Seth MacFarlane is the writer, producer, and creator of the popular Fox animated comedies Family Guy and American Dad. Both launch their new seasons Sunday, Sept. 28. MacFarlane, who also voices several roles on Family Guy (including that of alcoholic dog Brian) spoke to TIME from Los Angeles.
This is totally weird. Is this your real voice? It's like talking to a dog that can talk.
Yeah, I get that a lot.
Your voice is sort of your moneymaker, since you do so many characters on your shows. Do you ever worry about your voice giving out?
Not really. I'm pretty abusive with it. I pretty much beat the crap out of it. There are times when I'm under the weather and the corporate machine tries to put me in the recording booth anyway. It's always up to me to say, "Guys, listen to me, listen to what I sound like. I'm not myself."
You went to school at the Rhode Island School of Design. What did you major in?
I was a film major with a concentration in animation.
Was there ever any performative aspect to anything you did? I'm sure you imagined you'd go into animation, but you've taken a real front-of-the-camera role.
I did a lot of theater when I was in high school and college. I also did stand-up in college, so it was always part of what I did. With the Family Guy pilot, part of me doing the voices was that there wasn't any money to hire actors. But there was also a very specific vocal and delivery style that I was after. It was just easier to do it myself.
I read that you don't actually consume that much pop culture. How can that be? So much of the humor in your shows is predicated on mocking pop culture.
You have 17 writers in a room, and each one of us has our own set of cultural references. Things that I miss pop-culture-wise, I'm educated on by the rest of my staff.
So what's your specialty in the writers' room, then?
It's a combination of classic musical theater and terrible '80s Saturday-morning cartoons.
Like Rubik the Amazing Cube. They did an animated series in the '80s that was based on Rubik's Cube, which was popular at the time. The premise was I'm not making this up that these three Hispanic children find a Rubik's Cube, and every time they solve it, it flies and helps them solve crimes. I swear it's real. Look it up on YouTube. It's ridiculous.
It's amazing what they got away with, though. I don't know if you ever saw Fonz and the Happy Days Gang, that animated show. The premise was that the Fonz and Richie and Ralph and Potsie all of whom did their own voices, amazingly had a time machine, and each week they would travel to a different time. Never mind that the f______ thing is already set in the '50s. It just made no sense at all.
Did you just do a lot of sitting in front of the TV on Saturday mornings, then?
I was obsessed. Every year, the Friday before the new Saturday-morning shows would premiere, the networks would do this big preview special, and I was always glued to the TV. As horrible as they were, they were entertaining at the time. There was a lot of showmanship from the networks based around the new lineup.
It's interesting that you talk about showmanship. You talk about how you're well versed in musical theater and you have so many musical numbers on Family Guy. Is the idea of showmanship an important underpinning of your type of humor?
Yeah, I think so. There's an element of showmanship in old television at its best that's been lost today. Where you really see it in the most emblematic sense is with the absence of of opening titles. They don't do it anymore. Certainly in Family Guy and American Dad, we actually had to fight to have an opening title song. The fear from the network is that somebody somewhere is going to change the channel, and as a result, they are just terrified of the idea of a main title that people might be bored by. What they don't realize is that it's the opposite. It's a drum roll. It's something familiar and exciting that tells you, All right, you're about to see a great show. Everybody knows the Gilligan's Island theme. Everybody knows the Cheers theme.
You mock celebrities so often on your show. Do you ever get any kickback from these people?
The only two people that's ever happened with me for were Ellen Cleghorne from Saturday Night Live and Jon Stewart. I got a very angry phone call from Jon Stewart.
What did you do to Stewart?
There was a very inside joke on Family Guy referring to the fact that he was working before the writers' strike was over. It was admittedly a very direct middle finger of a joke, which I don't discount. But he called and was very angry about it. The call lasted an hour. It was pretty amazing. He's a very good debater, I'll tell you that. It was fascinating to me that it went on for so long.
On Family Guy you're doing another Star Wars parody, this time of The Empire Strikes Back. What's it called?
Something, something, something, Dark Side.
If you could give any other movies this treatment, what movies would you pick?
We'd love to do it with Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. With our fan base, we have to do something we know that people are already going to be familiar with backwards and forwards. And those are movies our fans know as well as we do. We couldn't do Joe Versus the Volcano or Kramer vs. Kramer.