syndrome joke?
When it’s a big thing like that and it ends up in the press, that doesn’t really faze me because I don’t think it’s about us.
It’s not about you? How so?
With Palin, I think that was more about her than it was about us. It was about her using us as an excuse to make a lot of noise on Fox News, and make the issue about herself and generate press for herself. With Palin, but also in a lot of cases, it’s fake outrage. It’s all for show. I don’t necessarily see those as personal attacks. It always has a sort of gimmicky feel to it.
When does the criticism seem genuine, or does it ever?
There have been a couple instances where actors who we’ve made fun of on the show have approached me and been very upset. But in 10 years, I can only think of a couple of them. And those I suppose are genuine because it’s not a public thing. They’re saying to me, on a private level, “Hey, that wasn’t cool.”
Can you really be surprised when people get upset? Isn’t your comedy essentially poking the gorilla with a stick?
No, not at all. We’re never trying to elicit a reaction.
We’re not trying to shock anybody for shock’s sake. If something is shocking, it had also better be funny, because otherwise it’s not honest comedy. If something is shocking in the show, that means whoever pitched the joke in the writers’ room got a huge laugh.
Critics attack you across all fronts, but one topic that keeps coming up is rape. People don’t like the rape jokes so much.
What’s the trick to writing a really great rape joke?
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the summer 2012 issue of Bullett Magazine.)