Seth MacFarlane: Family Guy frat boy, boundary-pusher and Sinatra singer

The man behind Ted and Family Guy makes another appearance at this year's BBC Proms

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Seth MacFarlane owns a replica of the DeLorean driven by Michael J Fox in Back to the Future, although his runabout is an Aston Martin.

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Thanks to Family Guy, the post-Simpson adult cartoon he created, produces and voices for Fox (winner of five Emmys and now into its 14th season), he is the highest-paid writer/ producer in television.

The most recent of a string of glamorous actresses he’s dated – including Buffy and Angel star Eliza Dushku and Amanda Bynes from teen comedy Easy A – was Game of Thrones dragon queen Emilia Clarke.

This August, he makes his third, sold-out appearance singing at the Proms, interpreting Sinatra songs with the John Wilson Orchestra. Welcome to the revenge of the nerd.

MacFarlane is still only 41. His road to moguldom started early, with a regular comic strip for the local newspaper in his hometown of Kent, Connecticut, when he was nine, and in his 20s, he remained behind the scenes.

Studying film and animation in Rhode Island, his first professional job was at Hanna-Barbera Cartoons, writing and storyboarding, as well as freelancing for Walt Disney Television Animation, before having his own cartoon show aired on Nickelodeon in 1995. It was called Life of Larry, a prototype for Family Guy that grabbed the attention of Fox TV – home of The Simpsons – leading to that lucrative contract.

There are plenty of Simpsons fans who considered the more ribald Family Guy inferior; less subtle and warm than the everyday story of Springfield’s yellow folk. (One prominent Simpsons producer, Al Jean, called it derivative.)

But when the network cancelled it after three seasons, it was the popularity of reruns and phenomenal DVD sales at a time when box sets were in their infancy that saw the decision reversed. Family Guy was the people’s Simpsons. It features a blue-collar family of five, including a creepily adult “supervillain” baby, plus a talking, Martini-drinking dog, living in a fictional part of Rhode Island.

What marked the show out was its gleeful in-jokes plus its obsession with Star Wars. It was also cheaper to make than The Simpsons.

As MacFarlane discovered, with great power comes the chance to redesign your own image.

Once Family Guy was back on TV and drawing in millions, with two successful sister shows in tandem, American Dad! and The Cleveland Show, he shed his nerdy persona and emerged a dashing butterfly.

In an interview with the New Yorker, Alex Borstein, the voice of Lois Griffin on Family Guy, said, “Seth had spent so much time in college drawing Family Guy, he missed all the fun stuff. Suddenly, he started using a stylist.”

According to the same article, he would get spray tans in the bathroom at the office. In 2004, he was included in People magazine’s “Sexiest Men Alive” issue. Effectively, Seth MacFarlane came out – as himself. 

In 2011, he recorded his first album of classic covers, Music Is Better than Words, which earned two Grammy nominations and seemed to legitimise an ambition the New Yorker described as being on his “bucket list of professional fantasies”. A Christmas album, Holiday for Swing, recorded at Abbey Road, soon followed.

Having tried stand-up when he was at college, he started to confidently host comedy “roasts” for the channel Comedy Central, basically mining his “frat boy” persona. 

These appearances led to his being chosen to front the 85th Academy Awards in 2013, a surprise decision that brought him bags of profile – and the chance to show off his lovely singing voice – but also disapproval for some of his apparently-not-even-ironic sexism.

The sniggering opening number, We Saw Your Boobs, aimed at famous actresses who’d done nude scenes (some of them in attendance), was a gag entered into by some, but reviled by others.

Another joke implying paedophilia was the sort of thing he might get away with in a cartoon, but not in front of the Hollywood gliteratti.

MacFarlane’s humour is all about pushing boundaries, and the more successful he’s become, the more difficult it is for liberals to turn up their noses, for fear of appearing spoilsports. A Guardian writer had no such qualms when she described his Oscars show as “a spectacularly depressing night”.

The success of MacFarlane’s first movie, the smutty living cartoon Ted, turned him into a movie mogul. As well as co-writing, co-producing and directing it, he voiced the teddy bear of the title who is brought to life by a little boy’s wish and hangs around in adulthood.

Ted took almost $550 million, making it one of the highest-grossing films of 2012. It also furnished another fantasy for Seth: becoming a leading man. He fronted the scatological spoof western A Million Ways to Die in the West (Wednesday Sky Comedy), which despite garnering mixed reviews, managed to double its money. And now there’s Ted 2 (in cinemas from Wednesday 8 July), which is already doing good business in the US. 

So what next for the boy who once played trombone in the school orchestra, built a replica of the bridge of the USS Enterprise from Star Trek (filling an entire room in his parents’ house), and wore the same rugby shirt every day through college?

He’s keen to do an old-fashioned Broadway musical – although nothing, he says, as “edgy” as fellow animators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s The Book of Mormon. His much-trumpeted remake of The Flintstones for Fox fell at the first hurdle, and he appears not to be dating a famous actress at present.

But you rather suspect that when he walks out onto the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in August, suited and booted and ready to belt out New York, New York with the John Wilson Orchestra, he’ll be fully animated. 

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Seth MacFarlane performs with the John Wilson Orchestra at the BBC Proms on Friday 7th August