The Best Of Fresh Air 2011
2:34 am
Mon January 2, 2012

Seth MacFarlane: A 'Family Guy' Sings Out

Originally published on Mon January 2, 2012 11:46 am

This week on Fresh Air, we're marking the year's end by revisiting some of the most memorable conversations we've had in 2011. This interview was originally broadcast on October 17, 2011.

When Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane was growing up, his parents exposed him to Broadway, movie musicals and the Great American Songbook. Meanwhile, his cousin Shep introduced him to Woody Allen.

"I instantly became a huge fan of his movies," MacFarlane says. "When Radio Days came out, I bought the soundtrack and got to know all of the songs. ... Radio Days was full of [old songs from the 40s]. So I went to my grandfather and [asked] for more stuff, and he gave me a bunch of his old record albums, and I really became acquainted with Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller and that era of music."

MacFarlane's new album, Music Is Better Than Words, is a collection of songs sung in the big-band style and taken from the Great American Songbook. Many of the tracks were tunes originally recorded by some of the great singers of the '40s and '50s.

"This kind of music is what I've always been drawn to," MacFarlane tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "[I think] the Great American Songbook, and particularly the early- to late-'50s era of orchestration, was the peak of high musicality as far as what singers and orchestrators were doing with relatively old songs from the '20s and '30s. [They were] just breathing new life and energy into them as they discovered what they really could do with an orchestra in popular music."

MacFarlane says he started taking vocal lessons from Lee and Sally Sweetland, who trained Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra, among others.

"They really drill you," he says. "They teach you the old-style way of singing, back when you had no electronic help. ... [They teach you to] show your teeth. If you look at old photos of Sinatra while he's singing, there's a lot of very exposed teeth. That was something that Lee Sweetland hit on day in and day out, and correctly so, because it just brightens the whole performance."

Though Music Is Better Than Words is MacFarlane's first studio album released under his own name, the comedy writer is no stranger to a recording studio. His voice can be heard throughout the many musical numbers on Family Guy as the voice of both Peter Griffin and his son Stewie Griffin.

"Singing in character voices is actually a hell of a lot easier than singing straight, because it's almost like there's a shield around it," he says. "We assume Peter Griffin probably shouldn't be able to sing all that well, so you can keep it loose and you don't have to think too much about it. It's much more work to sing straight."

MacFarlane also wrote and voiced Family Guy's theme song — and then fought network executives for its survival.

"We had to fight pretty hard to do a theme. ... It's a tradition that's kind of going away, and part of that is the networks are worried that people don't want to sit through the same thing week after week, and so shows are being discouraged from writing themes," he says. "I think what [executives] don't realize is, showmanship is showmanship. It hasn't changed in hundreds of years. It's a drum roll saying, 'Here comes a show.' ... And it gets the audience psyched up. ... And I think the absence of that is really tragic."

MacFarlane also fought for the theme song in his second Fox sitcom, American Dad! But by the time The Cleveland Show aired, he says, Fox executives had stopped discouraging him.

"Luckily, by the time The Cleveland Show came out, we never even heard anything from the network about that," he says. "I think by that point, they realized it was a stylistic thing for these shows — that you need a little bit of a drum roll. You need a little bit of a P.T. Barnum intro."

On Fresh Air, MacFarlane also details his early forays into comic writing, and describes what it was like to host Charlie Sheen's roast. MacFarlane has won two Emmys and a Webby Award for Film and Video Person of the Year.



Interview Highlights

On Missing A Sept. 11 Flight, Which Was Flown Into The World Trade Center

"I think of it as, I'm living the same way in 2011 as I was in 1999. And the reason for that is I had missed a lot of flights. I'm a perpetually late person, and every flight that takes off, you have to figure somebody's going to miss the flight or somebody's late. And on top of that, who knows how many times a day we have similar close calls as the one I had? This morning, crossing the street, if I had crossed five minutes later, I would have been hit by a car. Who knows? So in my case, obviously the day itself was a tragedy and a disaster, but if we're just talking about my case, it doesn't strike me as something that I am attaching an unbelievable amount of significance to because of those reasons — because I have missed a bunch of flights."

On The Instrumental Background Music In Old Cartoons

"The orchestral musicians had to have been the best musicians out there. The tempos are all over the place. It's just so frantic, stop-and-go. And it's insane how hard that is to play — harder than most film scores, because you just have to be watching the music and the conductor, and the whole tone changes every few seconds."

On What Influenced Him As A Young Child

"The animated musicals that Disney did in the '90s were very noteworthy. For me, The Muppets were more legit than anybody in that regard. The Muppets and even Sesame Street — Joe Raposo, the great jazz composer, wrote so many great songs for Sesame Street and The Muppets. Sinatra recorded "Bein' Green." Bing Crosby recorded "Sing." The Great Muppet Caper — every song in that movie is a great Joe Reposo song, and at some point, those are songs that I'd like to record."

On Creating Family Guy

"I had been studying animation for a while, and when The Simpsons came about, I was interested at the time in becoming an animator for Disney. Disney was having their renaissance in the film world with movies like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. And that was what I wanted to do, and then here comes The Simpsons, who said, 'Hey, you can also do this. We're rewriting the rule book with regard for what you can do on television.' And I was laughing. This was something that actually was for me. It wasn't for a family audience. It was for me as a single guy with an edgier sense of humor and what I was looking for. I was laughing genuinely at this stuff. I was doing standup at the time and enjoying that, and enjoying working with risque humor, so I decided to develop an animated idea. I looked to my own region in this case, where I was brought up, for character ideas. Peter Griffin is very, very much the quintessential big, fat, loud New England guy who is very, very good at the core — big-hearted guy — but just has zero self-editing mechanism. No idea what is appropriate and inappropriate, and you kind of have to forgive him because he just doesn't know any better, and I knew so many of those guys. My father knew tons of those guys when we were living back East."

On Creating Stewie Griffin

"Stewie was originally just a dopey-looking drawing of a baby with no personality. I had the rest of the family conceived, and I was just looking for something that would give him a personality — which was essentially what Maggie Simpson was. And I was a big Rex Harrison fan — there was something about him that I found amusing and ridiculous — and so I came up with the idea to put Rex Harrison's voice in the body of this baby. And thus Stewie was born."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Happy New Year. Today we're concluding our series of favorite entertainment and pop culture interviews of 2011. Later we'll hear from comic Louis C.K. First, we have Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the animated comedy series "Family Guy," "American Dad" and "The Cleveland Show." He does a lot of voices for the series, like Peter, the father on "Family Guy."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FAMILY GUY")

SETH MACFARLANE: (As Peter Griffin) How about you all sit there quietly while I make dad noises? Ahem. (Makes noises)

GROSS: Seth MacFarlane not only does voices on his shows, he often sings in those voices. But in 2011, he released an album on which he sings in his own voice. It's called "Music is Better than Words," and it features that MacFarlane loves from the American popular songbook, including several he's trying to rescue from obscurity, like this one called "It's Anybody's Spring."

It was written by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen, who wrote a lot of songs for Sinatra. This song was written for the 1946 film "Road to Utopia," in which it was sung by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Here's Seth MacFarlane.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S ANYBODY'S SPRING")

MACFARLANE: (Singing) You think that money is everything, and yet it's anybody's spring. Go make a fortune, become a king, and still it's anybody's spring. And if you flash a bankroll, do you suppose a brook would care, or that a rose would say there goes a millionaire?

(Singing) It's more than diamonds around a ring because it's anybody's spring. You may be born with a silver spoon, and yet it's anybody's moon. You couldn't buy a ticket to hear the first robin sing. It's free because it's anybody's spring.

GROSS: So that's Seth MacFarlane, the creator of "Family Guy" and "American Dad," and this is from his new CD, "Music is Better Than Words." So it's amazing to hear you singing without irony. Like, you're not singing as Stewie...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You're not singing as a cartoon character. There's no quotes around what you're doing. You're just...

MACFARLANE: Right.

GROSS: You're singing your heart out, and it sounds really good. Tell me if I've got this right, that you took vocal lessons with two people who had been Sinatra's vocal coaches.

MACFARLANE: Yeah, they had trained - God, they trained everybody under the sun. They trained Streisand at one point. Lee and Sally Sweetland, who were both in their 90s when I met up with them about 10 years ago in L.A. And Lee passed away last year.

His wife Sally actually just turned 100 a few days ago. And their son Steve has kind of taken over the business, and that family has been invaluable as far - I mean, they really drill you. They teach you the old-style way of singing, with no - you know, back when you had no electronic help. You've just got to go in and be able to do it.

GROSS: So what did you learn from them that you otherwise might now have known?

MACFARLANE: God, there are many, many things. The thing that comes to mind most of all, is show your teeth. And, you know, if you look at old photos of Sinatra while he's singing, there's a lot - you know, a lot of very exposed teeth. And that was something that Lee Sweetland just hit on, day in and day out, and correctly so because it just brightens the whole performance. It's basically moving your lips out of the way to let the sound come out.

GROSS: Were you in musicals when you were in high school?

MACFARLANE: Well, when I was a - I started young. When I was about nine years old, I was in "The Sorceror," the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. And then when I got into high school - gosh, what - "Anything Goes" I remember, "Little Shop of Horrors," "Carousel," so a real wide variety of shows.

GROSS: So when you were young, were you in "The Music Man"? Because you seem to like Meredith Wilson, who wrote the score.

MACFARLANE: I was never - that's one of my big regrets, I was never in "The Music Man," and I always loved that show.

GROSS: Well, your new album gives you the opportunity to do a song from that show, and I thought we could play that one now. It's called "The Sadder But Wiser Girl for Me," and you do it with a lot of pizzazz. I like this a lot. Do you want to say anything about choosing it?

MACFARLANE: You know, this is a song that, in keeping with our goal of choosing less-performed material for this record, this is a song that you don't really hear recorded in pop music. I don't know that I've ever heard - I'm sure they're out there - I have never heard of a recording of this song outside the...

GROSS: Me, neither. Unlike, say, "76 Trombones."

MACFARLANE: Right, right, right, there's a lot of recordings of that. But no, I've never heard "The Sadder But Wiser Girl" recorded, and it's such a likely candidate for, like, a really, really, you know, barn-burner of a swing tune.

GROSS: Okay, so this is Seth MacFarlane from his new album "Music is Better Than Words."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SADDER BUT WISER GIRL FOR ME")

MACFARLANE: (Singing) No sweet and pure angelic lass for me. That kind of gal can spin a web, you see. She trades on wholesome innocence galore, but it's my independence that she's craving for. The only affirmative she will file refers to marching down the aisle.

(Singing) No golden, glorious, gleaming, pristine goddess, no sir. For no Diana do I play for, and I can tell you that right now. I snarl. I hiss. How can ignorance be compared to bliss? I spark, I fizz for the lady who knows what time it is. I cheer. I rave for the virtue I'm too late to save. The sadder but wiser girl for me.

(Singing) No bright-eyed, blushing, breathless baby-doll baby. No, sir, that kind of child ties knots no sailor ever knew. I prefer to take a chance on a more adult romance. No dewy young miss who keeps resisting, all the time she keeps insisting. No wide-eyed, wholesome, innocent female. Why, she's the fisherman, I'm the fish, you'll see.

(Singing) I flinch, I shy when the lass with a delicate air goes by. I smile, I grin when a gal with a touch of sin walks in. I hope, and I pray for Hester to win just more A. The sadder but wiser girl for.

GROSS: That's Seth MacFarlane from his new album "Music is Better than Words," and it's his first album singing in his own voice. He's known best as the creator of "Family Guy," "American Dad" and "The Cleveland Show," three comedy animated series.

So, you know, we've talked a little bit about choosing songs to sing on your new album. Let's talk about writing the theme for "Family Guy." This is the curtain-raiser every week. It's a big production number. There's actually, you know, top hat and cane and chorus line.

And the theme seems modeled, in part, on the "All in the Family" theme that, you know, Archie and Edith Bunker used to sit at the piano and sing, you know, waxing nostalgic about the olden days.

MACFARLANE: Right, tonally - yeah, and you actually see the, you know, Peter and Lois sitting there at the piano at the beginning. Yeah, you know, thematically, it is very much, you know, in the same vein. I think the difference is we're speaking a bit more - I think that was a very sincere opening. With "Family Guy," it's a bit more sardonic. There's a bit more irony to the tone for obvious reasons.

GROSS: Yes, in part that you're so crude, you'd hardly...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Hardly be yearning for the olden days.

MACFARLANE: Yeah, it's like where are all those nice, friendly, happy family TV shows that we remember. Here's one.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So was this one of your first outings writing a song?

MACFARLANE: It was, yeah, yeah. You know, I luckily had the music of Walter Murphy to work with. I mean, this is a great - just a great melody writer. He's written, you know, three themes for us, you know, "Family Guy" theme, "American Dad" them and "The Cleveland Show" theme. And the movie that I've just finished directing, "Ted," he's composed two songs for that. He's just really - his stuff is very easy to set lyrics to.

GROSS: So let's hear the "Family Guy" theme, and so this is music by Walter Murphy and lyrics by my guest Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAMILY GUY THEME")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters) (Singing) It seems today, that all you see is violence in movies and sex on TV. But where are those good old-fashioned values on which we used to rely? Lucky there's a family guy, lucky there's a man who positively can do all the things that make us laugh and cry. He's a family guy.

GROSS: So that's the "Family Guy" theme, the animated TV show created by my guest Seth MacFarlane.

MACFARLANE: And that was - you know, it's funny - and one of the few remaining - and it's a shame, but one of the few remaining television themes that airs every week. It's a tradition that's kind of going away, and part of that is that the networks are worried that people don't want to sit through the same thing week after week, that people are going to change the channel.

And so shows are being discouraged from writing themes. We actually had to fight pretty hard to do - to be able to do a theme because they thought no, no, no, people aren't going to want - it's going to bore people. They're going to switch away.

And I think what they don't realize is that no, this is - showmanship is showmanship. It hasn't changed in hundreds of years. It's a drum roll. It basically says hey, here comes a show. It's Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck walking out onto the stage doing, you know, "This is It." And, you know, it gets the audience psyched up.

GROSS: My guest is Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the animated series "Family Guy," "American Dad" and "The Cleveland Show." His new album of American popular song is called "Music is Better than Words." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the animated comedy series "Family Guy," "American Dad" and "The Cleveland Show." He does a lot of voices on the shows and often sings in character.

He has a new album of American popular song called "Music is Better than Words." Well, the "American Dad" theme - and "American Dad" is about a dad who's also a CIA agent - the "American Dad" theme sounds like it was inspired, in part, by "The Music Man."

MACFARLANE: You know, not consciously. I suppose, you know, any march is - or anything that has trombones and piccolos and bassoons and whatever else is probably - you know, might evoke "76 Trombones," but no, it was sort of meant to be...

GROSS: More military?

MACFARLANE: Aggressively - just an aggressively patriotic piece of music, you know, to reflect Stan Smith's point of view.

GROSS: Do you want to talk about writing it?

MACFARLANE: Yeah, I mean, that was a theme that - you know, we wanted something different than the "Family Guy" theme. The "Family Guy" theme is very much - and the "Family Guy" bumpers, which are essentially those little pieces of music that you hear every time you see the Griffins' house, the little snippets of the "Family Guy" theme, have a very distinct swing tune to them, very distinct swing tone.

And "American Dad," we wanted to give it something different, and so you hear a lot more snare drum, you hear a lot more, you know, a lot more of a - as you say, military tone. But it was really - it was supposed to be aggressively cheerful, aggressively patriotic, aggressively optimistic, like hey, everything's still fine, you know, here I am, Mr. White Guy waking up to his white-bread family, you know...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MACFARLANE: Just like, you know, Stan Smith's delusional happiness that the world has not changed around him. And, you know, that's kind of what that was supposed to evoke. So here's the "American Dad" theme, with music by Walter Murphy and lyric by Seth MacFarlane, who created that show, as well as "Family guy" and "The Cleveland Show," and here's the theme.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN DAD THEME")

MACFARLANE: (As Stan Smith) (Singing) Good morning, USA. I got a feeling that it's gonna be a wonderful day. The sun in the sky has a smile on his face, and he's shining a salute to the American race. Oh boy it's swell to say...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters) Good morning USA, good morning USA.

GROSS: So that's the theme from the show, the animated series "American Dad," which was created by my guest Seth MacFarlane. And that's you singing, too, right?

MACFARLANE: Yeah, that's...

GROSS: And that's you singing on the "Family Guy" theme, too.

MACFARLANE: Correct. Singing in character voices is actually - people ask often, is it hard? And it's like no. It's actually a hell of a lot easier than singing straight.

GROSS: Why?

MACFARLANE: Because well, you're singing in a character voice. There's - it's almost like there's a shield of sorts around it because we assume Peter Griffin probably shouldn't be able to sing all that well, so you can kind of keep it loose and you don't have to really think too much about it. It's more work to sing straight.

GROSS: Well, how about singing in Stewie's voice? Can you talk in his voice for a second?

MACFARLANE: (As Stewie) Why don't you talk in his voice? I'm sick to death of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MACFARLANE: (As Stewie) You draggle-tailed, blunt-head guttersnipe.

GROSS: (Laughing) Singing in his voice has to be tricky, no?

MACFARLANE: You know, again, not really because it's not like, you know, it's not like you have to maintain shades of subtly. It's Stewie. I mean, Stewie singing is essentially Rex Harrison singing in "My Fair Lady." I mean that's just...

GROSS: Well, Stewie sings better than Rex Harrison.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Stewie has more range than Rex Harrison has.

MACFARLANE: Maybe a little bit, maybe after that Bryan Adams song. But yeah, I mean but again, it doesn't have to be as rich. It doesn't have to be quite as textured. It's a different type of character than the character that you try to put into a straight ballad or a straight swing tune.

GROSS: So let's get back to the creation of "Family Guy." What was the basic idea that the series grew out of?

MACFARLANE: Well, I mean I had been studying animation for a while, been interested in animation, and when "The Simpsons" came about, I, at the time, was really interested in becoming an animator for Disney. Disney was having sort of their renaissance in the film world with movies like "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast."

And that was what I wanted to do, and then here comes "The Simpsons," that says hey, you know what? You can also do this. We're completely rewriting the rulebook with regard to what you can do on television. And I was laughing.

You know, this is something that actually was for me. It wasn't for, necessarily, for a family audience, like me as a single guy with sort of an edgier sense of humor and what I was looking for.

I was doing standup at the time and, you know, enjoying that, and enjoying working with, kind of, more risque humor, and so I decided to develop an animated idea. And, you know, I looked to my own region, in this case, where I was brought up, for character ideas.

And, you know, Peter Griffin is very, very much the quintessential big, fat, you know, loud New England guy who is very, very good at the core - big-hearted guy - but just has zero self-editing mechanism.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Yeah.

MACFARLANE: No idea what is appropriate and inappropriate, and you kind of have to forgive him because he just doesn't know any better, and I knew so many of those guys. My father knew tons of those guys when we were living back East.

Was he one of them?

My father? No. Ironically, my father was very much, you know, very liberal, very intellectual. But a lot of his friends were, you know, more like Peter.

GROSS: OK. To illustrate your point about Peter having like...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...no sense of what's appropriate, this is a scene from the hundredth episode of "Family Guy." And Peter and his wife Lois are on a cruise, and they have the privilege of sitting for dinner at the captain's table. And as this clip begins, the captain is telling this inspiring story and then Peter talks next.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FAMILY GUY")

MACFARLANE: (as Captain) And that was the first time I saw the Northern Lights at their peak. And as I dazed, astonished at their lustrous brilliance, I turned to my first mate and I said, we are looking into the very eyes of God.

ALEX BORSTEIN: (as Lois) What a wonderful story.

MACFARLANE: (as Peter) All right, I've got one for you. So me and Lois are driving up to Vermont to get this abortion.

BORSTEIN: (as Lois) Peter.

MACFARLANE: (as Peter) Hang on. Hang on, Lois. Don't ruin it. all right. So we're driving up to get this abortion and we get to the abortion clinic and the abortionist has one hand.

BORSTEIN: (as Lois) Peter, for god...

MACFARLANE: (as Peter) I'll tell it. I'll tell it. So I turn to Lois and I says, you want to get an abortion here? You want to get an abortion with the abortionist having a stump hand? We can't get an abortion here. So we turned around and went home and two and a half months later our daughter Meg was born.

I love that taxpayer dollars just paid for you to air that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That is so...

MACFARLANE: This is National Public Radio.

GROSS: That is such a funny clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MACFARLANE: This is why the Republicans hate us.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: This is like, if you want to get an inappropriate story, there you go.

MACFARLANE: Yeah.

GROSS: And, you know, I also love watching couples fight about how to tell a story and whether to tell a story.

MACFARLANE: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: And that's just like the quintessential version of it.

MACFARLANE: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Pretty much. It's, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So what kind of reaction did you get to that scene?

MACFARLANE: You know, we never really know what is going to raise the ire of the more conservative members of our audience. We - I don't think we ever really got any flak from that.

GROSS: Because it's not really about whether abortion is right or wrong. It's...

MACFARLANE: Yeah. It's...

GROSS: ...just about how wildly inappropriate he is in his storytelling.

MACFARLANE: Yeah. He doesn't - he just doesn't know, I mean it's an extreme example, but it's like that, you know, from my experience back east, not that extreme.

GROSS: Seth MacFarlane, thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been fun. I really enjoyed it.

MACFARLANE: All right. Thank you.

GROSS: Seth MacFarlane created "American Dad," "Family Guy" and "The Cleveland Show." His album is called "Music Is Better Than Words." Our interview was recorded in October, when it was released. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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