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'American Dad' and 'Family Guy' Creator Seth MacFarlane Is Animated About Work and Play

Seth MacFarlane is a lucky, but hard-working guy.

Lucky because with 'Family Guy' and 'American Dad,' he has two successful animated shows on a major network.

Hard-working because he has two animated shows on a major network, is working on a live-action pilot and does voice acting for other animated shows like 'Robot Chicken.'

And this lucky, hard-working guy also narrowly missed one of the ill-fated flights on 9-11.

AOL Television editor Sean Doorly chatted with MacFarlane about all the above, plus the difficulties of animation vs. live action and his love of 'Star Trek.'



For people who are not familiar with 'American Dad,' what was the origin of the show?
It was right after the election and me and co-creator Matt Weitzman, were so frustrated with the Bush administration that we would just spend days bitching and complaining and we figured we should channel this into something creative and hopefully profitable.

Creatively how are you going to try to shake things up?
In television, you never really know. With 'Family Guy', we're working on our 100th episode and still kind of figuring out exactly what that is.

When does the 100th come out?
It airs I think in about a year.

Wow, so you're that far ahead?
Yes, for any given episode it's usually about a 10-month production time.

I guess with animation you have to be that far ahead?
Yes, there's no shortcut to the process that anyone's been able to come up with. I guess it's different if you're using computers, but for the style that we use, you know that hand-drawn style, there's just no shortcut. People have tried doing that with computers to make it faster, but it looks like a computer did it.

With season one, you were getting your feet wet. So what did you learn from season one say for season two?
We've learned how to make the show feel different enough from 'Family Guy' for one thing, and the creative direction of that show has been largely guided by Barker and Weitzman, which has really worked in its favor. They've really taken the reigns on that show and given it its own voice.

What about next season?
As far as where it will go in the next season, if there's some radical shift in the thinking of the country, 'American Dad' will definitely reflect that. We sort of look in a very broad sense, because the show is very different. We look to 'All in the Family' as a template for how to do a political show that doesn't feel so specific that it won't be relevant 10 years from now.

You don't want to be so dated?
Yes. There's an advantage and a disadvantage to a show like, say 'South Park,' that has like a three-week production time or something like that. It can be very current. If something happens in the news, they can do a show about it almost immediately.

That's unheard of in animation.
Yes, and it makes that show very unique. But, the downside to that is, if you do an entire episode about John Bobbit, after a few years it's going to feel incredibly dated.

It's like, "Who's that guy?"
Exactly. I don't think they've done that particular episode. I'm just pulling that out of my ass. (Laughs).

What can we expect to see on the finale of 'American Dad?'
Let's see, what can I say without giving it away? If I'm remembering this correctly, this one takes place over the course of an entire year in a half hour. The 'Family Guy' 100th episode is the first obvious season finale that show has done, because for a lot of the time we didn't really know what was going to air when. So we couldn't even really do holiday episodes because we just don't know when they are going to go on.

That must feel exciting to have two animated shows on TV on a major network?
Yes, if I had the time to come up for air and enjoy it, I think it would feel good. It's an enormous amount of work. What goes into putting together an animated show, it's just staggering. It's interesting; I did my first live action sitcom pilot this year. It was written by, created and written by Ricky Blitt who was a 'Family Guy' writer who's gone on to write movies for the Farleys. It stars Rob Corddry from 'The Daily Show.' I always knew there was a lot of work that went into making an animated show. Doing a traditional sitcom, process wise it feels like a breeze compared to doing an animated show. You can get it all done in a couple of months as opposed to a year. Doing an animated show, it's like putting together a little movie every week. Everything is storyboarded with the intricacy of a feature film action sequence. You have to edit with a musical score in mind. And of course, we use an orchestra for each episode. So it's really like putting together a little feature each week and I was just shocked at how much, not to underplay all the work that goes into live-action sitcoms, but my God, it's definitely a much more difficult medium to me.

Did anything from working on the animated shows help you to do the live-action sitcom?
Yes. For example, composition wise and cutting wise, when you're dealing with a scene with a couple of characters who are having a conversation, all the same cinematic rules of editing and shot composition apply. It's the same language. So, it certainly helped being very familiar with what constitutes a good edit or a bad edit. The real surprise to me was the flexibility you have of cutting to different angles.

You don't have to plan months in advance to do that?
Exactly. There's no such thing as coverage in animation. With editing you can't say, “Oh yeah, it would be better to have a close up of Peter here.” And you can do that, but you have to have an animator that takes a week and a half. So the flexibility of how you can change the look of a scene and editing was had a good side and a bad side. In animation, you have control over almost every frame.

So has the show been picked up or are you working on it?
No, not yet. We're just a pilot.

What's the basic story line?
It's called 'The Winner' and it's a coming of age story for a guy who's 32. The guy lived at home with his parents. He's never dated, never had sex and never had a job. He's this guy who's stuck in his adolescence. His old grade school crush comes back into town and gets a boot in the ass to make up for 15 years of adulthood in a compressed amount of time. The series is his story of growing up as fast as humanly possible, so he can get this girl.

You are a big 'Star Trek' fan. What's your take on the latest news on the new 'Star Trek' film?
I'm always cautious these days because there's a real instinct with a lot of science fiction to go dark. And I have a sinking feeling that they may fall into that hole again, but I don't know. I've seen it happen too many times. What they've never managed to recapture is that bright, plush environment of 'The Next Generation.' I think that's one of the reasons it did better than any of the other shows. That it managed to tap into more of a mainstream audience. It wasn't dark. It wasn't dirty. It wasn't gritty. It was a bunch of people working in a really nice corporate office.

I agree. I still watch it every night on G4.
And if you look at the movies, I thought that was a big problem with the movies. They redesigned everything so it was dark and militaristic and that is less inviting to a lot of people. The characters became more intense and less casual. That's one man's opinion. I can't get into 'Battlestar Galactica.' It's so dark. There were houseplants on the Enterprise for God sake!

There were a lot of pastels and beige.
Exactly, it was plush and expensive looking.

Any plans to do a sci-fi show yourself?
At some point. David Goodman, my producing partner on 'Family Guy' -- the two of us have a show that we've been sitting on for a while. There is no time to really do anything with it because of where 'Family Guy' is, but at some point, when we're all done with this, we may take it out.

You do a lot of voice acting on your show. What draws you to that?
It's the ability to have as much control as possible for how a sequence plays out. When I go in and do multiple characters, I know in my head how I'm going to cut them all together. Often times when multiple characters are talking over one another, and you want it to have an improvised feel, it has to be carefully planned out. In the very beginning, it was more about money. There just wasn't money to hire a cast.

So you're cheap?
(Laughs). Yes, well not anymore, but it became sort of a way to get exactly what you want. Obviously, the best way to get the read that you want is to read it yourself. At this point, we have so many actors, that we bring in people who get the show and who know what we want the second they walk in. When you go in and it's on paper, it's maybe not hysterically funny. But if you read it in a certain way, you can get the laugh.

What about a show like 'Robot Chicken,' you're a voice for hire?
Yes. With Seth Green, it's a very relaxed environment. He'll tell me how he wants it and I'll give it back to him. There are times where the scenario will have to be explained and I'll try to familiarize myself in a brief period of time with what these guys came up with in the writer's room.

Pick a favorite moment from 'American Dad.'
From 'American Dad,' there's a great one where Stan has disguised himself as a gynecologist. You see a POV shot and you see him peel open an almond shaped opening. It's shot from below so you're looking up at him. You see him reaching around inside and he goes, "My God, you keep this thing so incredibly clean." And then you cut wide and you see he's looking through her purse. It's just a great mislead. We have, among other things a great staff of artists on 'American Dad.'

And a favorite moment from 'Family Guy?'
If I had to pick one moment that makes me laugh every time I see it, it is an episode called 'The Father, the Son and the Holy Fonz.' It's a cutaway gag. It's like, 'Jaws Five: Fire Island.' One of our writers, Mike Henry, who also does many voices on the show, he does Cleveland and Herbert and he does this performance artist character. And for some reason we put that character's voice into the mouth of Jaws, and you just see these two guys swimming in the ocean and one of them says, "You know, Mark, are you sure we should be out this far?" And he says, "Stop worrying, we'll be fine." And you pull out, and you see that sort of classic poster image of 'Jaws,' looking up at them, but it's just kind of hovering there and Jaws goes, "Oh hey, I see ya'll there, I'm going to eat y'all. I can see right up them shorts. I'm going to eat that hairy leg." It's just so bizarre. What does any of that mean? I have no idea. For some reason, when Mike does that voice it just kills me.

If you could travel back in time and give yourself advice, how far would you go back and what the advice be?
Good question. I would probably go back and tell myself to try pot before I got out of college. (Laughs). But, that's a question that would take a lot of thinking. I'd probably go back to like, 1981, and say, "Hey, there's going to be this big movie 'Back to the Future' that's going to come out. I'll give you the plot line and you can write the screenplay before they get to it."

'American Dad' has 9/11 overtones. Was that intentional?
I don't think you can do a show like 'American Dad' without those overtones. The show was designed to be very obviously a post 9-11 show.

I heard that you had a close call with 9/11.
Yes, I was booked on Flight 11, which was the first one to hit. I missed it by 10 minutes or so because the combination of two things. I was drinking, so I was hung over and running late, and my travel agent had mislabeled the flight times. She had said 8:15 instead of 7:45. So that added to my tardiness.