At first blush, and, well, second, (he colors up with barely a word out of his mouth) Seth MacFarlane's rosy cheeks belie the subversive humor lurking just beneath the surface.
His new series, "Family Guy," Fox's latest animated potential hit, launches the wunderkind into TV history, with, among other characters, a matricidal baby named Stewie. The series, picked up by Fox based on an eight-minute demo, is written, drawn, and mostly voiced by Mr. MacFarlane, the youngest triple threat network TV has fielded.
Ask him what it feels like to have achieved such a pinnacle with scarcely a TV credit under his belt and the deeply red face widens into a college kid's smile. "I'm not sure," he says with a laugh, "except I know that I don't have any other life right now but this show."
"Family Guy," which aired once following the Super Bowl and will return in March, focuses on the Griffin family: dad Peter, mom Lois, children Meg and Chris. But the character with the most breakout potential is the matricidal baby, Stewie - with the voice of a James Bond wannabee. It is also the source of some of the show's edgiest moments, with the baby shooting arrows at his mother and telling her to burn in hell.
The series has taken heat from critics for what one called its sophomoric reliance on scatological jokes and the cheap shot of making the dad a boorish drunk. But the former prep-school boy from Kent, Conn., says he doesn't do things deliberately to shock. His goal is to explore the possibilities that animation offers over live action. He explains his criterion for a joke: "There's got to be something else to it that makes it not just funny for shock value." Even then, he adds, it doesn't appeal to everyone's sensibilities.
Fox executives have made it clear they support some envelope-pushing with animation. According to Doug Herzog, president of entertainment for Fox, "you can get away with a particular kind of comedy that's difficult when you're using flesh-and-blood actors."
The young animator claims he has his family to thank for much of the material, including some of the more off-color jokes. MacFarlane's parents are, in his words, "ex-hippies, very liberal." He got the idea for the show's father, Peter, from family friends. When a friend's dad was in a theater watching the Tom Hanks tear-jerker "Philadelphia," he fell into a deep snoring sleep, which "just appalled his family." MacFarlane says it was the innocent political incorrectness that appealed to him.
MacFarlane, who graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, acknowledges his debt to earlier animated shows such as "The Simpsons." At least one critic of the show, noting its multiple references to other TV shows, has pointed out the drawbacks of young writers who are overly steeped in television history to the detriment of a broader cultural reference. On this point, MacFarlane is philosophical, noting that the characters in "Family Guy" are based on his hometown.
Could he see himself 45 years from now, going out to the tour buses to get fresh material from his fans, as Aaron Spelling still does? MacFarlane laughs; "Maybe. I only hope I'm around that long."