Seth MacFarlane, the creative force behind Family Guy, makes his big screen debut with a talking teddy. But be warned, Paddington Bear this ain’t, says Susan Griffin
If you’re looking for a fairy tale with a difference then you’d be hard pushed to find a more enticing premise than a childhood teddy who comes to life, but over the decades turns into beer-swilling, bong-smoking, horny little guy known as Ted.
“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 to mind,” says 38-year-old Seth MacFarlane, who co-wrote, directed and produced the comedy Ted, and voiced the titular character.
MacFarlane’s been stretching the envelope of comedy for over a decade now, with hit TV animations Family Guy, American Dad! and The Cleveland Show, which satirise everything from pop culture to politics and include jaw-dropping ‘can’t believe they’ve just done that’ moments.
Now he’s looking to replicate the success on the big screen, and Ted’s already reached the top spot in the US.
Combining live-action and CG-animation, the film tells the story of John Bennett, a lonely boy whose Christmas wish is miraculously granted when his beloved bear comes to life and becomes a worldwide sensation.
Vowing to be best friends forever and ever, they share go-karting trips, make snow angels, watch endless episodes of Flash Gordon, and call themselves Thunder Buddies (they even have a song) whenever a storm hits.
Cut to almost 30 years later though and the fairy tale is very much over.
While grown-up John (Mark Wahlberg) still loves Ted, he’s basically the roommate who never leaves and it’s starting to affect his relationship with ever-so-patient girlfriend Lori, played by Mila Kunis.
“There’s no obligation for Ted to grow up, 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 have got 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?”
MacFarlane originally conceived Ted as an animated series but soon realised the story lent 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,” he says.
“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.”
Kunis was “a logical choice”, given the actress has voiced the role of Family Guy’s plain Meg for almost 13 years.
“Lori’s relationship is hampered by the fact this guy’s teddy bear is hanging around and keeping John allowing their relationship to evolve,” says MacFarlane. “To play that for real is asking a lot of an actor, and she pulled it off with flying colours.”
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.
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.
“I’d draw pretty much everything I’d see on TV – Woody Woodpecker, Fred Flinstone, Bugs Bunny,” he says.
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 was needed to make these drawings move,” he says.
At the age of nine, the child prodigy was creating a comic strip for his local paper.
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 notes The Simpsons was a huge inspiration.
His talent was soon noticed by executives at Fox, who asked him to create a pilot.
Over the next six months, he honed Family Guy, a phenomenally successful animation about a dysfunctional Rhode Island family.
In it he voices the undependable dad Peter Griffin, the family’s martini quaffing dog Brian. and Stewie, the pompous baby with the British accent who’s hell bent on killing his mother.
“The voice always came first and the character’s design afterwards,” he explains.
The show’s won five Emmys and in 2009, MacFarlane became history’s highest paid TV producer in a reported $100mllion three-year deal for Family Guy, spin-off The Cleveland Show and American Dad!
He insists he doesn’t set out to shock audiences, only to raise a laugh.
“If it’s funny and something that would be passed by the Hays Code then great, we’ll use that,” 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’s now using his clout to revive Cosmos, the late physicist’s Carl Sagan’s landmark series about the universe and is returning to his roots by producing a 21st-century version of the classic animated comedy The Flintstones.
Nothing short of a workaholic, the currently single MacFarlane describes his side-line in singing [he’s a Grammy nominee no less] as “vacation” time.
This month sees the release of his debut album, an homage to the big band era called Music Is Better Than Words, and on August 27 he’ll be singing at The Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC Proms.
“What makes me happy is just keeping my brain challenged, stimulated and on its toes,” he says.
No doubt Ted would have something to say to that.
Ted is released in cinemas August 1
Music Is Better Than Words is released August 27