Many performers have hosted the Academy Awards, but Seth MacFarlane, host of the 85th annual show, is something different: he’s not known for performances where he’s actually seen. As a TV creator and producer, MacFarlane became one of the most powerful people in show business thanks to the success of Family Guy, for which he also does many of the voices; he followed that up with two other animated series, then transitioned into live-action filmmaking by writing, directing and voicing Ted, one of 2012’s most popular comedies.
You wouldn’t think he had anything left to prove— being the highest-paid writer in TV with a reported salary of $33 million a year, and having influenced many other cartoons, such as Robot Chicken, a pop-culture parody created by Family Guy voice actor Seth Green. But recently, MacFarlane has been trying to get out in public—he hosted Saturday Night Live and sang at London’s Royal Albert Hall before landing the Oscar hosting job. It’s part of his attempt to go from animator to live-action star—and his colleagues think he can do it. “Watch this guy go,” says Family Guy and American Dad composer Ron Jones. “He will astound everyone.”
The transition from cartoonist to performer isn’t quite as strange as it might sound. Van Partible, creator of Johnny Bravo, the Hanna-Barbera cartoon where MacFarlane achieved early success as a scriptwriter, says, “the best cartoonists need to have a working knowledge of acting so that they can get their characters to perform and emote in a believable way.” Because of that link, many other writer-creators from the ’90s animation boom, such as Mike Judge (King of the Hill), are also vocal actors. But these other creators don’t usually try to separate themselves from the cartoon characters they play. Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park (who have bashed MacFarlane’s work on their show) accepted starring roles in the movie BASEketball after South Park took off. But the film bombed, and the pair settled for an offscreen role for their next project, achieving live-action success writing but not starring in the musical The Book of Mormon.
MacFarlane, on the other hand, hasn’t quite settled for offscreen stardom. “Seth has always been a performer,” Partible says. “Even in the student film that helped him sell Family Guy, there are live-action sequences in-between the animated sequences which feature Seth being Seth.”
MacFarlane’s attempt to put himself before the public as a face rather than just a voice—starting with the time he appeared in person to host a collection of Family Guy clips on Fox—may be reminiscent of the king of his business, Walt Disney, who used TV to become much more than just the producer and voice of Mickey Mouse. Josh Spiegel, co-host of the Disney podcast Mousterpiece Cinema, says that Walt Disney’s television appearances in the ’50s, when the medium was still young, helped rebuild his fame and give him a new persona: “Disney’s choice to step in front of the camera and be more vocal than in the past was a definite shift, almost a way to become America’s kindly old uncle,” he says. Spiegel says TV “may have helped people soften up” to Disney again after he had been stereotyped as a conservative curmudgeon.
The liberal MacFarlane’s live-action career could help him fight a different stereotype: that he’s a bad boy who mostly does raunchy or offensive jokes. Though his intelligent, surreal satire American Dad has helped redeem his reputation among critics, he’s still best known for gags like a Nazi officer on Family Guy wearing a McCain/Palin button, or the titular stuffed bear in Ted using a pickup move called the “Dirty Fozzie.” He lived up to that image when announcing this year’s Oscar nominations, throwing to the German-Austrian co-production Amour by saying “the last time Austria and Germany got together and co-produced something it was Hitler.” But he’s also expressed interest in a new persona; he told Rolling Stone the idea that Family Guy is a frat-boy show comes mostly “from people who haven’t actually seen the show,” and that his aim as a performer is “walking that line between old-fashioned showmanship and allowing it to be contemporary.”
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That love of “old-fashioned showmanship” is evidenced in everything MacFarlane has done as a live-action guy. Though he will only turn 40 this year and his shows are awash in references to the 1980s pop culture of his youth (leading South Park to mock him as reliant on random “idea balls” consisting of ’80s cultural references), he’s also obsessed with entertainment from before he was born, particularly show tunes and big-band music. “Seth’s taste in music has always been skewed towards musical theatre and classic standards,” says Partible, noting that Stewie, the talking baby on Family Guy, “was born out of his impression of Rex Harrison from My Fair Lady.” Jones says that from the beginning of Family Guy, “Seth said ‘let’s have a real band, let’s be able to do some jazz, some big band, some straight scoring, and be able to do musical parodies, sound-a-likes and just about every wild reference imaginable.’ ”
MacFarlane’s retro musical obsessions have been the biggest part of his career as a performer. Last year, he released his first solo album, Music Is Better Than Words, whose title comes from the obscure 1950s Gene Kelly musical It’s Always Fair Weather. More recently, he’s made regular appearances at the prestigious BBC Proms concerts with conductor John Wilson, singing Broadway and Hollywood standards in what the Guardian called a baritone “of the kind you associate with luxury hotel lounges”; at last year’s concert he crooned the ballad Joey, Joey Joey from the semi-operatic musical The Most Happy Fella. In an era when most shows won’t refer to anything older than Michael Jackson, MacFarlane may be Hollywood’s leading evangelist for a Rat Pack-style renaissance.
That retro style could theoretically hold him back as he tries to turn himself into a star performer. But it could also be part of what makes him attractive to awards-show producers. The Oscars have struggled with young hosts like James Franco and old stars like Billy Crystal. MacFarlane may have been selected because of his multi-generational appeal: his shows have one of the youngest audiences in TV, but they are so marinated in old pop culture—what Jones calls “symbolism and stored references we all carry between our ears from endless years of watching TV”— that they appeal to older people as well. David Simon, creator of The Wire, is one of many fiftysomethings who have confessed to enjoying MacFarlane’s shows.
Of course, being a more qualified host than James Franco isn’t a high bar to clear, and the Oscars themselves can do as much to dampen a host’s appeal as to broaden it. David Letterman felt so humiliated by his one Oscar hosting gig that he almost retreated from doing any appearances beyond his own show. For MacFarlane, there’s a danger that the Rat Pack act could dilute his appeal to his core audience. And it’s still an open question whether he’s well known enough. “He’s raised his awareness, at least in Hollywood,” Spiegel says. “but I don’t know that people not as well connected to the industry would know who he was off the top of their heads.”
But if MacFarlane can use the Oscars and other venues to springboard into true live-action performing stardom, he may be able to move his career into new places.He recently announced he will both direct and star in the upcoming Western comedy A Million Ways To Die; hosting gigs could increase his public profile and make ticket buyers accept him as a movie lead.
Jones, who has worked with MacFarlane for many years, is confident that we’ve only seen a hint of what he can do. “He has grown and learned and really accelerated his ability to do many things. I asked Seth if he would like to sing with my big band when I formed one from the core of my scoring orchestra about five years back, and he said yes. He would come and sing two sets in a jazz club, never missing a note, always knowing each song, the right feel.” And if MacFarlane can succeed where animators like Parker and Stone haven’t, could it open the door for others to step into the limelight? “I think Seth is a one-of-a-kind animation creator turned full-fledged on-screen star,” Partible muses. “But his influence is breeding more.” Maybe John Lasseter of Pixar will never get in front of a mike and sing a song—but thanks to Seth MacFarlane, the idea of an animator as a superstar is no longer something to scoff at.