Return to Transcripts main page


CNN SPOTLIGHT: Seth MacFarlane

Aired May 30, 2014 - 22:00   ET



NISCHELLE TURNER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Seth MacFarlane, comedy mastermind.

SETH MACFARLANE, COMEDIAN: If you don't know who I am, just pretend I'm Donny Osmond.

TURNER: The guy behind "Family Guy."

S. MACFARLANE: That, we know.

TURNER: Artist.

S. MACFARLANE: I did a two-dimensional drawing of Ted.

TURNER: Voice-over artist.

S. MACFARLANE: I don't really care. I enjoy them both.

TURNER: Writer, director and now movie star.

S. MACFARLANE: That went south so fast.

TURNER: His journey from small town boy to Hollywood powerhouse.

CHARLIZE THERON, ACTRESS: He is kind of breaking the mold.

MARK WAHLBERG, ACTOR: He's a comedic genius.

TURNER (on camera): There's something inside you that keeps saying, no, go further. Try something different.

S. MACFARLANE: It's a constant crippling feeling of inadequacy.


TURNER (voice-over): Tonight:

(on camera): Is that what it is?

S. MACFARLANE: I think that might be what it is, yes.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: What's with this fair? S. MACFARLANE: Every year, people die.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Everybody hold still.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: People die at the fair.

S. MACFARLANE: People die at the fair.

TURNER: The scene, Arizona, 1882.

S. MACFARLANE: The American West is a terrible place in time. Everything out here that's not you wants to kill you, angry drunk people, hungry animals, outlaws, the doctor.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I couldn't save her.

S. MACFARLANE: She had a splinter, Doc.

TURNER: "A Million Ways to Die in the West," the new film from "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane.

S. MACFARLANE: That went south so fast.

TURNER: He is a master of outrageous comedy, from animation.

S. MACFARLANE: Oh, geez. Well, one of us is going to have to change.

TURNER: To live action plus computer animation, to his latest live action minus animation.

The story of the guy behind "A Million Ways to Die in the West" begins back east in small town New England, quiet Kent, Connecticut. He's the eldest of two kids.

(on camera): Who's this guy?

S. MACFARLANE: That is Jonathan Winters. No, this is me as a child. What was I, like less than a year old.

TURNER: What do have you on?

S. MACFARLANE: It looks like overalls, but it looks like pulled the straps down to be sexy. I don't know.

TURNER: It's adorable. The hair is still the same, though.


S. MACFARLANE: It's exactly the same.


TURNER (voice-over): Like a lot of tots, baby Seth loves cartoons.

S. MACFARLANE: I would watch Woody Woodpecker and Fred Flintstone.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Yabba-dabba doo.

TURNER: Unlike a lot of tots, baby Seth can draw them.

S. MACFARLANE: It's, yes, the Flintstones. These are from when I was 2. For some reason, Fred is waving the American flag.


TURNER (on camera): I'm blown away by these, but Barney is spelled wrong. Come on.

S. MACFARLANE: It is. It is. Yes, I know. Listen, I'm embarrassed.

TURNER: If this isn't the ultimate sign that you were born to do this, I don't know what it is.

S. MACFARLANE: From the very beginning, I had a desire to copy other people's work.


TURNER (voice-over): Original works start pouring out too. Young Seth creates his own animated movies, as his dad recalls.

RONALD MACFARLANE, FATHER OF SETH MACFARLANE: He used an old .8- millimeter camera. He had it set on a tripod and he took each frame by itself and came up with a seven-minute video.

TURNER: Soon, Seth's working for the local newspaper, "The Kent Good Times-Dispatch."

S. MACFARLANE: My first job was doing a cartoon when I was about 9 years old, and they paid me five bucks a week.

TURNER: His cartoons are maintained at the Kent Historical Society, where Marge Smith is executive director.

MARGE SMITH, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KENT HISTORICAL SOCIETY: Anything that caught his fancy, he would figure out a way to make it funny, a little bit of irreverence, but also just -- just innocent fun.

TURNER: After high school, he heads to a prestigious art school.

S. MACFARLANE: I was an animation major in college, and so I had very, very good training from the Rhode Island School of Design.

TURNER: Part of that training, complete a student film. Seth draws and voices the characters.

S. MACFARLANE: Hey, about that? It says here's there's another state that's going to abolish the death penalty.

Oh, is that right?

Yes, instead, they make you share a Popsicle with Tom Waits.

TURNER (on camera): When did you discover that you could actually do voices as well?

S. MACFARLANE: I was pretty young. It began with impressions.

You guys have any Cheez-Its?

Honey, I think we should move.

Fine, let's have this conversation for the...

BEN MANKIEWICZ, TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES: His student project at the Rhode Island School of Design, a professor takes enough of an interest in and recommends that he takes it out to Hollywood.

TURNER: With his student film as a calling card, Seth quickly lands a job.

MARY MCNAMARA, TV CRITIC, "THE LOS ANGELES TIMES": He was hired by Hanna-Barbera, which was a pretty extraordinary first job.



S. MACFARLANE: I wrote for a show called "Johnny Bravo" on Cartoon Network that aired for a few years that actually is sort of a cult hit in its own right.

TURNER: He works mostly behind the scenes, but gains some on- camera experience. These are outtakes of him spoofing Captain Kirk on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim.

S. MACFARLANE: And I'm a...

TURNER: Then, in 1998, his big break. FOX, home to "The Simpsons," gets a look at animated short Seth creates.

S. MACFARLANE: Hi there. My name's Steve. I'm a dog in case you're, well, stupid.

TURNER: FOX invites him to shoot a pilot, so long as he does it on the cheap.

S. MACFARLANE: Now, they weren't going to give me a million dollars to make a pilot, so they said, listen, if you can do this for 50 grand, we will give you a shot at a prime-time show.

He titles his program "Family Guy."

S. MACFARLANE: Who touched the thermostat? UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Man.

TURNER: It's a twisted take on the nuclear family, complete with matricidal talking baby.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Stewie, I said no toys at the table.

S. MACFARLANE: Damn you, vile woman. Is this a grape or a cherry? You know what? I don't really care. I will enjoy it either way.

TURNER: Seth voices several characters, from Stewie to dad Peter Griffin.

S. MACFARLANE: Alcohol is trouble. I feel kind of guilty I ever gave Chris his first taste of beer. Yes, but you turned out OK, didn't you, pal?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I'm going to go get wasted.

S. MACFARLANE: OK. Look both ways.

The voice itself came from a security guard where I went to college and he had just this -- just this impossibly thick, loud, boisterous Rhode Island accent.

TURNER: FOX green-lights the show, giving it an incredible launching pad.

MCNAMARA: They put it behind the Super Bowl, which is -- that is the biggest piece of real estate on television.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR (singing): He's a "Family Guy"

TURNER: The date, January 31, 1999. The world gets its first look at "Family Guy."

S. MACFARLANE: Well, we're officially on welfare. Come on, kids. Help me scatter car parts on the front lawn.

TURNER: The show wastes no time pushing the boundaries of tastes.

S. MACFARLANE: Was that really the blood of Christ?


S. MACFARLANE: Man, that guy must have been wasted 24 hours a day, huh?

MCNAMARA: The humor was just crazy.

S. MACFARLANE: Yes, America is great, isn't it, except for the South.

MCNAMARA: It was just a very new kind of show. TURNER (on camera): Sometimes, it made you cringe, but it was just that darn funny that you couldn't help but laugh at it.

S. MACFARLANE: At the end of the day, that's all it's trying to do. It's not trying to change the world.

TURNER (voice-over): The debut of "Family Guy" makes him at age 24 the youngest executive producer in network television. Seth MacFarlane is on his way.

Coming up: Seth's career advances, but, on 9/11, it almost comes to a horrifying end.

S. MACFARLANE: And I turn to the guy next to me and said, my God, that was the flight I was supposed to be on.




S. MACFARLANE: And you're not exactly Mr. Cold Turkey either. Remember that time you tried to give up candy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I will ask you one more time. Are you sure you didn't eat anything in my factory?


TURNER (voice-over): While "Family Guy" is moving from time slot to time slot, its creator gets an invitation to speak at his own alma mater in Rhode Island. The timing will have profound implications for Seth, the date, September 10, 2001. The next morning, September 11, he heads to Boston's Logan Airport to fly back to L.A.

S. MACFARLANE: I got to the counter, and I said, yes, I'm booked on Flight 11. And the woman behind the counter said: "I'm sorry. You're too late. They just closed the gate."

And I said, all right, well, will take the 11:00, went into the lounge, fell asleep, woke up about 45 minutes later to a commotion. And the first plane had hit.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Unconfirmed report that a plane has crashed into one of the towers there.

S. MACFARLANE: Sat there and watched the second plane hit.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Another passenger plane hitting the World Trade Center.

S. MACFARLANE: And I turned to the guy next to me and said, "My God, that was the flight I was supposed to be on."

TURNER: The close call does not prompt Seth, an avowed atheist, to reexamine his world view.

S. MACFARLANE: I'm not a fatalist. I was not shaken to the core.

TURNER: He keeps his focus on "Family Guy," but, there, trouble is brewing.


TURNER: Ratings keep sliding, as the show is bounced around the schedule by FOX executives.

MANKIEWICZ: They did not know their audience. They didn't know what they had.

TURNER: When the network announces its 2002 lineup, the word is out.

S. MACFARLANE: We have been canceled.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Oh, no, Peter, how could they do that?

TURNER: FOX tosses the show on to the ash heap of syndication.

MANKIEWICZ: They basically gave it to Cartoon Network in exchange for promotional plugs for the DVD.

TURNER: That could be all she wrote for "Family Guy" and Seth MacFarlane, but then something remarkable happens.

MCNAMARA: It starts airing on Cartoon Network in reruns, and it's doing really well.


MANKIEWICZ: And then the DVDs go on sale, and everybody wants it. Everybody who is a fan of the show wants it.

S. MACFARLANE: Stupid remote is not doing anything.

TURNER: FOX execs begin to think.


TURNER: Hmm, maybe we made a mistake.

MANKIEWICZ: Then, to FOX's credit, they did something that never happens in television, which is bring a show back from the dead.

NARRATOR: Back by popular demand, FOX proudly announces the return of "Family Guy" with all new episodes.

TURNER: Those all new episodes begin airing in the spring of 2005.

S. MACFARLANE: Hey, Stewie, 3:00, time for "The View." No, no, no, not again.

TURNER: And Seth becomes an ever-more powerful producer.

S. MACFARLANE (singing): Good morning, USA.

MANKIEWICZ: Eventually creates a couple more shows, first "American Dad," then "The Cleveland Show."

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR (singing): This is "The Cleveland Show."

MANKIEWICZ: "American Dad," wildly successful.

TURNER: In 2008, FOX rewards him with a $100 million contract.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Wow. You're in a good mood today.

S. MACFARLANE: You bet I am.

TURNER: Reportedly making him TV's highest paid writer/producer.

S. MACFARLANE: That's what my lawyers tell me.

TURNER: In his spare time, he records an album of big band music.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And now, please welcome your roast master, Seth MacFarlane.


TURNER: And he headlines some of Comedy Central's roasts, like the epic one of Charlie Sheen.

S. MACFARLANE: Yes, we're here tonight to honor and hopefully arrest a man who was great in two things 25 years ago, Charlie Sheen.

TURNER: In 2012, he makes another bold move.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I'm going to name you Teddy.

TURNER: Directing his first feature, "Ted," the story of a stuffed animal come to life, and his lifelong pal.

S. MACFARLANE: In a perfect world, we wanted to do like an R- rated "E.T."

You know what I would like to do to her? Something I call a dirty Fozzie.

TURNER: The concept is so out there, Mark Wahlberg initially balks at it.

WAHLBERG: The pitch is, OK, it's this guy and a teddy bear running around. And I'm like, well, no, I don't want to do that. I'm not doing the whole teddy bear thing. S. MACFARLANE: Come on. Let's sing the thunder song.

S. MACFARLANE AND WAHLBERG (singing): When you hear the sound of thunder, don't you get too scared.

TURNER: Seth voices the title character and helps animate Ted through motion-capture technology.

S. MACFARLANE: Well, I am a former celebrity in a minimum wage job.

TURNER: The film opens in June of 2012 and becomes an unexpected and gigantic hit.

S. MACFARLANE: Let him in.

WAHLBERG: And let him in, exactly. Right.



TURNER: All of the success with "Ted," were you kind of like, how did this happen?

S. MACFARLANE: I had no idea what to expect from "Ted."

I love you.

WAHLBERG: I love you too.

S. MACFARLANE: I wasn't thinking in terms of commercial viability, in terms of, you know, what was going to sell.

TURNER: But sell it does. On top of that, Seth earns an Oscar nomination for co-writing a song in the film.

He will be playing a much bigger role at these Academy Awards than just nominee.

S. MACFARLANE: Good morning. I'm Seth MacFarlane, the host of the Oscars.

MANKIEWICZ: I think it's pretty clear why the Academy wanted him this. It's that, that is the guy who created "Family Guy." And that's why they wanted him. They want those young eyeballs.

MCNAMARA: I think it was a calculated risk that they took.

TURNER (on camera): This is the first time you're hosting.

(voice-over): Days before the ceremony, Seth tells me he doesn't expect to win over critics.

S. MACFARLANE: I go in at about minus-10 with the press, so it's like, all right, got to get myself to at least a level where they can tolerate me, and then maybe from there I have a shot at actually getting a positive review.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome your host, Seth MacFarlane.


S. MACFARLANE: Thank you.

TURNER: The curtain rises February 24, 2013.

S. MACFARLANE: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the Oscars and the quest to make Tommy Lee Jones laugh begins now.

TURNER: One comedy number becomes controversial, where Seth sings about actresses who have appeared nude in film.

S. MACFARLANE (singing: Kristen Stewart, we saw your boobs in "On the Road," and in "Monster," we saw Charlize Theron's.

TURNER: The actresses he mentions are in on the joke, having pre-taped their reaction shots.

MANKIEWICZ: They were playing along, and of course that mattered.

TURNER: Some Academy members brand the bit sexist, but MacFarlane finds plenty of defenders.

MANKIEWICZ: I don't think he is remotely sexist. I don't think what he did was sexist.

TURNER: With Seth as host, the Oscars see a ratings jump, but when the prospect comes up of hosting the next year, he says, sorry, I'm going to be busy.

Coming up: Seth gets super busy exploring the cosmos.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON, HOST, "COSMOS": We have compressed all of cosmic time into a single year-at-a-glance calendar.

TURNER: And the Wild West.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Can I introduce you folks in a miracle cure?




S. MACFARLANE: OK, all right, get ready. I'm about to shoot a full load at your cans.

THERON: Shut up and focus. S. MACFARLANE: All right. OK?

TURNER (voice-over): That current focus? Filmmaking, as the writer, producer, director, and star of "A Million Ways to Die in the West."

S. MACFARLANE: This is a weed cookie, isn't it?

TURNER (on camera): What was it about the Old West that made you say, this is what I'm going to do with this backdrop?

S. MACFARLANE: I have always been a fan of Westerns, both in film and television. And it had been a while since anyone had really done a Western comedy.

TURNER (voice-over): The setting may be the Old West, but the script is full of Seth's contemporary humor.

S. MACFARLANE: The American West is a disgusting, awful, dirty, dangerous place. Look around you. Everything out here that's not you wants to kill you, outlaws, angry drunk people, scorned hookers, hungry animals, diseases. You can get killed just going to the bathroom.

TURNER: You're this kind of cerebral, bookish, urbane guy that's like plunked into the middle of the Wild West. Where did that come from?

S. MACFARLANE: Well, that was part of the grounding process, is to show this world through a modern lens. You know, we romanticize this period, but the fact is, if you actually lived there, it would have just been a horrible, miserable, terrible, depressing, dangerous place to be, and, you know, particularly if you were not an alpha.

S. MACFARLANE: I need a running start.

GIOVANNI RIBISI, ACTOR: Dude, you really shouldn't drink and horse.

S. MACFARLANE: The character seemed like a good fit. You know, if I was doing a Holocaust drama, I probably would not cast myself.


TURNER: Seth plays Albert, a fearful sheep farmer who toughens up with the help of his sure-shot gunslinging love interest played by Charlize Theron.

THERON: I'm going to teach you how to shoot.

TURNER (on camera): On set with Seth MacFarlane, what's that like?

THERON: It's like Christmas coming a month early, and then continuing for 10 years.


THERON: That's really how special it is.

TURNER (voice-over): Giovanni Ribisi joins the celebration as Seth's sidekick in the film.

RIBISI: Oh, hey, look, it's the ice.

S. MACFARLANE: Oh. Oh. That went south so fast.

RIBISI: He knows exactly what works and what doesn't. It is like working with a genius in that regard. By the same token, you're invited to just bring everything you have and contribute as much as you can.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Some sheep butter?

TURNER: A chance to contribute to Seth's unique brand of comedy is apparently worth pleading for.

THERON: I came a begging, man. I really did. The idea of working in a genre that I haven't really explored fully with someone who is at the top of his game, Seth MacFarlane, and him in a situation where he's kind of throwing himself out of his comfort zone by deciding to star in it and be in front of the camera as well, all of those things to me felt really exciting.

S. MACFARLANE: I like your bustle, by the way.

THERON: Oh, yes, I really love that the most alluring fashion statement a woman can make today is to simulate a (EXPLETIVE DELETED)

S. MACFARLANE: Is the simulation of a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) right there.

TURNER (on camera): We don't often see you in front of the camera, so what made you think, this time, all right, here we go?

S. MACFARLANE: Throughout the course of my career, I have managed to continue to challenge myself and to try things that I haven't tried, and to keep scaring myself. I'm not really content creatively unless I'm doing something that scares me a little bit, that is stimulating.

TURNER (voice-over): Seth's creative thrill-seeking has a track record of paying off, so much so he can get Hollywood to green-light a seemingly unsexy science project.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.

TURNER: The 1980 PBS science series "Cosmos" is back with a reboot, courtesy of Seth.

DEGRASSE TYSON: See that glowing fog out there? It's radiation left over from the Big Bang. TURNER (on camera): You are a big proponent of science and furthering science education. Why so? Why are you so passionate about that?

S. MACFARLANE: We all benefit from it, and yet there's a lot of fear. You take the insane anti-vaccination trend. It's the prime example right now of why "Cosmos" is necessary. There's no more reliable, more self-policing mechanism than science. Science -- science is going to tell science when science is wrong.

MANKIEWICZ: He knows about bringing shows back from the dead. Television is better for having that show on.

TURNER (voice-over): Beyond his TV projects, Seth has "Ted 2" in the works.

S. MACFARLANE: Bring it in, you bastard. Come on. I love you.

Sorry. That's the..


WAHLBERG: The old...

S. MACFARLANE: Yes, yes, yes.


TURNER: And more music coming with a new album of holiday classics.

(on camera): There's something inside you that keeps saying, no, go further. Try something different. What is it?

S. MACFARLANE: It's a constant crippling feeling of inadequacy.


TURNER: Is that what it is?

S. MACFARLANE: I think that might be what it is, yes.

TURNER (voice-over): Whatever his motivation, any project Seth takes on, his fans follow.

MCNAMARA: He's doing the kind of comedy that very few people are doing and that there is an audience for and there is a devoted audience for.

TURNER: Devoted fans and family.

(on camera): We spoke to your dad at the premiere last night, and here's what he said.

R. MACFARLANE: Just have such great respect for him, and he's still a very, very grounded and kind and focused human being. He's a good soul, a good person. And that's, more than anything else, what I'm proud of.



S. MACFARLANE: I'm going to get him for that, man. Oh, man, I'm going to -- yes, he's a son of a (EXPLETIVE DELETED).


TURNER (on camera): I didn't expect that.

(voice-over): With Seth MacFarlane, always expect the unexpected.