Seth MacFarlane is one of the most successful individuals working in the business of entertainment today. At the young age of 41, his popular animated shows (“The Family Guy,” “American Dad!,” “The Cleveland Show,” among others) have already filled countless hours of primetime television and won numerous awards, including two Emmys.
On the big screen, MacFarlane co-wrote, directed (his feature debut), produced, and acted (the voice of the title character — an animated Teddy Bear) “Ted,” which smashed a number of box office records. “Ted” also earned MacFarlane an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song.
If that’s not enough to make you resent him, MacFarlane has played Carnegie Hall, hosted the Academy Awards, is an accomplished singer and pianist, and holds the kind of power that convinced Fox television to remake Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos,” and Universal Studios to take a chance on the long-dead Western-comedy genre with “A Million Ways to Die In the West.” The result…
The surprise success of “Cosmos” has spurred talk of a second season.
As far as “A Million Ways to Die In the West,” critics who see Tina Fey as the second coming couldn’t wait to jump on MacFarlane’s box office underperformer. Nevertheless, MacFarlane’s gamble (in which he starred as well as directed) brought in $86 million worldwide — a number Tina Fey’s hit exactly once outside of animation.
After a heated discussion on Bill Maher’s HBO show about terrorism and Global Warming, Andrew Breitbart and MacFarlane became immediate friends. That was how I met Seth. I was there that night and the two of us somehow got into an intense but extremely enjoyable political debate about all kinds of issues. It was that discussion I wanted to try and recreate here, for what I hope will be an ongoing interview series of long-form discussions with notable individuals from the other side of the political divide.
There are reams of articles about and interviews with MacFarlane about “Ted” and “The Family Guy” and the upcoming “Ted 2.” MacFarlane, though, is more than the sum of those parts. He’s serious about science, a committed atheist, one of the few powers in Hollywood willing to challenge the Left’s political correctness, and best of all, he loves swing music.
That was the guy I wanted to talk to, and thankfully MacFarlane was more than game.
As was the case with CNN’s Sally Kohn and “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd, Seth came to us with no preconditions, and I once again shamelessly abused the time limit. I also want to add that the choice to talk about MacFarlane’s new Christmas album was mine. A “plug” wasn’t part of the deal.
In part one of our two-part discussion, we talk about the politically-correct double-standard MacFarlane deals with daily, why that political correctness is worse than the old Hollywood Production Code, the dangers of ignorant celebrity movements, God, atheism, the size of the universe and Frank Sinatra.
BREITBART NEWS NETWORK: One of the reasons I wanted to do this is because you are so open to debate, and you’re a Hollywood guy who knows his stuff. You’re also friendly with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, and I was there when you and Andrew Breitbart met. You guys seemed to become fast friends. Andrew loved to talk to people he disagreed with, and culturally, he despised censorship — which was an important piece of common ground you shared.
SETH MACFARLANE: We’re all human beings, and in this age of social media and YouTube we’ve given ourselves license to be huge assholes to each other. There’s no need for that.
BNN: Let me start by breaking precedent with a personal question.
BNN: But this is personal about me, not you.
BNN: So you’re on the set of “A Million Ways to Die In the West,” you’re in-between takes, you have a lot of time on your hands. Just be honest, what exactly did Charlize Theron tell you about me?
SM: All she told me is that you give great holiday gifts. I don’t know what that means, but that’s what she said.
BNN: It’s code. She can be coy that way. But while we’re on the subject of the holidays, thank you so much for the copy of your new holiday CD, “Holiday for Swing!”
SM: You bet.
BNN: Here’s how it went: The postman shows up with the CD, and I’m all excited, and I say to my wife, “Hey, we got Seth MacFarlane’s new Christmas CD!”
All she says back is, “Oh.”
So then it’s Thanksgiving, and it’s a tradition for us to listen to Christmas music during our Thanksgiving dinner, and I say to my wife, “Honey, I’m going to put on Seth MacFarlane’s Christmas CD.”
Again, all she says is, “Oh.”
I don’t know if she didn’t hear me or what, but about 4 songs in she says, “This is great. Who is that?”
“I told you, Seth MacFarlane.”
“I thought he would do dirty versions of ‘Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,’ or something. This is really good.”
And I agree. It’s a terrific CD. That really is my favorite era of music.
SM: Same here.
BNN: What I really enjoyed about it was how robust the music and singing is. The arrangement is big and impressive.
SM: Joel McNeely is the arranger and the choice of an arranger was a priority for me. While I’m in no way questioning Sinatra’s greatness as a vocalist, part of his genius was his passion for the importance of the orchestra and the orchestration. I think that’s a big part of why his recordings are so special and stand out. That fact doesn’t get mentioned often enough. He was obsessed with the arrangement and often allowed the orchestra to take the spotlight. He did an entire album called “Tone Poems of Color,” in which he didn’t sing at all. He just conducted the orchestra.
That focus is part of what separates Sinatra from the pack, and we wanted imitate that with this album — make it as much about the orchestra as the vocals.
BNN: I’m generalizing a bit here, but one of the reasons your album stood out is due to the fact that when today’s artists reach back and record music from that era, it often sounds like background music.
BNN: Harry Connick Jr. might say he’s a jazz singer not a swing singer, and that’s fair, but when you do it right — when you listen to Sinatra backed by Nelson Riddle belting out “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” that hits you like a great AC/DC song.
SM: No question. Musical arrangement, orchestration is a very specific art that’s close to dead. Who are the Nelson Riddles or the Billie Mays or the Gordon Jenkins’s of today? They really don’t exist. That’s why when you hear these songs sung today the orchestration sounds a little by the book. I am going to defend Harry Connick. He seems to understand and appreciate what great orchestration is.
But in general, yes, it’s run-of-the mill stuff. Yet, when you listen to a Nelson Riddle arrangement there is so much going on with the orchestra. He’s using xylophones, a sense of humor, a fearlessness.
BNN: When those songs are done right they hit you like the best rock -n- roll.
SM: And that’s because the orchestration is interesting, not just lying there.
BNN: Another project you were involved in, that also surprised my lovely wife, was the recent remake of “Cosmos,” which we loved. We’re both fascinated by science but “Cosmos” was also great television. Addicting. We watched the entire season over about three days on Netflix. Now I know the original idea, like the original Carl Sagan series, was that it was supposed to be a single season special. Is there any talk of more?
SM: We only now just had our first meeting on it. You’re right, there was never any plan to launch a second season but now we’re now talking about it. Fox was always supportive of the idea but this felt like something special and unique, not just something that would build goodwill with the FCC. We also wanted to reinvigorate people’s passion for science in an era where a collective growing mistrust and ignorance of science is hurting us in all kinds of ways.
Support from viewers was more than we expected. There was one week where we won our timeslot, which we never expected to happen.
BNN: Would it drive you crazy to know that watching “Cosmos” only increased my faith in God?
SM: (laughs) No. Listen, while he was alive, Carl Sagan was the kind of person who could bridge that gap. When it came to issues like Climate Change, he was able to make connections with religious leaders and members of the church with the approach of, ‘We both have different ideas on how this world came to be but we both share a common interest in preserving it.’ That was a smart move on his part: finding that common ground.
Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. The Universe is a staggeringly wondrous place, and how it came to be is something where people like myself and the church disagree.
BNN: “Cosmos” not only did a great job showing the wonders — or I would say the miracles — of the Universe, but also what you might call the “Innerverse”; how small things are when you get down to the atomic and molecular level.
BNN: I believe in the Big Bang and I probably agreed with 97% of the show, and was maybe a little skeptical of the remaining 3%. But I wasn’t sitting there waiting for CGI of Jesus riding a dinosaur. I look at the universe as this huge book that science is in the process of reading. You might have your own ideas, but science cannot explain who wrote that book, or where the immutable laws of nature came from, or the existence of existence.
I forget, are you agnostic or an atheist?
SM: I am what you would call a 99% atheist. I think anyone who says they’re a 100% atheist is as foolish as those who claim to be 100% certain about the other side.
BNN: On that side, I’m at about 95% on a good day.
SM: Even Carl Sagan himself was fond of saying that we just don’t know the answers on certain subjects. There is a lot we do know and can explain. We can’t definitively explain where the Big Bang came from but there are some interesting theories that it may have been the result of the Multiverse Theory, which we covered in “Cosmos.”
I remember at one point Neil deGrasse Tyson [astrophysicist and host of “Cosmos”] saying to me that there was speculation of quantum fluctuation from another one of these universes creating the Big Bang. Now this is all speculation. I’m not a scientist and I’m probably getting some of it wrong. But that’s one answer.
There are some things we know, some things we don’t know, and it’s enough for me to say ‘I don’t know.’
If we keep expanding our scientific world view, we might someday know.
BNN: Which I am all for. In fact, what eventually ended up bringing me to my faith and belief in God was science, archeology and secular history. That might be why “Cosmos” had the exact opposite effect of shattering my faith.
SM: When it comes to science and faith there are things fundamentally in conflict, no question. But Carl Sagan proved that there can be a great deal of common ground between the two. One example is evolution. A person of faith can look at the fossils and the evidence and agree that the Theory of Evolution is undeniable, and then go on to argue that it’s one of God’s greatest achievements.
That’s not my philosophy. I see a randomness to nature. I think the evidence points to a blind trial and error that takes place over billions of years. Regardless, at least until we learn more, evolution is an area where a person of faith and the scientifically-minded can right now find some common ground.
We’ve seen the evidence. Evolution is undeniable. The common ground is found in the haze of what we don’t yet know.
That common ground is important. It’s a good thing. Without it we’ll continue to lose interest in science. Look at vaccines. For decades vaccines were considered a no-brainer. But now they’re being called into question without any scientific basis whatsoever.
SM: People who do and don’t go to church, I think, can all agree on that.
BNN: You’re in the epicenter of that. I’ve read that at some Los Angeles schools up to 80% of students aren’t vaccinated. That’s insane.
SM: In that instance, a lot it comes from Hollywood. It comes from–
BNN: The likes of a Jenny McCarthy.
SM: Jenny McCarthy isn’t alone. There’s a whole lot of celebrities who agree with her. Certain celebrities who are not scientists speaking out against something they don’t know much about. They’re causing a lot of damage. They’re just setting us back.
BNN: While we’re on the subject of the culture — that’s almost your entire world, and I know that here at Breitbart we’ve criticized and defended you, but every day you deal with and fight political correctness. I also know that some segments of the political right can be politically correct. But who gives you the hardest time. Who are the real fascists out there today that want to control your art?
SM: The term fascist might be a little extreme but I’m the first person to tell you that most of my beatings come from the entertainment and Hollywood press.
BNN: The political left.
SM: Absolutely. Hands down.
BNN: What is it that you most want to do but can’t? What sacred cows are most off limits? What does this reality stop you from doing that you most want to do?
SM: Take your pick.
BNN: And I’m just talking satire here. Not being mean.
SM: Right. The Oscars are a perfect example — all these absurd attacks about sexism and misogyny. That wasn’t my intent and that wasn’t what it was. Certainly in the Hollywood press, there is a narrative that is preordained by those constructing the articles. So regardless of what happens, that narrative has to be fulfilled to grab readers.
BNN: That’s got to hamper your creativity. You’re sitting in the writer’s room, you come up with a joke or storyline, but you can’t do it because you’re Seth MacFarlane or it’s been deemed off-limits by America’s left-wing moral scolds.
SM: Everything’s a judgment call and sometimes we censor ourselves. But look at the 1970s when “All In the Family” came out.
BNN: Brilliant show. Nothing was off-limits.
SM: The most brilliant sitcom in television history. That was a totally different landscape where you weren’t dealing with soundbites and tweets; you weren’t dealing with little snippets of information and judgment calls being made as a result. You were dealing with people reacting to context. And that’s the one thing we have lost the grasp of more than anything else in our perception of what offends us. We don’t grasp context. We get angry over things we haven’t seen, just heard about.
BNN: Overall, political correctness is nothing more than a new Production Code — like the one that was in place in Hollywood during the 30s, 40s and 50s. But it’s worse now, isn’t it? Back then the rules were literally written down. They were in black and white. Today it’s a Kafkaesque world where you really don’t know the rules — where you don’t know what’s right and wrong.
SM: Yes. It’s actually a lot worse now than it’s been in a while.
BNN: It’s certainly worse now than it was in the 70’s, during the “All In the Family” era.
SM: A writer-friend said to me once that even though every article written about him has mistakes, he still assumes that every other article is 100% accurate. I’m guilty of that.
BNN: There’s also a double standard. You do a playful song at the Oscars about boobs where the women involved are quite obviously game and in on the joke, and you’re the devil. But Tina Fey can sideswipe Leonardo DiCaprio at the Golden Globes with a truly crass, mean-girl joke about a super model’s vagina, and she is all kinds of glorious. You’re being playful and making sure everyone’s in on the joke. She was just being ugly. Huge double standard.
SM: The logical mind can only come to that conclusion.
BNN: You’re a guy who pushes the envelope, and I hate censorship. But speaking of 70’s sitcoms, the other day I was watching a “Good Times” rerun and there was a series of jokes about a couple trying to get everyone out of the apartment so they could have sex. But it was done in a way to protect kids. Very subtle. Unless you already knew what they were talking about, you wouldn’t know what they were talking about.
Today it’s entirely different. The other day I caught a couple minutes of “Two and a Half Men” and it was excessively blatant. If channel-surfing kids caught this episode they would learn about sex, even anal sex. In other words it would cost them a piece of their innocence. It’s two very different approaches to comedy. You’re a part of this world. Do people push the envelope simply because they have to nowadays or do they see an actual good in it?
SM: To me it all comes back to something pretty conservative: What’s happening at home. When I was seven I was watching “Caddyshack,” “The Blues Brothers,” and “Animal House” and there was stuff in those films that you could still never do on “Family Guy,” and yet it didn’t warp my moral code. Depending on your viewpoint, it didn’t turn me into a terrible person.
BNN: Big difference between movies and easy access to television, though.
SM: Regardless, my parents were always there to help explain. And you could argue that it helps you get ready for the real world. You ask those questions and your parents break it down for you in terms of right and wrong. It matters what’s happening at home.
I’m not saying you should sit the family down and watch “Debbie Does Dallas,” but in terms of comedy and satire and pushing the envelope, the flipside is that the Parents Television Council would only have us air programs appropriate for children.
But some of us don’t have children ,and we want to enjoy edgy comedy. If you don’t want your children to watch certain shows, there are plenty of ways for a responsible parent to prevent it.
In the upcoming second and final part of our interview, MacFarlane agrees to join the NRA if conservatives will come around on Global Warming. Hair was pulled. Furniture was thrown. Sure, we eventually hugged it out, but it wasn’t all that sincere.