Seth MacFarlane: A 'Family Guy' With A Musical Mind

Oct 7, 2011
Originally published on October 8, 2011 5:33 pm

Seth MacFarlane, creator of the animated TV series Family Guy, The Cleveland Show and American Dad, is now releasing an album. It's called Music Is Better Than Words, and it's no joke.

"It's almost like you need the reverse of a Parental Advisory sticker," MacFarlane says. "It's just relaxed, great old music."

The album is a collection of big-band gems from the Great American Songbook. On it, MacFarlane's vocal style falls in line with the famous crooners of the 1940s and '50s. MacFarlane tells NPR's Robert Smith that he's been singing his whole life — but that when he moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago, he stepped up his game.

"I started training with an extraordinary couple, Lee and Sally Sweetland," he says. "They trained Streisand; I believe they trained Sinatra at one point. They were both in their 90s when I hooked up with them. And they just whipped my vocal cords into better shape than they'd ever been in, and that was what really enabled me to do this."

Music Is Better Than Words is MacFarlane's first release under his own name, but his singing can often be heard coming from the cartoon characters he voices. In early seasons of Family Guy, he and his creative team began sneaking song-and-dance numbers into episodes.

"There was an episode in which the Griffins inherit a mansion, and we did a parody of the 'I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here' song from Annie," he says. "Once you hear that, it's kind of addictive. An orchestra, to me, is like crack: It's the greatest thing in the world.

"As ridiculous as a lot of these songs were, I wanted them to sound good," MacFarlane adds. "I think if a song is funny and absurd, and it sounds great, it's just going to be that much funnier."

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In the animated TV show "Family Guy," the main character, Peter Griffin, loves to tell raunchy jokes, and he loves to sing.


SETH MACFARLANE: (As Peter) (Singing) Oh, well, the birds, birds, birds, b-birds the word. Oh, well, the birds, birds, birds...

SMITH: That's the voice of "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane. But then again, so is this.


MACFARLANE: (Singing) So to a sweet romance, there is just one answer, you and I...

SMITH: That's from Seth MacFarlane's new album. It's called "Music is Better than Words." And Seth MacFarlane joins us. Actually, Seth, I feel like we need to give you one of those nicknames that the great crooners have.


SMITH: Old Blue Eyes is taken, Velvet Fog is taken.

MACFARLANE: Where is this going?

SMITH: What do you want as your nickname?

MACFARLANE: How about Old Awkward Conversationalist?

SMITH: Seth "Old Awkward Conversationalist" MacFarlane joins us now.

MACFARLANE: There you go.

SMITH: Welcome.

MACFARLANE: It makes me - it humanizes me. It makes me seem real and just like a regular guy. You know what's funny? It's worth mentioning, my father listened to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED throughout my entire childhood. And we have a gag coming up on "Family Guy" about specifically this. I remember always hearing the coffee during the segments. So like, you'd say, that was...


MACFARLANE: "Beethoven's Night."


SMITH: Speaking of elaborate jokes, you know, I'm a big fan of "Family Guy," and oftentimes, you will go to elaborate lengths to set up a gag. So I have to admit, when I was listening to your new album, I went track after track, and in the back of my head I kept thinking, the joke's coming, the gag's coming, you know, maybe the 12th, 13th, 14th track, it's coming. And, you know, in the end, of course, it's just romantic.

MACFARLANE: Yeah. It's almost like you need the reverse of a parental advisory sticker. It's just relaxed, great old music.


MACFARLANE: (Singing) You couldn't buy a ticket to hear the first robin sing. It's free because it's anybody's spring.

SMITH: Well, how did you learn to croon? I mean, croon is this specific thing. It's not just singing a song. There's a certain style to it. How would you describe it, and how did you learn this?

MACFARLANE: I mean, I've been singing my whole life. I trained professionally when I was younger. And then when I came out to L.A. about 10 years ago, I stared training with an extraordinary couple Lee and Sally Sweetland. And, you know, they trained Streisand. I believe they trained Sinatra at one point. They were both in their 90s when I hooked up with them. And they just whipped my vocal chords into better shape than they'd ever been in, and that was what really enabled me to do this.


MACFARLANE: (Singing) No sweet and pure angelic lass for me. That kind of gal can spin a web, you see.

It's, you know, that combination of ease and diction that they really tried to drill into me.


MACFARLANE: (Singing) But it's my independence that she's trading for. The only affirmative she will file refers to marching down the aisle. No golden, glorious, gleaming, pristine goddess. No, sir.

SMITH: You know, clearly, you also have a love of music. How long did it take you before you start to sneak in these big production numbers into something like "Family Guy?" I mean, was that always the goal, or did you realize...


SMITH: ...once you're successful, you could do a huge number?

MACFARLANE: When "Family Guy" started, we wanted to make it more like a sitcom. And there was very little music. The first musical number I think we did was first season. There was an episode in which the Griffins inherit a mansion, and we did a parody of the "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here" song from "Annie."


MACFARLANE: (as Peter) (Singing) My God, this house is freaking sweet...

And once you hear that, it's kind of addictive. I mean, an orchestra to me is like crack. I mean, it's the greatest thing in the world. And as ridiculous as a lot of these songs were, I wanted them to sound good.


MACFARLANE: (as Peter) (Singing) We'll do the best we can with Meg

MILA KUNIS: (As Meg) Are you saying I'm ugly?

ALEX BORSTEIN: (As Lois) It doesn't matter, dear. You're rich now.

MACFARLANE: If a song is funny and absurd, and it sounds great, it's just going to be that much funnier. And there's no better example of that than "Monty Python." There's a song from "Monty Python: The Meaning of Life" called "Every Sperm is Sacred."


MACFARLANE: (As Peter) (Singing) Every sperm is sacred, every sperm is great...

And it sounds great, the choreography is really good, and it's hysterical that all that work and all that expertise went into something with this content. So with "Family Guy," we really embrace that.

SMITH: So as you're doing these parody songs, is that where you start to get this idea that you would like to, I don't know, do the originals at some point?

MACFARLANE: Yeah. I mean, you know, I've always been a fan of this kind of music. My parents exposed me to the "Great American Songbook" when I was a kid. And from there, I kind of started to explore the 1950s and what it had to offer. And it always looked like, I mean, it sounded exquisite, but it always looked like it was effortless.


MACFARLANE: (Singing) That was Laura, but she's only a dream.

SMITH: I'm speaking with Seth MacFarlane. He has a new CD of big band standards, "Music is Better than Words." Seth, I want to ask you quickly about some of your next projects. You are working on a new version of "The Flintstones," yes?


SMITH: Why redo "The Flintstones?"


SMITH: And by the way, I heard a little bit of that drinking.

MACFARLANE: Yeah. Look at that. That's...

SMITH: (Unintelligible) on the radio.

MACFARLANE: ...I am on public radio.


SMITH: So - nice.

MACFARLANE: That was the marriage of Figaro.


MACFARLANE: It would be so easy and so simple to update "The Flintstones," I thought, without really changing that much other than what the stories were about. It couldn't be Fred wants to go bowling with a buddy, you know, with the guys and so he lies to Wilma because she wants to go to the opera. You know, that kind of antiquated sitcom storytelling would have to be updated in some way.

SMITH: And of course, you can update all the technology and you could have a...


SMITH: ...I don't know, iPhone made out of granite, an iStone, right, with a little bird?

MACFARLANE: Hey, look at that.

SMITH: Hey, the iStone.

MACFARLANE: I might use that, man.

SMITH: You could take that.

MACFARLANE: The iStone. Holy smokes. I knew it was a good idea to come here.

SMITH: And there's a little bird inside that says, "It's a living."


SMITH: That was a classic joke.

MACFARLANE: I'm going to write that down right now, and I'm not ashamed to say it.

SMITH: Since we have drifted away from music a little bit, is there a good song that you think should end the interview? How do you want to leave people?

MACFARLANE: You know, "Love Won't Let You Get Away" is a great tune.

SMITH: Well, we'll end with that.


MACFARLANE: (Singing) Let's kiss, well here we go again caught in love's undertow again. Latching on to that glow again, here we go again, hip hooray.

SMITH: Still like the sound of your own voice, Seth MacFarlane?



SMITH: Get used to it. There's going to be a lot more of it. Thank you, Seth MacFarlane.

MACFARLANE: My pleasure.

SMITH: That's Seth MacFarlane singing "Love Won't Let You Get Away" with Sarah Bareilles. MacFarlane is the creator of the Fox series "Family Guy," "American Dad" and "The Cleveland Show." His debut album, "Music is Better than Words," is just out.


MACFARLANE: (Singing) Love won't let us get away.

SMITH: And for Saturday, that's Weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Smith. Remember, you can hear the best of this program on our weekly podcast. Subscribe or listen at iTunes. You can search for the words weekend and NPR or at We post a new episode on Sunday nights. We're back with a whole new hour of radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.