It's a steamy day in early September and the "Family Guy" writers and producers are huddled in the lobby of a nondescript third-floor office in Los Angeles. 20th Century Fox TV chairman Gary Newman checks his watch while his partner Dana Walden makes small talk with Fox's Kevin Reilly and Peter Rice. They're all waiting on the man of the hour: Seth MacFarlane, who's 20 minutes late.
"I just called him," says one writer, shoulders shrugging at his boss' perpetual tardiness.
"He's on Seth time," another one quips. Ten more minutes pass before MacFarlane appears, his mop of jet-black hair seemingly unbrushed and uniform polo shirt and jeans wrinkled. He rips a pair of iPhone buds out of his ears, takes a seat at the head of a conference room table and turns to page one of "Family Guy's" 200th episode script. Unlike the boisterous staff seated before him, MacFarlane seems uncomfortable with the fuss being made of the milestone. With others around the table still cheering, he holds up the 43-page script with a nod that suggests it's time to begin.
For the next 15 minutes, MacFarlane transforms into his characters, ping-ponging between a martini-swilling dog and a matricidal baby. As they're whipped through a fictional time machine that has vomit flowing backward, MacFarlane's corporate bosses, now crammed into a row to his right, have let any earlier frustration with his delay give way to wide grins.
How can they not? In an era of fractured viewership and hard-to-come-by hits, MacFarlane, 37, is at the white-hot center of a multibillion-dollar empire, one that continues to deliver younger viewers, hefty syndication revenue and the kind of merchandise studio heads drool over. Not to mention the practical piece: MacFarlane's characters never age. Last year alone, his programming generated nearly $200 million in ad revenue, according to Kantar Media.
And what the Emmy winner lacks in time management, he makes up for in output, as evidenced by the many other projects he's added to his resume in recent years. There's "American Dad!," now in its eighth season, along with "Family Guy" spinoff "The Cleveland Show," upcoming offering "The Flintstones," passion project "Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey" and a fifth animated series he's preparing to pitch shortly. That's in addition to his feature film directorial debut, "Ted" (out next summer), his surprisingly well-reviewed big band album, "Music Is Better Than Words," his rash of talk show appearances including HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher" and his string of gigs as Comedy Central's roast-master (most recent victim: Charlie Sheen).
"This is a business where hyperbole — 'genius,' 'whiz kid' — can be thrown around, but Seth is really one of a kind," says Fox entertainment president Reilly, who keeps a framed picture of the "Family Guy" characters signed by MacFarlane in his office.
"He's a comedy savant," Newman adds of a man whom his studio signed to an unprecedented five-year, $100 million-plus deal in 2008. In a celebratory speech following this day's table read, Newman suggests MacFarlane verbally commit to re-upping for the entirety of the studio chief's tenure.
Keeping MacFarlane engaged will be the greatest challenge for Fox executives. Over lunch at Bouchon on Sept. 13, a single MacFarlane, fresh off of his R-rated Sheen skewering, utters the words they fear most. "Part of me thinks that 'Family Guy' should have already ended. I think seven seasons is about the right lifespan for a TV series," he says of a show that launched its 10th season last month.
"I talk to the fans and in a way I'm kind of secretly hoping for them to say, 'We're done with it,' " MacFarlane continues between bites of a croque-madame. (He refuses to touch the green salad that his personal chef has called ahead to order with the meal.) "And there are plenty of people who say the show is kind of over the hill … but still the vast majority go pale in the face when I mention the possibility."
His News Corp. bosses fall among the latter, and Nielsen ratings would concur. "For the larger company, these type of shows have been multi-billion-dollar assets that have had historic runs," notes Reilly. Family Guy, for instance, is the No. 1 show among male teens and a top five show among young adults, which justifies its $220,000 30-second ad rate, according to media-research firm SQAD Inc. What's more, they're triple threats in that they repeat well (particularly impressive in an era of DVRs and infinite options), stream well and syndicate well. Adds Reilly, "The enormity of these brands and the upside economics are just incredible."
Still, MacFarlane doesn't want the show to follow the trajectory of its predecessor "The Simpsons," which Fox renewed for a 24th and 25th season following another public battle with the show's voice cast. As for the contractual issues, he doesn't foresee having such troubles with his voice actors, all of whom he considers close friends. "They know I have their backs, and I know they're never going to gouge us to an excessive degree," he laughs. "So I don't anticipate us having the standoffs that 'The Simpsons' have had." He isn't as eager to be done with "American Dad!" or "Cleveland Show," though he's admittedly less involved in the day-to-day production of both. (Critics argue that the quality suffers as a result.)
As he sees it, there's something to be said for wrapping up "Family Guy" and doing a movie once every couple of years. "Creatively, that would be the way to do it for me. Do a really fantastic final episode while the show is still strong," he says, acknowledging that there are plenty of powerful reasons — including the viewer demand and the number of people employed by the series, some 300 in total — to give him pause. (There is a deal in place for a "Family Guy" movie, which he is writing with series co-producer Ricky Blitt; it's now a matter of finding time in MacFarlane's schedule to make it happen.)
The desire to move on begins to make sense when you consider MacFarlane's level of devotion to the series, which his longtime producing partner Kara Vallow argues is "unproducible" without him. " 'Family Guy' is so much the voice of Seth," she says, noting that not only does he have a hand in the writing, voices and story-breaking, he looks at every storyboard panel, edits frames and concerns himself with such things as the show's sound effects. "He touches everything."
He's similarly unwilling to settle for anything less than perfection from those around him, adds Alex Borstein, who voices the part of Lois Griffin. "He makes you sweat," she says, acknowledging that it can be frustrating at points. "A lot of times you'll record something three times and it's not exactly what he's got in mind, so he makes you do it again — and again."
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