He’s not “family,” but Emmy-winning Family Guy and American Dad creator Seth MacFarlane consistently packs his irreverent animated sitcoms with queer gags and subplots, even devoting entire episodes to hot-button gay issues such as marriage and adoption rights. With his sexy baritone (similar to Family Guy’s alcoholic dog Brian, just one of the many colorful characters he voices himself), the 34-year-old devoted Democrat drew us in to discuss what makes homosexuality so damn funny, and — step aside, Dumbledore — out one of his most popular characters as “almost certainly gay.”
By Brandon Voss
The Advocate: I hope you’re prepared for my very gay line of questioning.
Seth MacFarlane: I spent half the holidays with my gay cousin, so I think I’m good to go.
How did your cousin inform your views on homosexuality?
We went to see him in a show when he was in high school or college, and I remember my parents talking about the fact that he might be gay and just doesn’t know it yet. It turned out that they were right. With certain parts of our family, it was taken for granted — “Oh, he’s gay” — and we didn’t think any more of it. Other parts of the family were, at times, less enlightened about it. At one point somebody said, “Maybe there’s a way for him to be cured,” which was fucking horrifying to hear from somebody that you love. But I credit my parents for raising me to be a logical person. I went to a very conservative boarding school called Kent with a lot of Republican students from very wealthy families, and a lot of times that does come with an unfortunate amount of negative traditionalism. I certainly remember hearing students use the word “fag” and whatnot, but it didn’t really register with me just because I hadn’t been directly exposed to any openly gay people yet. But then when I was, it was nice to find out that my brain was already set up the right way, so I didn’t give a shit.
Were you ever mistaken for gay, perhaps due in part to your longtime love of musical theater?
Oh God, yeah. Big deal.
Did that ever cramp your style romantically?
No. If anything, it would’ve helped. Hot chicks love gay guys.
What inspired Family Guy’s season 4 gay marriage episode “You May Now Kiss the…Uh…Guy Who Receives,” in which Brian’s flamboyant cousin Jasper visits with his Filipino boyfriend?
A couple of years prior I had teamed up to write a pilot with two writers, both of whom were gay. One of them said that when he travels through the Midwest with his partner they have to go through this fucking dog and pony act when they stop at a hotel and the guy behind the counter says, “You want one room or two?” They have this charade where they’ll say to each other, “Is one room OK with you?” “Yeah, I’m cool with that if you are.” “Yeah, no big deal, we’ll just take one.” That was one of many conversations I had with them where I thought to myself, Why is it that Johnny Spaghetti Stain in fucking Georgia can knock a woman up, legally be married to her, and then beat the shit out of her, but these two intelligent, sophisticated writers who have been together for 20 years can’t get married? It’s infuriating and idiotic. I’m incredibly passionate about my support for the gay community and what they’re dealing with at this current point in time. I have arguments with people where I get red in the face, screaming at the top of my lungs.
According to DVD commentary, your “standards and practices” legal department had you say that an antigay propaganda video shown in the episode was made by “Pat Robertson Industries” to ensure that Fox wouldn’t be called homophobic. Are they always so paranoid when it comes to gay issues?
It just depends. Religion is a lot more sensitive on a weekly basis to standards and practices than anything, which pisses me off. I was surprised that we were forced to add that Pat Robertson thing, because you had this unbelievably radical antigay film — obviously it was something we were making fun of. I thought, Aren’t people smart enough to know better?
The Parents Television Council voted the episode, along with many others, “Worst TV Show of the Week.” Do you appreciate that honor?
Oh, yeah. That’s like getting hate mail from Hitler. They’re literally terrible human beings. I’ve read their newsletter, I’ve visited their website, and they’re just rotten to the core. For an organization that prides itself on Christian values — I mean, I’m an atheist, so what do I know? — they spend their entire day hating people. They can all suck my dick as far as I’m concerned.
Using the news anchor couple Greg and Terry, you’ve also tackled LGBT issues on American Dad, most recently in the adoption episode “Surro-Gate.” Do you think you’re influencing viewer opinion?
I certainly hope that we’re doing a small part to advance progress in that area. But there are some bits that we do on Family Guy and American Dad that are just pure comedy which I hope are not influencing people.
Which character do gay fans respond to the most?
Generally they respond to Stewie, because he’s arguably the most complex character. He originally began as this diabolical villain, but then we delved into the idea of his confused sexuality. We all feel that Stewie is almost certainly gay, and he’s in the process of figuring it out for himself. We haven’t ever really locked into it because we get a lot of good jokes from both sides, but we treat him oftentimes as if we were writing a gay character.
Is it odd how much people care about this cartoon baby’s sexuality?
Yeah. We’ve had letters from homophobic fans in the past, and I sort of relish the idea of saying, “Yeah, well, you know what? Your favorite character, Stewie, is gay.”
Why did you base the voice of American Dad’s effete alien on Paul Lynde?
I’ve always been a huge fan of his. It’s just a voice and characterization that I’ve always found so hysterically funny and just so unabashed. There’s an old Hanna-Barbera tradition of using character actors from the ’50s and ’60s as springboards for animated cartoon voices. No one had really touched Paul Lynde, and he seemed like such an obvious choice. They just re-released that Paul Lynde Halloween special and I picked up a copy. You just can’t take your eyes off the guy.
What makes homosexuality such a ripe source for humor?
You know, that’s a very good question. There are obviously many different types of gay personalities, but what’s funny to me is when a gay character expresses mischievous guilt about something in which there are no stakes, like, “Ew, I’m going to watch one more episode of Sex and the City — don’t tell anybody!”
What are your favorite gay stereotypes?
Certainly the singsong stereotype — you know, the guy who makes a joke and then has to say, [singsong] “Kidding!” We didn’t end up doing this with Greg and Terry because we thought they would be funnier taking the form that they do, but I’m always amused when there’s a gay couple and one is clearly the husband and one is clearly the wife. But there’s so many more, and I’m sure we’ll discover some new ones as we go along.
From Family Guy’s gay marriage episode title to Greg and Terry’s “pitcher” and “catcher” license plates, there also seems to be a fascination with the idea of tops versus bottoms.
I’m not quite sure, but it is a source of comedy. It’s as if there’s paperwork involved before the sex can take place.
Unfortunately, gay groups haven’t always gotten the joke, like the controversial 2005 Family Guy bit in which Peter’s barbershop quartet informs a man that he has “full-blown AIDS.”
Yeah, that was one that caused a lot of upset. But the strange thing is that never once in that gag did we say this was a gay guy. I heard from several people, “Well, he had a goatee, so he must be gay.” I’m like, “What? I had a goatee at one point!” On top of that, with most of the gags where it seems like we’re taking a potshot at black people, Asian people, Jewish people, or gay people, the joke is that Peter is an idiot. The character is Archie Bunker without the knowledge of what he’s doing. He has the mind of a child, basically, and a source of big laughs is when he doesn’t realize he’s doing something inappropriate. So that gag sort of took it to the next level. If you have to break terrible news to somebody, what’s the most sugarcoated, upbeat way to do it? We thought, A barbershop quartet might be nice.
Do you have gays on staff with whom to consult on gay content?
One of our broadcast standards people — the censors — is gay, and I’ve had many, many conversations with him about a lot of these issues, making sure that we’re handling it in the right way. We have a few artists who are gay, and actually two of our executive producers are gay — I wonder if I’m allowed to say that in the press. [Laughs] For the first three seasons of Family Guy we had a gay writer who was really instrumental in building the relationship between Brian and Stewie that we kind of take for granted now. That’s something I didn’t really think of when I created the show, but it emerged in the writers’ room, particularly out of the pen of this one writer who really had a knack for those characters and opened the door for us to explore that facet of Stewie’s personality.
In American Dad’s season 2 Log Cabin Republicans episode “Lincoln Lover,” Stan makes a statement that “Gays are the new blacks.” Do you think that’s true?
That’s a joke line, but in some ways, yes — to a less intense extent. You’re not dealing with things like segregated drinking fountains, but the fundamental civil rights issues are the same. I get particularly angry when I hear a black pundit speaking out against the gays. My thought is, Well, wait a minute, you fucker. You got yours and you’re denying them theirs? You of all people should understand what they’re going through. It just burns my blood.
Did your recent donation to Barack Obama’s campaign have anything to do with his stance on gay issues?
It’s funny, but lately I’m leaning more toward [John] Edwards.
What? Aren’t you concerned about pissing off Oprah?
I think I can handle that. Hey, a man can change his mind. It’s interesting that flip-flopping is considered a negative thing in politics. I’ve never understood that. I take the Bill Maher point of view: Give me the guy who can change his mind when presented with new information.
In the gay world, flip-flopping is considered a positive.
[Laughs] Well, there ya go.
How do you feel about the young straight community’s cavalier use of the word “gay” to describe stupidity or weakness?
I’ve used that term, but it’s like a homonym — no pun intended. Like the word “fag” is a derogatory term but also a British cigarette. There’s that whole George Carlin routine where he talks about the word “nigger.” He says that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that word — it’s the racist asshole using it that you gotta be worried about. Unless they’re hiding it well, there’s nobody on our staff who’s bigoted or homophobic. We’re all very progressive, and as a result we feel comfortable making jokes. We know what our own beliefs are, so no matter what we do it can’t possibly come from a negative place.
You’ve called Fox’s decision to air unfinished Family Guy episodes without your final approval during the writers’ strike “a colossal dick move.” How will you heal from that?
Ultimately there will have to be some sort of reconciliation. When the strike is over we have to dry the tears pretty quickly and get back to work. It’s not like I’m going to be turning my nose in the air when I pass one of the bigwigs in the hall. Nothing’s to be gained from that. But the longer it goes on the more I perceive it as a handful of very rich well-dressed white men not wanting to give up a few hours on their private jets. The people at the top of the financial food chain have to give up a little bit — and by a little bit I mean a little bit.
What can we expect from the as yet unscheduled episode titled “Family Gay”?
That has to do with Peter being injected with the gay gene as part of a scientific experiment to determine whether or not it’s a learned trait or something that you’re born with. The good news is that at the end of the episode we establish that it’s the latter. Basically, Peter’s in a gay relationship for an episode and winds up in one of those straight camps.
If you inexplicably woke up gay tomorrow, what would be your first order of business?
I would seek out Justin Timberlake and get him to admit it.
If a house party full of America’s gay celebrities literally burst into flames, which one would you run in to save first?
John Travolta. But if he’s not there for some reason, how about David Hyde Pierce? I’m acquainted with him and he’s a good man. And if we ever did a Family Guy Broadway musical, we would need him to play Stewie.
The Advocate, February 2008; extended online version.