The creative force behind Family Guy, Seth MacFarlane makes his big screen debut with a film about a talking bear – he also provides the bear’s voice. Be warned, however: Winnie The Pooh it ain’t, says Susan Griffin.
Do not be deceived by that cute looking teddy bear on the promotional advertisements for new film Ted. That bundle of fur is a vulgar, beer-swilling, little guy and he doesn’t care who knows it.
“Ted has a lot of love and enthusiasm and a zest for life but no self-editing mechanism, so what he says is really the first thing that pops into his mind,” says 38-year-old Seth MacFarlane who wrote, directed and produced Ted, and voiced the titular character.
MacFarlane’s been stretching the envelope of comedy for more than a decade now, with hit animations Family Guy, American Dad! and The Cleveland Show. They satirise everything from pop culture to politics and MacFarlane credits his mum for his X-rated humour.
“There was nothing I could say to my mother that would shock her, no joke I could make that was too offensive,” he says.
Now he’s brought his boundary-pushing brand of laughs to the big screen.Combining live action and CG-animation, Ted tells the story of John Bennett, a lonely boy whose Christmas wish is granted when his beloved bear comes to life. The bear becomes an overnight sensation and the pair vow to be best friends forever.
Cut to almost 30 years later though, and the fairytale is very much over. While the grown-up John (Mark Wahlberg) still loves Ted, as the roommate who never leaves, he’s affecting John’s relationship with his ever-so-patient girlfriend Lori, played by Mila Kunis.
“There’s no obligation for Ted to grow up, or force himself out of this juvenile place, but John has to,” MacFarlane explains. “He can’t just languish in childishness as his teddy bear does. He has to find this balance between friendship and love.”
A big part of the comedy emerges from the fact that years after the bear came to life, people are used to him and, frankly, nobody cares anymore.
“It’s a point it would naturally get to in real life,” says MacFarlane. “So once that big moment has passed, what’s the other 95 per cent of your life going to be like? That was part of the comedy in Ted.”
MacFarlane originally conceived Ted as an animated series but soon realised the story would lend itself to a motion picture, particularly in light of the huge advances in special effects since the likes of Lord Of The Rings and Avatar. After enlisting the help of fellow Family Guy writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, MacFarlane’s next task was casting the man who just can’t grow up.
“Mark Wahlberg was the perfect fit because he can be hysterically funny, yet he’s also able to deliver genuine emotion and realism,” says MacFarlane. “That loveable, gullible character he plays in Boogie Nights and I Heart Huckabees was something we saw as a jumping-off point for John: the sweet and funny guy who is susceptible to Ted’s urgings.”
As for Kunis: “It was a logical choice”, given the actress has voiced the role of Family Guy’s plain Meg for almost 13 years.
Born on October 26, 1973 in the small town of Kent, Connecticut, MacFarlane was only two-years-old when he picked up a crayon and started drawing to a level beyond his years. By five, he knew he wanted a career in animation and recalls his parents finally tracking down a ‘how to’ book from a library two towns away.
“I did these flip books, trying to work out what movement to movement was needed to make these drawings move,” he says.
After high school he studied film animation at the Rhode Island School of Design where he created a short called The Life Of Larry for his final year thesis.
“It’s a very crude, very early version of what Family Guy eventually became,” says MacFarlane, who says The Simpsons was a huge inspiration. “That’s the first sitcom that I can really remember where pop culture references were made on a daily basis.”
His talent was soon noticed by executives at Fox, who asked him to create a pilot for the network. Over the next six months, he honed Family Guy, a phenomenally successful animation about a dysfunctional Rhode Island family.
The show has won five Emmys and in 2009, MacFarlane became history’s highest paid TV producer in a reported $100m three-year deal for Family Guy, spin-off The Cleveland Show and American Dad!
He insists he doesn’t set out to shock audiences, but only cares whether a situation will raise a laugh.
“If it’s funny and something that would be passed by the Hays Code, then great,” he says, referring to America’s archaic censorship code of ethics. “And if it happens to be edgy, then that’s great too. We try and be fearless about both ends of the spectrum.”
MacFarlane is now using his clout to revive Cosmos, the late physicist Carl Sagan’s landmark series about the universe.
“I’m big on the importance of science, particularly at this point in time when there’s a systematic rejection of it by a lot of people.”
On a lighter note, he’s also returning to his roots by producing a new version of the classic animated comedy The Flintstones. He’s nothing short of a workaholic, which is why the currently single MacFarlane describes his side-line in singing [he’s a Grammy nominee no less, with a big band album called Music Is Better Than Words out this month] as “vacation” time.
“What makes me happy is just keeping my brain on its toes,” he confides.
No doubt Ted would have something to say to that.
Ted is out now. Seth MacFarlane’s debut album is released on August 20.
Bringing Ted to the big screen
To prepare for the scene in which John tries to guess the name of Ted’s new girlfriend and rattles off tons of potential names to Ted, Wahlberg wrote out each name hundreds of times.
Along with the film’s co-writers and Kunis, MacFarlane also brought along Family Guy’s Patrick Warburton, Alex Borstein, Ralph Garman and John Viener, who voice multiple characters on the show.
MacFarlane says The Muppets was a big source of inspiration: “In that world it was normal for Muppets to be walking around.”
MacFarlane wore a motion capture suit off camera, so his movements as well as his voice could be used for Ted.