When Seth MacFarlane takes the stage Sunday as host of the 85thAcademy Awards, chances are a large portion of the viewing audience will look at their TV screens and wonder: Who is this guy? He might just be the least famous Oscar host ever , with a resume unlike that of any previous host except for the author and humorist Irvin S. Cobb, who hosted in 1935 — but even Cobb had a career in front of the camera.
Not so with MacFarlane, whose considerable Hollywood clout has been built behind the scenes — and primarily in TV. A writer, animator, producer and voice actor, he sits atop a media empire that began more than a decade ago with his Fox animated series “Family Guy,” a show that is piled high with jokes but perhaps most infamous for its bawdy content, prompting The New Yorker to dub it the “Howard Stern of sitcoms.”
Though he will host film’s biggest event this weekend, MacFarlane hadn’t even made a movie until debuting his comedy “Ted” last year. If you look closer, none of that matters. Fortune magazine estimates the “Family Guy” franchise alone to be worth more than $1 billion; the man is a serious force in Hollywood. What MacFarlane is not is a name recognizable to viewers who aren’t between the ages of 18 and 49 or tapped into MacFarlane’s specific pop cultural niche.
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That makes him an unlikely but intriguing choice as Oscar host. The broadcast has long fought its reputation as a glamorous but drearily staid and navel-gazing affair — especially if the year’s most popular movies at the box office (the ones 18-49ers sought out) are nowhere in sight on the nominee list.
Young viewers are the bull’s-eye for ABC and all other networks. Don’t be fooled by that “a billion people worldwide are watching right now” malarkey that gets trotted out each year; since the mid-’80s, the broadcast has attracted 30 to 45 million domestic viewers. Two years ago, producers hired James Franco and Anne Hathaway (nominated this year for “Les Miserables”) in a blatant effort to appeal to a different audience. It was a belly flop and resulted in a return to form (the good and the bad) last year with Billy Crystal.
What MacFarlane offers — maybe — is the best of both worlds. A lover of musical theater and big band standards, he is a showman at heart. He has said he’s taking inspiration from the legacy of emcees including Crystal, Bob Hope and Johnny Carson, but he brings a very large and very young fan base with him — one that will expect to see MacFarlane showcase his usual envelope-pushing, raunchy-minded, FCC-challenging brand of humor. It’s a worthy experiment, and MacFarlane’s job first and foremost will be to balance those two instincts.
What does MacFarlane get out of all this? Despite his irrefutable success, he has stated a frustration with being known only as a “cartoon guy.” But we return to the question: Who is this guy?
His career technically started when he was 9.
The 39-year-old was born and raised in New England. At 9, he starting drawing a weekly comic strip for a local paper in his hometown of Kent, Connecticut. During his senior year at the Rhode Island School of Design, he created a 10-minute short called “The Life of Larry,” which became the basis for “Family Guy.”
Hollywood takes him seriously.
“Family Guy” debuted after the Super Bowl in 1999 on Fox, where it aired until it was canceled in 2002 due to declining ratings. Hugely popular repeats on the Cartoon Network and big DVD sales convinced Fox to take the rare step of bringing the show back in 2005. Steeped in pop cultural references, it features both a dog and an infant that can speak (they are just two of the many characters MacFarlane voices). The show now competes head-to-head against “The Good Wife” on Sundays, and though it gets only half as many total viewers (4.85 million last week), in the coveted 18-49 demographic, its ratings are nearly double that of the CBS drama. “Family Guy” is the No. 1 program among male teens, period.
MacFarlane, whose deal earns him $33 million a year, has two other Fox prime-time animated series on Sundays: “The Cleveland Show” (a spinoff of “Family Guy”) and “American Dad!”
Last year he dipped his toe into the world of film with “Ted” (which he wrote and directed), about a slacker (Mark Wahlberg) who lives with a sentient, pot-smoking toy bear (voiced by MacFarlane). Tribune film critic Michael Phillips called it a “bully of a comedy, but a bully with just enough calculated heart to make it a hit.” No kidding: With a budget of $65 million, it made more than $535 million worldwide. Guess what? A sequel is in the works.
MacFarlane will get his first shot acting on camera in the spring, starring in his latest multihyphenated effort, a comedy-western called “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”
He's a hard worker, almost obsessive.
“I once went 15 months working seven days a week, and I put myself in the hospital, just from exhaustion,” he told The New Yorker in 2012. He told at least one publication that he’s put in 150 hours a week to prepare for Sunday’s broadcast.
He is not a fan of the FCC — which could prove dicey during a live broadcast.
"Family Guy” is unequivocally a dirty show — often wonderfully so. In 2005 MacFarlane devoted an entire episode to razzing the FCC. Asked two years later what subject matter tends to raise eyebrows the most, he told Tribune Newspapers: “Poop jokes are at the top of the list. I always joke that no one at the FCC or Congress is allowed to go to the bathroom.”
But MacFarlane says he won’t be working as blue as you might expect on Oscar night.
“It’s still Disney, for Christ’s sake,” he told the Associated Press. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, he stressed that the tradition-minded Oscars broadcast is the “performance style that I enjoy, very old-fashioned.”
As much as he may joke about Hollywood’s predisposition toward vanity and moneyed self-importance ...
“The biggest challenge,” he told USA Today about the upcoming broadcast, “is going to be getting there on time. I think it starts at 5:30, and I have a 4:15 with my pool guy to talk about resurfacing the hot tub.”
... he himself has fallen prey to these absurdities.
The aforementioned New Yorker profile, by Claire Hoffman, is especially revealing and includes this anecdote, about a woman who began showing up at the “Family Guy” offices a few years ago: “Without explanation, she would wheel a large piece of equipment into the lavatory just off the writers’ room and wait there for MacFarlane, who would excuse himself and then disappear into the bathroom. Several former staffers (said) although everyone could hear the whooshing sound of a spray-tan machine, no one dared make a joke about it when MacFarlane emerged, bronzed and burnished.”
The quiet, nerdy boy has transformed himself into the ultimate insider.
Per The New Yorker piece, “When he arrived in LA, he could have been mistaken for a Boston I.T. guy on vacation” but has since “polished away his boyish awkwardness.” He started using a stylist and working out. And he began taking advantage of the dating pool available to rich and successful TV producers, going out with actresses Eliza Dushku and Amanda Bynes. He is dating “Game of Thrones” star Emilia Clarke, with whom he attended Golden Globes parties last month.
Expect a few song-and-dance numbers. The man can sing.
Two years ago he released a Grammy-nominated solo album of American standards called “Music Is Better Than Words” and occasionally performs in jazz clubs.
Even if he wasn’t hosting, he’d be there.
MacFarlane is an Oscar nominee this year for co-writing the song “Everybody Needs a Best Friend” from “Ted.”
He has a chip on his shoulder, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t root for him. He’s just less adept at hiding his insecurities.
“The ideal Oscar host,” he told USA Today, “is somebody who goes into the awards show knowing that, even if he sprouts wings on stage and levitates five feet off the ground live on television, that Entertainment Weekly will still go, ‘Eh.’” The magazine’s outgoing TV critic Ken Tucker hasn’t been a fan of “Family Guy,” which might have fueled that statement.
Of course, MacFarlane sat down just a few weeks ago for an extensive interview — with Entertainment Weekly — and noted that, despite spending the past six months prepping for the Oscars, “I’m still going to get savaged in the press.” It was a moment that sounded less like minimizing expectations and more like it was revealing something about MacFarlane himself. “It’s so ingrained in me that, ‘Oh, we might be hated by everybody,’” he told the magazine. “So it’s become this sort of inability to process any kind of positive feedback."