Interview: Seth MacFarlane
The 'Family Guy' creator talks to Jonny Ensall about his new, Sinatra-style album
Try to put yourself in the position of Seth MacFarlane. You’re the creator of ‘Family Guy’, one of the most successful TV shows in history. You’ve just written, directed and starred in a box-office smash movie, ‘Ted’. You’re sitting on a multi-million-pound fortune and – most crucially – you’ve got a near-unique platform in Hollywood to say whatever the hell you like. What statement do you make?
It’s obvious. You release a 14-track album of little-heard ’40s, ’50s and ’60s big band songs, re-recorded using old tape machines at the legendary Capitol Studios in Hollywood. You even dust down Frank Sinatra’s Neumann microphone for added authenticity.
MacFarlane acknowledges that his first serious album, ‘Music is Better Than Words’, is a side gig. It’s something he enjoys doing away from the pressure of relentlessly busting taboos in his screen work. Still, the 38-year-old’s put a greater level of enthusiasm into the recordings than many mid-career rock stars can muster, and he’s been given the opportunity to perform at the Proms this summer. ‘It’s something I love doing, it’s fun,’ he says of swing music. ‘But the whole Rat Pack lifestyle just seems like it would’ve been fuckin’ exhausting. You know, I like girls, but I’m not a big gambler.’
If this man has any foibles at all, he’s far too smart to reveal them in a phone call to a journalist. He gives the admirable impression of knowing exactly what he wants to say about himself – a technique clearly honed over years of having to defend the more outrageous decisions taken in making ‘Family Guy’. That show allowed him to push the boundaries of cartoon comedy, warping the template ‘The Simpsons’ created for representing small-town American narrow-mindedness to produce more perversely enjoyable laughs. Often, he says, it was music that tempered the impact of these gags.
‘There was a song that Stewie sang called “Down’s Syndrome Girl” that could have been a lot more offensive than it was. But because you have an 80-piece orchestra, and orchestrations that take themselves seriously, plus a lyrical structure that strives to be as honest as anything from Broadway, it provides you with a cushion for bad taste. It just makes it a little less offensive, because those strings sound so good backing up the vocals.’
This is revealing background, but it doesn’t quite explain MacFarlane’s high tolerance for the corniness of the old crooners’ lyrics. Or how he can, with no hint of irony, collaborate with Norah Jones. Did he not find anything about the project to poke fun at?
‘That part of my brain, the cynical part, just shuts down. It punches out for the night when I do this stuff. For the same reason I can watch a movie made in the ’30s or ’40s, and it never occurs to me to react to the antiquated or arcane acting styles – I’m able to put myself in the mindset of an audience member watching this film in the decade in which it was made. It’s the same thing with the songs. “You’re the sail of my love boat – You’re the captain and crew” [a line from the song “You’re the Cream in My Coffee”], I mean, it’s still better than the lyrics to Michael Jackson’s “Bad”, come on!’
Lyrics are clearly a bugbear of MacFarlane's. He agrees to an extent with Oscar Hammerstein’s assertion that it’s better to be dull than clumsy. In other words, the scansion has to be immaculate at all costs. ‘The actual crafting of the lyrics [on ‘Family Guy’] has always been taken very seriously,’ he emphasises, ‘even though it’s full of a bunch of dick jokes. One of the influences, if not the greatest influence, on the way “Family Guy” structures its music is Monty Python. My favourite example is the song “Every Sperm Is Sacred” from “The Meaning of Life”, and it’s because it’s so beautifully done, even outside the content. It was beautifully crafted: the melody was well put together, the orchestrations were terrific and, as a piece of film, the choreography and the production were completely legit… and it’s about sperm!’
There’s a perfectionist streak that runs through all of MacFarlane’s work that goes some way to explaining why ’50s music holds such a fascination for him. The arrangements from that era are expansive and complicated, but the music is meant to sound as easy as a walk in the park. All of the mechanics of the songs are concealed, leaving only the slick exterior. MacFarlane has clearly embraced the philosophy, even down to his own public face.
Speaking to him, you get the sense there’s no chance of cracking the mindset of the man who’s helped define an epoch in comedy. Still, you can’t help but wonder, what is he bad at?
‘I’m bad at golf,’ is the disappointing answer. ‘You would not want me on your football team. Mostly sports-related stuff, I guess.’ It’s hardly a flaw, but it’s the only failure MacFarlane is prepared to put out into the world.
‘Music Is Better Than Words’ (Universal Republic Records) is out on Mon Aug 27.