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Meet your Oscars guide: Seth MacFarlane
Seth MacFarlane. Go ahead — say the name again . . . ("Seth MacFarlane") . . . and again and again . . . for come Monday morning, he will either be the most talked about person in the country, or the most forgotten one.
Hosting the Oscars can be brutal or glorious — but it is not for the fainthearted. So, let's take a look at this intriguing fellow, shall we? Here's my profile in Monday's Newsday. Love him or hate him, there's real talent here — but we're all about to find out if there's real talent for this hosting gig.
You probably know him from the voice, or voices. One comes from a pinched, sour, insolent, diabolical baby who says blisteringly rude (more likely crude) things on the popular Fox animated series "Family Guy."
Or maybe you know him as the voice of Ted in the movie "Ted," about the stuffed bear who is best buddies with John (Mark Wahlberg), and has an abiding taste for booze, hookers and the occasional line of coke.
Or you might even know him as the voice from "Music Is Better," a 2011 album of standards, which he sings, sounding like a mix of Dick Haymes and Frank Sinatra.
There have been Oscars hosts from the fake news world (Jon Stewart), from the stand-up world (Chris Rock), even the down-under world (Hugh Jackman). But there has never been a host from the world of Seth MacFarlane.
A natural-born provocateur, he's an intriguing choice to host Sunday night's Academy Awards telecast, possibly a dangerous one, who will sing and dance and maybe even give this bespoke crowd a kick in their collective shins.
He ominously told TV writers recently that "in terms of tone, I would say you could start with 'Family Guy.' You could watch 'Ted.' Those make an attempt to walk a line between the classic and the edgy, and that's the line that we're trying to walk here. We want it to feel like an old-style Oscars, but content-wise, we want it to also feel relevant. We want it to feel entertaining and feel like it's of today."
Neither household name nor conventional star, MacFarlane is what is known in Hollywood as a "hyphenate," or someone who writes, produces, conceives, even sometimes finances and (in his case) voices his own creations, which include "Family Guy" and two other Fox shows, "American Dad" and "The Cleveland Show."
He wrote, directed and voiced the title character of "Ted," and is now prepping the sequel. He holds one of the richest production contracts in television history — even Forbes or Fortune can't quite put a figure on it, but all you have to do is take a one and then add eight zeros, although even that is considered conservative.
His contract with Fox (reportedly) ends this year. A renewal is assured. And, as mentioned, his voice is his best-known feature. His face? Not so much. That is about to change.
Who is MacFarlane and why is he hosting TV's most prestigious non-sports telecast?
The answers say almost as much about the Oscars telecast, circa 2013, as MacFarlane. Neil Meron, who is coproducing this year's show with his longtime partner, Craig Zadan, explained to reporters recently that MacFarlane "has great charm and embodies a kind of a post-millennium host, in the tradition of Johnny Carson, Bob Hope and Billy Crystal.
"He is also the next step in terms of making the show current. And that was one of the goals that we had in mind — to make this show current."
Long — probably too long — saddled with an image of being a crusty (and encrusted) homage to Hollywood royalty, the Oscars badly want a mantle of "cool" befitting the world's most glamorous industry. The Motion Picture Academy also wants to increase viewership for its biggest night (last year blipped back up to 39 million after years of decline, then stagnation, following 1998's 57 million high-water mark, when "Titanic" won best picture.)
More often than not, the burden of achieving both has fallen to the host, while the balancing act has proved cumbersome, if not impossible. The James Franco/Anne Hathaway 2011 combination was considered a disaster; the 2012 Billy Crystal one felt moldy and Old World.
Then, Zadan and Meron saw MacFarlane's "Saturday Night Live" season opener this past fall and decided they had their man — after ABC raised obvious objections to the first choice of Jimmy Fallon, host of NBC's "Late Night." As "SNL" host, MacFarlane was, in fact, an anomaly:
He was excellent. He knew his lines, performed his skits effortlessly, nailed his monologue and even sang. Aren't those exactly the skills — Meron and Zadan mused — an Oscars host needs? An added bonus, or perhaps the biggest one: "Ted" had been a summer blockbuster, which obviously meant MacFarlane — or his voice — had a huge following.
But with MacFarlane came risks, and they are not insignificant. His type of humor is sharp, juvenile, derisive and relentlessly scatological. His shows have raked over virtually every major star who will be sitting in the Dolby Theatre tonight.
He likes (as viewers know) nothing better than a flatulence joke — preferably involving someone dressed in a tux at a crowded party who is suddenly beset with an explosive and uncontrollable problem. (A scene in "Ted," by the way.) That's why many millions of teen boys are huge fans.
But a more complicated, or compelling, picture lies beyond the foul-mouthed soused frat-boy exterior. In a revealing and not entirely complimentary profile in the New Yorker last summer — long before Meron and Zadan picked him — MacFarlane said he never watches TV, dislikes the current pop standards, eschews most movies, and is even profoundly bored by "Family Guy."
MacFarlane, 39, also conveyed the image of someone born a half a century too late, who loves Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and — yes — probably Dick Haymes, too.
A Connecticut native, he grew up in rural Kent, where artsy New York weekenders have long gravitated. He's the son of "hippies" (as he described them); his father, Ron, now lives in California, his mother, Perry, who worked at Kent School, which MacFarlane attended, died in 2010. A self-described nerd who loved superheroes and cartoons, he went to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design and afterward gravitated to Hollywood, where he got a job as an animator with Hanna-Barbera, later creating "Family Guy" (based on an idea he developed while at RISD) for Fox in 1999.
What happened next earned a chapter in the history of television. Fox canceled the series after a couple of seasons, but reruns on Cartoon Network and a subsequent DVD release were both wildly popular. Fox reversed itself, and the show was reinstated.
"Guy" went on to become — after "The Simpsons" -- the single most lucrative franchise in the network's history. "Guy" -- about the Griffin family of Quahog, R.I. -- has, of course, been controversial over its run. But while relentlessly lowbrow and raucously vulgar, it can be a razor-sharp send-up of American popular culture. It also reflects the values of the man who will be standing before the avatars of that culture in just a few hours.
Will MacFarlane turn into Oscars' own Ricky Gervais, who flamed much of this crowd at the Golden Globes a few years ago?
MacFarlane is ambiguous on this question: "You go into it knowing that no matter what, even if you put on the greatest show in the world, you're probably going to be lambasted in the press. So you might as well enjoy yourself, do the best you can knowing that the outcome is going to be the same.
"It's — it's a ruthless bit of scrutiny that you're under, so I'm not going to think about that. I'm just worrying about making it as funny as it can be and as fun as it can be."