Go to a quiet white-collar bar with any animator, TV writer, or cultural critic. Or, failing that, go to a quiet white-collar bar with anybody who can name more than one Simpsons writer. Make sure you both consume a polite if marginally excessive quantity of alcohol. The magic number is three beers that sound fancy enough to likely exceed six percent alcohol by volume. Then ask what that person thinks about Seth MacFarlane.
In the light of day, the most charitable response to that inquiry is affected reticence. “I’ve never watched his show, but people sure have their opinions.” Luckily, we’ve taken out insurance against that possibility to get to the truth, which is pure Jonathan Edwards fire and brimstone salt-the-earth-with-the-wreckage-of-a-career-in-name-only bile.
The Seth MacFarlane of 2005, the cult icon who could get called a “take-no-prisoners satirist” in a credible entertainment publication without irony, is inconceivable now. The Seth MacFarlane of 2015 is the scourge of the legitimate press. He’s easy to hate. You’ll score points with the media class if you put down a groove and hate him with enough rhythm. And the hammer hasn’t even begun to come down yet. The court of public opinion is just waiting for the time to pounce with finality. The fire is ready, the furnace is hot, and the flames rage. He just needs to screw up big and loud enough.
So what did it? Sure, he has the criminal self-assurance of a carpet cleaner salesman who waits until dinner to come to your house and doesn’t notice that you have hardwood floors, but he always had that. His shows are morally repugnant, his lifestyle is decadent, his public ego is tyrannical, and his self-awareness is nil, but that’s all industry standard protocol and is endemic even with people we all like.
Ted 2 is underperforming at the box office. His film debut as a live-action leading man, A Million Ways to Die in the West, was a bizarre, overlong, sexually repulsive exercise in pure vanity that, damningly, only grossed $43,000,000 domestic. So he’s burned through a sizable chunk, if not quite all, of his big screen capital. But a couple sophomoric misfires doesn’t lead to this level of white-hot loathing either.
Celebrity is a pathology, a second cousin to narcissism, and weaponized by yes-men. This is a founding principle of the business. It’s boring to see a law-abiding entertainer fall from public favor, because the trajectory is always the same. The more interesting question is what went wrong. So let’s go back to the beginning.
It’s 1997. Seth MacFarlane is with Hanna-Barbera. He’s a talented young guy who deserves notice. He works on a bunch of their stuff at Cartoon Network, most notably the big-kid cartoons Dexter’s Laboratory and Johnny Bravo. Somewhere in that system he finds his writing voice, and you can hear it in both shows. The late-1990s Cartoon Network primetime lineup is the primordial Seth MacFarlane voice.
He uses this training to create, essentially, a pilot called Larry and Steve that airs on Cartoon Network as part of World Premiere Toons. It’s Family Guy through a Hanna-Barbera filter. It’s about a dumb guy and his smart but misanthropic dog, and it’s seven minutes long. It’s the template for everything he’s done since.
And what’s wrong with it? Not much, really. It’s smart for a big-kid cartoon, just cynical and meta enough to signal that it won’t rigidly adhere to Hanna-Barbera creative confines. The animation is bouncy, the colors are cheery, and the pace is breezy. In 2015’s exclusively digital animation landscape, it looks downright pretty. And aesthetically, it knows exactly what it is, moving with an assured swagger. There are a couple jokes that shouldn’t be there, but the characters are cute together and it’s a fun cartoon and a good start.
Larry and Steve leads to FOX leads to Family Guy and the rest is history. But Family Guy, even from the pilot, is a worse show. It’s transparently a more ephemeral, pop culture-driven Simpsons, too long at a full half-hour. All of the visual charisma is gone. The cosmetic edginess that works well in Larry and Steve codes as cheap and secondhand when it mutates into a primetime animated sitcom for the 18-34 demographic.
Though you can’t begrudge anybody for going after the American dream — the big score that sets you up forever — McFarlane’s move from cable is where the problem starts. The increased visibility of FOX is the leaky gas can that eventually leaves us staring bleary-eyed in our bathrobes at posters of an ejaculating bear, wondering who left the burner on. For MacFarlane, it’s the beginning of a long struggle for creative control and autonomy that ultimately proves destructive.
With autonomy, MacFarlane has made shows and movies with no attention span and the pulse — but none of the content — of a heart, driven by a machine gun punchline ethic that demands throwing as many jokes at the wall as possible without pausing to consider structure or moral ramifications. This approach means the funny jokes, and there are funny jokes, don’t have staying power because they weren’t given space to resonate, leaving the audience, at best, with a laugh and a hangover.
Autonomy can be helpful. Some creators need total freedom to do their best work. It sounds noble to pretend everybody should have it. But others perform better under tight restrictions, because it gives them something to push against. Structure and limitations would have been great for a niche talent like MacFarlane because they would have stopped the hatred. If he had stayed with Cartoon Network and ran with Larry and Steve, he would have had the limitations he needed to make a great cartoon. He knew how to make kid shows with adult appeal, but making adult shows with kid appeal, his weaknesses and penchant for going blue unchecked, has put him at war with the public.
MacFarlane is hated because he’s overexposed. By doing bad work that is enormously difficult to ignore, he reminds us entertainment is not a meritocracy. But Larry and Steve is a reminder of why he does bad work. It’s not because he’s untalented, it’s because he was over-promoted to a position where he can indulge his every whim. It’s the Peter Principle: he was great at kid shows so he got promoted into primetime animated sitcoms, where he financially succeeded but creatively failed, and finally he got promoted into movies, which amplifies all his latent problems and makes him ten times more visible to the public than he ever should have been. If he had stayed with Cartoon Network and made a conventional cartoon, he could have been the king of TV-Y7, and Rolling Stone wouldn’t have run an article called “Hating Seth MacFarlane.” But it’s too late for him by about 16 years.