He was one of the youngest TV executive producers in the medium’s history, created not one but two successful animated programs, hosted the Oscars and had a blockbuster comedy bring in beaucoup box office receipts. He has contributed $1 million to the Reading Rainbow kickstarter fund and produced the recent reboot of the classic science series Cosmos; Harvard named him their 2011 Humanist of the Year. Yet Seth MacFarlane has managed to inspire an intense, rabid hatred of his raunchy comedy and retro-dude attitudes that’s been as fervent as the fanbase that brought the canceled Family Guy back to life. It’s a sentiment that seemed to reach a fever pitch this past weekend with the poorly received release of Ted 2 — the sequel to his 2012 hit that’s garnered its fair share of condemnation for a racial-allegory story about the titular profane teddy bear’s attempts to be legally recognized as a person.
Those criticisms are the latest in a long line of censures for the 41-year-old filmmaker, who’s been the target of scorn and ridicule ever since he first hit it big in TV animation. Call it Sethenfreude: the irrepressible urge to hate on MacFarlane, which as our timeline indicates, has been steadily escalating for the past 16 years.
1999-2000: Family Guy
An offshoot of MacFarlane’s Life of Larry, his thesis film at the Rhode Island School Design, Family Guy scored a prestigious premiere slot directly after Super Bowl XXXIII; Fox had hoped to make the show about an Archie Bunker-like loudmouth part of a primetime-animation one-two punch. From the very beginning, however, the show was immediately savaged for its juvenile, scattershot and often-bigoted absurdity – elements that would become both its, and MacFarlane’s, calling card. In particular, the show’s crude humor attracted the ire of Entertainment Weekly‘s TV critic.
“Family Guy — about dumbbell dad Peter Griffin, his wife, three children, and dog — is The Simpsons as conceived by a singularly sophomoric mind that lacks any reference point beyond other TV shows… the acclaim for writer-artist-actor MacFarlane (who does three regular voices on the show) is shaping up to be the hollowest hype of the year.” – Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly, 9/4/99
When it came time for EW‘s worst shows of the list, guess what Tucker singled out? The write-up would help spark a long-running feud between the critic and MacFarlane (including some choice Family Guy episode digs at Tucker), and contributed to the notion that the comic was thin-skinned and vindictive in addition to someone who traded in wannabe-extreme offensiveness.
“Racist, anti-Semitic, and AIDS jokes; shoddy animation; stolen ideas: the cartoon as vile swill.” – Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly, 24/12/99
Not surprisingly, the show attracted the ire of several TV watchdog groups, including the Parents Television Council, who’ve objected to the show’s tendency to push the envelope of “good taste.” They petitioned Fox to drop the show as early as 2000; the network eventually did give the series the axe after three seasons in 2003, due to low ratings.
2003-2004: Cartoonists Aren’t Impressed, Part 1
As the show’s reruns began to air on the Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” block and attract a new fanbase, other cartoonists began to air their dissent — including The Simpsons‘ producer Al Jean (“To be honest, I thought it was a little too derivative of The Simpsons to the point where I would see jokes we did,” he told the UGO Networks. “They should be more original.”) and Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi (“If you’re a kid wanting to be a cartoonist today, and you’re looking at Family Guy, you don’t have to aim very high. You can draw [that show] when you’re 10 years old,” he said in a Cartoon Brew interview. “The standards are extremely low.”) MacFarlane ended up getting the last laugh, thanks to the DVDs of the first few seasons bringing in record number of sales and Fox resurrecting the now-popular series to higher ratings.
2005-2006: Family Guy Returns; Cartoonists Aren’t Impressed, Part 2
Despite the renewed interest in the show (and Fox greenlighting a second successful MacFarlane series, American Dad), the show remained the same: boorish, boundary-pushing, ready to tackle controversial subjects for controversy’s sake and more than willing to pander to the lowest-common denominator for a laugh. Several critics responded in kind — notably the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Jonathan Storm, who called it “[an] infantile sleaze-a-thon” (30/4/05).
Naturally, the vitriol was directed primarily at MacFarlane for indulging in xenophobic jokes and pop-culture-referencing cutaways for no apparent reason — a notion spoofed in a South Park episode that imagined the show’s writing staff as manatees randomly assembling nouns, verbs and celebrity names to form the show’s jokes.
According to South Park‘s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the episode — “Cartoon Wars” (4/12/2006) — generated a lot of backslapping from fellow Family Guy haters in the industry.
“When we did the Muhammad episode, we got flowers from the Simpsons people because we ripped on Family Guy. Then we got calls from the King of the Hill people saying, ‘You’re doing God’s work ripping on Family Guy.” Even though it was this big political thing about Muhammad and whatever, everyone was just, ‘Thank you for you ripping on Family Guy.'” – Trey Parker, interview with Reason.com, 5/12/2006
2011: Music Is Better Than Words
A classically trained singer who often embellished Family Guy with lavish musical numbers, MacFarlane channeled his lifelong love of Sinatra-era tunes into a 2011 album of Forties and Fifites covers, Music is Better Than Words (on which he used one of Ol’ Blue Eyes’ actual microphones). The album earned a few Grammy nominations, though some critics largely saw it as further proof of MacFarlane’s smarmy look-at-me ego, his knack for plagiarism and his general sense of phoniness — a second-hand Rat Pack-era suit draped over a classless act.
“The result is alternately audacious and befuddling . . . Devotees will search in vain for the necrophilia punch lines, while Sinatra fans will search in vain for a plausible explanation. Have fun rebooting The Flintstones, asshole.” – Garrett Kamps, Spin, 27/9/11
“A vanity project that evades any rational explanation…MacFarlane is so concerned about inhabiting Sinatra’s silken suits he doesn’t really care about the meaning of the songs; all that matters is sounding like Ol’ Blue Eyes, which MacFarlane does about as well as any number of hotel lounge singers this world over. Sure, it’s a surprise that he can carry a tune, but it’s no surprise that MacFarlane, who came to fame and fortune by telling obvious jokes so slowly a dog could understand, considers his competence as proof of his excellence, his smugness bearing no swagger, his self-satisfaction undercutting his otherwise perfectly pleasant surroundings.” – Stephen Thomas Erlewine, All Music Guide, 2011
2012: That New Yorker Profile; Ted
Claire Hoffman’s 2012 New Yorker profile, timed to MacFarlane’s live-action film debut Ted, painted the comedian as a Hollywood celebrity obsessed with his own appearance and wealth. (He eats caviar! He lives in an opulent mansion!). He also comes off as someone who arrogantly shrugged off accusations of sexism and racism by claiming that he was actually using insulting jokes to make fun of intolerance. It bolstered the idea of MacFarlane as a poseur too vain to be truly self-aware.
“We are presenting the Archie Bunker point of view and making fun of the stereotypes—not making fun of the groups,” he said. “But if I’m really being honest, then maybe there’s a part of me that’s stuck in high school and we’re laughing because we’re not supposed to. I don’t know the psychology. At the core, I know none of us gives a shit.” – Seth MacFarlane, The New Yorker, 18/6/12
Ted was a box-office smash: its $219 million domestic haul is eighth highest ever for an R-rated feature. However, to many, it was reconfirmation of the writer-director’s predilection for bad-taste jokes imbued with an unmistakable measure of defensiveness; objecting to them somehow made one a stuffy prude or an old fogey. To an even greater degree than his prior work, the movie also highlighted that he was an equal-opportunity offender only when it came to people (including those suffering from ALS) who didn’t look or think like him.
“Seth MacFarlane does seem like the person who would use the term “political correctness” as a relevant pejorative in the year 2012…The jokes in Ted are equal-opportunity sluggish: The inoffensive ones are just as limp and tired as the offensive ones…Ted is soulless, angry-white-guy comedy at its worst. Honestly: This is a smug, nasty little number.” – Will Leitch, Deadspin, 26/6/12
2013: The Oscars
MacFarlane’s 2013 Oscar-hosting gig was something of a disaster, what with its less-than-winning bits about blackface and its crass song “We Saw Your Boobs.” On Hollywood’s biggest stage, he exposed his greatest shortcomings: a fondness for self-referential gags, a love for derogatory (but supposedly all-in-good-fun!) one-liners about women, gays and minorities, and enormous song-and-dance set pieces — all of which were infused with an overpowering whiff of MacFarlane self-satisfaction.
“MacFarlane was uncomfortable, smarmy, unfunny – and not even bad in any memorably creative way…The problem – and the problem with his whole table-setting performance – is: first, a metajoke about telling an unfunny joke is still an unfunny joke. And second, the Oscars are not about the host.” – James Poniewozik, Time, 25/2/13
“Oscars fans have seen a lot over the years, but this may be the first time they’ve ever seen a host use the awards to audition for his own variety show…Awash in self-indulgence, neither he nor his 3-hour-and-35-minute show ever seemed to hit a comfortable, confident stride.” – Robert Bianco, USA Today, 25/2/13
“The jokes just got more and more… well, what’s the word? Calling them offensive gives them too much power, which isn’t to say that black people shouldn’t have felt uncomfortable about MacFarlane pretending to mix up Denzel Washington and Eddie Murphy, or that half the population needn’t have squirmed when MacFarlane called Zero Dark Thirty‘s plotline an example of “a woman’s innate ability to never ever let anything go.” What the jokes were, really, was stupid, boring, and empty: humor that relied less on its own patently sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. content than on admiration for or disgust with the host’s willingness to deliver it.” – Spencer Kornhaber, The Atlantic, 25/2/13
“Lots of people like Seth MacFarlane. Many other people like watching the Oscars. But nobody likes both, not even Seth MacFarlane, who has no idea what the Oscars are. . . The poor guy couldn’t read off the teleprompter without his eyes darting nervously, giggling at his zingers about how foreign people have accents, musicals are gay, etc. He kept making amateur mistakes on the level of clapping into his mike. (Lots of that.) He sang a show tune about the hot nudity in The Accused – 30 seconds of Googling would have explained why that line wasn’t a keeper, but obviously Seth’s staff was too chickenshit to give the boss any bad news.” – Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone, 25/2/13
2014: A Million Ways to Die in the West
The critical and commercial underperformance of MacFarlane’s Western spoof was largely a byproduct of his more-of-the-same stubbornness. Again mirroring his Family Guy and Ted templates, the movie was a dreary cornucopia of rapid-fire jokes that, whenever possible, centered on bodily fluids and raunchy sex. Compounding matters, MacFarlane, in his first headlining big-screen role, could no longer hide behind a cartoon baby or a CGI bear; here, like at the Oscars, he was the face of his smug, infantile humour.
“A Million Ways to Die in the West huffs and puffs to seem daringly outrageous and too often settles for being merely gross, unless your idea of cutting-edge comedy is a close-up of a sheep’s penis urinating on the hero. The script’s casual profanity has no shock value to it anymore – it’s just how dull people talk to each other these days…the movie’s content to smear excrement on a beloved genre as inoffensively as possible. Like so many funny-men before him, MacFarlane aims for the big time and makes a classic mistake: He wants us to like him.” – Ty Burr, The Boston Globe, 29/5/14
“Picture an entire movie spawned by the campfire scene from “Blazing Saddles,” and you’re almost there. All this will speak to your soul, no doubt, if you are a twelve-year-old boy who believes the bathroom to be the funniest place on earth, but what about the rest of us? Fear not, for MacFarlane—who co-wrote and co-produced the film, as well as starring in it—has joys in store for those of more cultivated tastes. There are gags about retarded sheep, Chinese immigrants, the halitosis that follows a blow job, and the precise appearance of the pudenda after a spell in the sex trade. As is his wont, MacFarlane is daring us to be disgusted; and, should we flinch, his movie will mock us for being prim — the worst of all crimes, in his scabrous world. But what if we’re just bored?” – Anthony Lane, The New Yorker, 9/6/14
Despite being an outspoken public supporter of equal rights for all, MacFarlane’s Ted 2 has been slammed for preaching progressive acceptance on the one hand, and then indulging in his usual “homos” and sexually/racially degrading shtick on the other. The film’s box-office failure was seen by many as karmic retribution. Making matters worse, MacFarlane then went on Twitter to use the Supreme Court’s groundbreaking gay-marriage decision to publicize the film’s release. A tone-deaf social-media marketing strategy-cum-joke, it once again suggested that he’s a comedian who doesn’t quite understand the difference between amusing and offensive outrageousness – as well as being a tactless narcissist who’s never happier than when making himself the center of inappropriate attention.
“Seth MacFarlane, whose sense of humor generally bodes about as well for moviegoers as a dorsal fin does for swimmers…MacFarlane would seem to identify as progressive, but he uses his liberalness conservatively, to berate what he thinks is normal or safe or established in American culture. His tolerance is tinged with intolerance.” – Wesley Morris, Grantland, 24/6/15