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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the animated comedy series "Family Guy," "American Dad" and "The Cleveland Show." He does a lot of voices for the series, like Peter, the father on "Family Guy."

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "THE FAMILY GUY")

SETH MACFARLANE: (As Peter Griffin) How about you all sit there quietly while I make dad noises. Ahem. (Makes noises)

GROSS: Seth MacFarlane not only does voices on his shows, he often sings in those voices. But on his new album, he sings as himself, rescuing some obscure songs from the American popular songbook.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANYTIME, ANYWHERE")

MACFARLANE: (Singing) You could leave tomorrow, fly to Mandalay. Darling, I would love you anyway. I just couldn't help but care anytime, anywhere.

GROSS: MacFarlane's new album is called "Music is Better than Words." We're about to hear more from it and talk about writing animated comedy, doing voices and hosting roasts, including Charlie Sheen's. There's a video concert version of MacFarlane's album that's on the premium entertainment channel Epix.

Seth MacFarlane, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you for making this record and for also introducing me to some wonderful songs that I didn't know. You found some wonderful obscure songs, several of them by well-known songwriters. So let's start with one of those. The song is called "Anybody's Spring." It's by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heuson, who wrote a lot of songs for Sinatra. I've never heard this one before.

So let's get started with having you introduce this song for us and tell us why you chose it.

MACFARLANE: Yeah, this is an old song from the early '40s called "It's Anybody's Spring," and it was featured in the movie "Road to Utopia," and it was originally sung by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.

And, you know, I'm a fan of the "Road" pictures. I remember all the songs from my multiple viewings of those movies, and there's a lot of great songs that I've never heard recorded outside those films, and this was one of them.

GROSS: Well, it's wonderful. So this is Seth MacFarlane singing "It's Anybody's Spring."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S ANYBODY'S SPRING")

MACFARLANE: (Singing) You think that money is everything, and yet it's anybody's spring. Go make a fortune, become a king, and still it's anybody's spring. And if you flash a bankroll, do you suppose a brook would care, or that a rose would say there goes a millionaire?

(Singing) It's more than diamonds around a ring because it's anybody's spring. You may be born with a silver spoon, and yet it's anybody's moon. You couldn't buy a ticket to hear the first robin sing. It's free because it's anybody's spring.

GROSS: So that's Seth MacFarlane, the creator of "Family Guy" and "American Dad," and this is from his new CD, "Music is Better Than Words." So it's amazing to hear you singing without irony. Like, you're not singing a Stewie...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You're not singing as a cartoon character. There's no quotes around what you're doing. You're just -

MACFARLANE: Right.

GROSS: You're singing your heart out, and it sounds really good. Is it odd for you as a performer to be doing something that's not comedy, that's not ironic, that's not in quotes?

MACFARLANE: You know, it's - I suppose it's odd for the audience initially. For me, no, I mean, I've been doing this kind of thing, actually, for years, with, you know, various jazz bands. One of my composers, Ron Jones, has a group called the Influence Jazz Orchestra that he performs with throughout L.A., and I go and sing with him, and we do old, you know, old Nelson Riddle, Billy May charts.

And this kind of music has always been what I've been drawn too, you know, the great American songbook and particularly the early- to late-'50s era of orchestration.

GROSS: So tell me if I've got this right, that you took vocal lessons with two people who had been Sinatra's vocal coaches.

MACFARLANE: Yeah, they had trained - God, they trained everybody under the sun. They trained Streisand at one point. Lee and Sally Sweetland, who were both in their 90s when I met up with them about 10 years ago in L.A. And Lee passed away last year. His wife Sally actually just turned 100 a few days ago. And their son Steve has kind of taken over the business, and that family has been invaluable as far - I mean, they really drill you. They teach you the old-style way of singing, with no - you know, back when you had no electronic help. You've just got to go in and be able to do it.

GROSS: So what did you learn from them that you otherwise might now have known?

MACFARLANE: There are many, many things. The thing that comes to mind most of all, is show your teeth. And, you know, if you look at old photos of Sinatra while he's singing, there's a lot - you know, a lot of very exposed teeth. And that was something that Lee Sweetland just hit on, day in and day out, and correctly so because it just brightens the whole performance. It's basically moving your lips out of the way to let the sound come out.

GROSS: Was that a hard thing to learn how to do? Because it's in a way like smiling, and, you know, it's - smiling can be very unnatural when you're not actually smiling.

MACFARLANE: Oh, believe me, I know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MACFARLANE: Not really. I mean, it's not like you're - you've got to get out there and be Jack Nicholson, you know...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MACFARLANE: You don't have to get out there and do like a big Tony Robbins thing. You just, you know, you just show a little bit of teeth. And it doesn't have to be all the time, but certainly during your vowels. It's little things like that that just brighten the performance.

GROSS: So were you exposed to the music of the '50s and to Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby through your parents or your grandparents? What did they listen to, and what impact did that have on you?

MACFARLANE: You know, my parents exposed me to the great Broadway shows and the great movie musicals of, you know, the '40s, '50s and '60s. As far as the jazz, my cousin Shep(ph) introduced me to Woody Allen when I was a kid, and I instantly became a huge fan of his movies, and obviously so many of his movies feature that kind of music.

When "Radio Days" came out, I bought the soundtrack and got to know all of the songs, one of which is on this record, "You and I," which was written by Meredith Wilson. And, you know, that's - it was an old Sinatra song from the '40s, and it's a song that we put on the album.

But "Radio Days" was full of that kind of music. So I went to my grandfather and I was like gosh, this was your era, do you have any more of this kind of stuff, and he gave me a bunch of his old record albums. And so I really became acquainted with, you know, Tommy Dorsey, with Glenn Miller, with that era of music.

And it wasn't really until I was in college that I started to discover what the '50s had to offer, and the early '60s, and that was really what kind of got me excited.

GROSS: Were you in musicals when you were in high school?

MACFARLANE: I was, yeah, my sister and I did a lot of...

GROSS: What were your big numbers?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MACFARLANE: Well, when I was a - I started young. When I was about nine years old, I was in "The Sorceror," the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. And it was put on by a local theater organizer named Marty Holcum(ph), who was - kind of introduced us all to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. We did "The Sorceror." We did "The Mikado." We did "The HMS Pinafore." And then when I got into high school - gosh, what - "Anything Goes" I remember, "Little Shop of Horrors," "Carousel," so a real wide variety of shows.

But yeah, I was always involved with that stuff.

GROSS: So when you were young, were you in "The Music Man"? Because you seem to like Meredith Wilson, who wrote the score.

MACFARLANE: I was never - that's one of my big regrets, I was never in "The Music Man," and I always loved that show - loved that show, loved every song from that show.

GROSS: Well, your new album gives you the opportunity to do a song from that show, and I thought we could play that one now. It's called "The Sadder But Wiser Girl for Me," and you do it with a lot of pizzazz. I like this a lot. Do you want to say anything about choosing it?

MACFARLANE: You know, this is a song that, in keeping with our goal of choosing less-performed material for this record, this is a song that you don't really hear recorded in pop music. I don't know that I've ever heard - I'm sure they're out there - I have never heard of a recording of this song outside the...

GROSS: Me, neither. Unlike, say, "76 Trombones."

MACFARLANE: Right, right, right, there's a lot of recordings of that. But no, I've never heard "The Sadder But Wiser Girl" recorded, and it's such a likely candidate for, like, a really, really, you know, barnburner of a swing tune.

GROSS: Okay, so this is Seth MacFarlane from his new album "Music is Better Than Words."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SADDER BUT WISER GIRL FOR ME")

MACFARLANE: (Singing) No sweet and pure angelic lass for me. That kind of gal can spin a web, you see. She trades on wholesome innocence galore, but it's my independence that she's craving for. The only affirmative she will file refers to marching down the aisle.

(Singing) No golden, glorious, gleaming, pristine goddess, no sir. For no Diana do I play for, and I can tell you that right now. I snarl. I hiss. How can ignorance be compared to bliss? I spark, I fizz for the lady who knows what time it is. I cheer. I rave for the virtue I'm too late to save. The sadder but wiser girl for me.

(Singing) No bright-eyed, blushing, baby-doll baby. No, sir, that kind of child ties knots no sailor ever knew. I prefer to take a chance on a more adult romance. No dewy young miss who keeps resisting, all the time she keeps insisting. No wide-eyed, wholesome, innocent female. Why, she's the fisherman, I'm the fish, you'll see...

GROSS: That's Seth MacFarlane from his new album "Music is Better than Words," and it's his first album singing in his own voice. He's known best as the creator of "Family Guy," "American Dad" and "The Cleveland Show," three comedy animated series.

So, you know, we've talked a little bit about choosing songs to sing on your new album. Let's talk about writing the theme for "Family Guy." This is the curtain-raiser every week. It's a big production number. There's actually, you know, top hat and cane and chorus line. And the theme seems modeled, in part, on the "All in the Family" theme that, you know, Archie and Edith Bunker used to sit at the piano and sing, you know, waxing nostalgic about the olden days.

MACFARLANE: Right, tonally - yeah, and you actually see the, you know, Peter and Lois sitting there at the piano at the beginning. Yeah, you know, thematically, it is very much, you know, in the same vein. I think the difference is we're speaking a bit more - I think that was a very sincere opening. With "Family Guy," it's a bit more sardonic. There's a bit more irony to the tone for obvious reasons.

GROSS: Yes, in part that you're so crude, you'd hardly...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Hardly be yearning for the olden days.

MACFARLANE: Yeah, it's like where are all those nice, friendly, happy family TV shows that we remember. Here's one.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So was this one of your first outings writing a song?

MACFARLANE: It was, yeah, yeah. And, you know, I luckily had the music of Walter Murphy to work with. I mean, this is a great - just a great melody writer. He's written, you know, three themes for us, you know, "Family Guy" theme, "American Dad" them and "The Cleveland Show" theme. And the movie that I've just finished directing, "Ted," he's composed two songs for that.

He's just really - his stuff is very easy to set lyrics to.

GROSS: So let's hear the "Family Guy" theme, and so this is music by Walter Murphy and lyrics by my guest Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF "FAMILY GUY THEME")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (As characters) (Singing) It seems today, that all you see is violence in movies and sex on TV. But where are those good old-fashioned values on which we used to rely? Lucky there's a family guy, lucky there's a man who positively can do all the things that make us laugh and cry. He's a family guy.

GROSS: So that's the "Family Guy" theme, the animated TV show created by my guest Seth MacFarlane.

MACFARLANE: And that was - you know, it's funny - and one of the few remaining - and it's a shame, but one of the few remaining television themes that airs every week. It's a tradition that's kind of going away, and part of that is that the networks are worried that people don't want to sit through the same thing week after week, that people are going to change the channel.

And so shows are being discouraged from writing themes. We actually had to fight pretty hard to do - to be able to do a theme because they thought no, no, no, people aren't going to want - it's going to bore people. They're going to switch away.

And I think what they don't realize is that no, this is - showmanship is showmanship. It hasn't changed in hundreds of years. It's a drum roll. It basically says hey, here comes a show. It's Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck walking out onto the stage doing, you know, "This is It." And, you know, it gets the audience psyched up. It's really tragic that networks are letting that go away. I mean, the tradition of television theme songs is a pretty rich one.

GROSS: My guest is Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the animated series "Family Guy," "American Dad" and "The Cleveland Show." His new album of American popular song is called "Music is Better than Words." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Seth MacFarland, the creator of the animated series "Family Guy," "American Dad" and "The Cleveland Show." He does a lot of voices on the show and often sings in character. He has a new album of American popular song called "Music is Better than Words." He sings the themes from "Family Guy" and "American Dad." When we left off, he was telling us that Fox TV executives were initially opposed to having a theme song for "American Dad."

Did you have to fight for the "American Dad" theme after having won the "Family Guy" theme battle?

MACFARLANE: Oh yeah, yeah, I remember having to have - you know, they wanted to discourage it. And luckily by the time "Cleveland" came out, we never even heard anything from the network about that.

GROSS: You're making money; do what you want.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MACFARLANE: I think it was part of that, but I think by that point, they realized, well, you know, it's a stylistic thing for these shows, that there is - you need a little bit of a drum roll. You need a little bit of that P.T. Barnum intro.

GROSS: Well, the "American Dad" theme - and "American Dad" is about a dad who's also a CIA agent - the "American Dad" theme sounds like it was inspired, in part, by "The Music Man."

MACFARLANE: You know, not consciously. I suppose, you know, any march is - or anything that has trombones and piccolos and bassoons and whatever else is probably - you know, might evoke "76 Trombones," but no, it was sort of meant to be...

GROSS: More military?

MACFARLANE: Aggressively - just an aggressively patriotic piece of music, you know, to reflect Stan Smith's point of view.

GROSS: Do you want to talk about writing it?

MACFARLANE: Yeah, I mean, that was a theme that - you know, we wanted something different than the "Family Guy" theme. The "Family Guy" theme is very much - and the "Family Guy" bumpers, which are essentially those little pieces of music that you hear every time you see the Griffins' house, the little snippets of the "Family Guy" theme, have a very distinct swing tune to them, very distinct swing tone.

And "American Dad," we wanted to give it something different, and so you hear a lot more snare drum, you hear a lot more, you know, a lot more of a - as you say, military tone. But it was really - it was supposed to be aggressively cheerful, aggressively patriotic, aggressively optimistic, like hey, everything's still fine, you know, here I am, Mr. White Guy waking up to his white-bread family, you know...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MACFARLANE: Just like, you know, Stan Smith's delusional happiness that the world has not changed around him. And, you know, that's kind of what that was supposed to evoke.

GROSS: So here's the "American Dad" theme, with music by Walter Murphy and lyric by Seth MacFarlane, who created that show, as well as "Family guy" and "The Cleveland Show," and here's the theme.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE CLEVELAND SHOW THEME")

MACFARLANE: (As Stan Smith) (Singing) Good morning, USA. I got a feeling that it's gonna be a wonderful day. The sun in the sky has a smile on his face, and he's shining a salute to the American race. Oh boy it's swell to say...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (As characters) Good morning USA, good morning USA.

GROSS: So that's the theme from the show, the animated series "American Dad," which was created by my guest Seth MacFarlane. And that's you singing, too, right?

MACFARLANE: Yeah, that's...

GROSS: And that's you singing on the "Family Guy" theme, too.

MACFARLANE: Correct.

GROSS: Seth MacFarlane will be back in the second half of the show. He's the creator of the animated series "Family Guy," "American Dad" and "The Cleveland Show." Here's more from his new album, "Music is Better than Words." You can see the concert version of the album on the premium entertainment channel Epix. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the animated comedy series "Family Guy," "American Dad" and "The Cleveland Show." He does a lot of voices for his shows and often sings in character. Now he has a new album singing as himself, rescuing obscure songs from the American popular songbook. It's called "Music Is Better Than Words." Let's hear him sing in character from the album "Family Guy Live in Vegas." Here's MacFarlane doing two voices, Stewie, the diabolical one-year-old and Brian, the family's very intelligent, talking dog. The song is the theme from the '80s sitcom "Charles in Charge."

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME SONG, "DIFF'RENT STROKES")

MACFARLANE: (as Stewie) (Singing) Now, the world don't move to the beat of just one drum. What might be right for you, may not be right for some.

(as Brian) (Singing) A man is born, he's a man of means. Then along come two, they've got nothing but their jeans.

(as Stewie) (Singing) But Brian, they've got different strokes. It takes different strokes. It takes different strokes to move the world.

(as Brian) That's true. But, you know, Stewie, (Singing) everybody's got a special kind of story.

(as Stewie) (Singing) Everybody finds a way to shine.

(as Brian) (Singing) But no matter that you got not a lot.

(as Stewie) So what?

(as Brian) (Singing) They'll have theirs and you'll have yours and I'll have mine. And together we'll be fine.

(as Stewie) (Singing) 'Cause it takes different strokes to move the world.

GROSS: Okay, that was actually the theme from "Diff'rent Strokes." And we heard Seth MacFarlane doing the voices of "Family Guy" Stewie and Brian. I asked MacFarlane about the difference between singing in character and singing in his own voice.

MACFARLANE: Singing in character voices is actually - people ask often, is it hard? And it's like no. It's actually a hell of a lot easier than singing straight.

GROSS: Why?

MACFARLANE: Because well, you're singing in a character voice. There's - it's almost like there's a shield of sorts around it because we assume Peter Griffin probably shouldn't be able to sing all that well, so you can kind of keep it loose and you don't have to really think too much about it. It's more work to sing straight.

GROSS: Well, how about singing in Stewie's voice? Can you talk in his voice for a second?

MACFARLANE: (as Stewie) Why don't you talk in his voice? I'm sick to death of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MACFARLANE: (as Stewie) You draggle-tailed, blunt-head guttersnipe.

GROSS: (Laughing) Singing in his voice has to be tricky, no?

MACFARLANE: You know, again, not really because it's not like, you know, it's not like you have to maintain shades of subtly. It's Stewie. I mean, Stewie singing is essentially Rex Harrison singing in "My Fair Lady." I mean that's just...

GROSS: Well, Stewie sings better than Rex Harrison.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Stewie has more range than Rex Harrison has.

MACFARLANE: Maybe a little bit, maybe after that Bryan Adams song. But yeah, I mean but again, it doesn't have to be as rich. It doesn't have to be quite as textured. It's a different type of character than the character that you try to put into a straight ballad or a straight swing tune.

GROSS: So let's get back to the creation of "Family Guy." What was the basic idea that the series grew out of?

MACFARLANE: Well, I mean I had been studying animation for a while. I had been interested in animation, and when "The Simpsons" came about, I, at the time, was really interested in becoming an animator for Disney. Disney was having sort of their renaissance in the film world with movies like "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast." And that was what I wanted to do, and then here comes "The Simpsons," that says hey, you know what? You can also do this. We're completely rewriting the rulebook with regard to what you can do on television. And I was laughing.

You know, this is something that actually was for me. It wasn't for, necessarily, for a family audience. Like me as a single guy with sort of an edgier sense of humor and what I was looking for. I was doing standup at the time and, you know, enjoying that, and enjoying working with, kind of, more risque humor, and so I decided to develop an animated idea. And, you know, I looked to my own region, in this case, where I was brought up, for character ideas. And, you know, Peter Griffin is very, very much the quintessential big, fat, you know, loud New England guy who is very, very good at the core - big-hearted guy - but just has zero self-editing mechanism.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Yeah.

MACFARLANE: No idea what is appropriate and inappropriate, and you kind of have to forgive him because he just doesn't know any better, and I knew so many of those guys. My father knew tons of those guys when we were living back East.

GROSS: Was he one of them?

MACFARLANE: My father? No. Ironically, my father was very much, you know, very liberal, very intellectual. But a lot of his friends were, you know, more like Peter.

GROSS: OK. To illustrate your point about Peter having like...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...no sense of what's appropriate, this is a scene from the hundredth episode of "Family Guy." And Peter and his wife Lois are on a cruise, and they have the privilege of sitting for dinner at the captain's table. And as this clip begins, the captain is telling this inspiring story and then Peter talks next.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SERIES, "FAMILY GUY")

MACFARLANE: (as Captain) And that was the first time I saw the Northern Lights at their peak. And as I dazed, astonished at their lustrous brilliance, I turned to my first mate and I said, we are looking into the very eyes of God.

ALEX BORSTEIN: (as Lois) What a wonderful story.

MACFARLANE: (as Peter) All right, I've got one for you. So me and Lois are driving up to Vermont to get this abortion.

BORSTEIN: (as Lois) Peter.

MACFARLANE: (as Peter) Hang on. Hang on, Lois. Don't ruin it. all right. So we're driving up to get this abortion and we get to the abortion clinic and the abortionist has one hand.

BORSTEIN: (as Lois) Peter, for god...

MACFARLANE: (as Peter) I'll tell it. I'll tell it. So I turn to Lois and I says, you want to get an abortion here? You want to get an abortion with the abortionist having a stump hand? We can't get an abortion here. So we turned around and went home and two and a half months later our daughter Meg was born.

MACFARLANE: I love that taxpayer dollars just paid for you to air that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That is so...

MACFARLANE: This is National Public Radio.

GROSS: That is such a funny clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MACFARLANE: This is why the Republicans hate us.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: This is like, if you want to get an inappropriate story, there you go.

MACFARLANE: Yeah.

GROSS: And I...

MACFARLANE: Ironically, the DVD version of that episode has about eight more uses of the word abortion.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And...

MACFARLANE: That was the...

GROSS: Well, you know, I also love watching couples fight about how to tell a story and whether to tell a story.

MACFARLANE: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: And that's just like the quintessential version of it.

MACFARLANE: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MACFARLANE: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Pretty much. It's, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So what kind of reaction did you get to that scene?

MACFARLANE: You know, we never really know what is going to raise the ire of the more conservative members of our audience. We - I don't think we ever really got any flak from that.

GROSS: Because it's not really about whether abortion is right or wrong. It's...

MACFARLANE: Yeah. It's...

GROSS: ...just about how wildly inappropriate he is in his storytelling.

MACFARLANE: Yeah. He doesn't - he just doesn't know, I mean it's an extreme example, but it's like that, you know, from my experience back east, not that extreme.

GROSS: Now did you grow up with a baby brother? Because like, Stewie is this like diabolical one-year-old who tries to kill his mother. And - so did you have a baby in your life when you were growing up?

MACFARLANE: I did not. I did not. You know, Stewie was originally just kind of a dopey looking drawing of a baby with no personality. And I had the rest of the family conceived, and I was just sort of looking for something that would give him more of a personality than, you know, just a mute baby, which is essentially what, you know, what Maggie Simpson was. And, you know, I was a big Rex Harrison fan. There was something about him that I just found inherently amusing and ridiculous. And so I came up with this idea to put, essentially, Rex Harrison's voice in the body of this baby. And thus, Stewie was born. And I didn't really think he was going to be anything all that special. I thought, you know, all right, Peter will be the breakout character if anyone is and still we will just be something that, you know, amuses me. He will be kind of display side character that pipes it now and then. And, you know, you just never know what the audience is going to respond to because obviously, Stewie turned out to be the biggest draw of the show.

GROSS: And what about Brian the dog? Did you have pets?

MACFARLANE: I did have pets. Yeah, I had a lot of dogs - a lot of dogs. And, you know, the Brian/Peter relationship was really the first - that was the first thing to come about, in very rough form in a student film that I did in college. And it's a very, kind of, old-fashioned comedy duo relationship. It's very vaudevillian in a way at its core. You know, it's like big, loud, comedy guy and, you know, a more serious straight guy, you know, going back and forth with each other. I mean it's a very old-fashioned comedy relationship they have in a lot of ways.

GROSS: Did you feel you ever had that kind of relationship with your dog?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MACFARLANE: Not really.

GROSS: No?

MACFARLANE: Not really. No. My dogs did not speak.

GROSS: No, well, right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MACFARLANE: They were - they just, you know, ran around, barked and threw up.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I guess that's sufficient, right?

MACFARLANE: Yeah.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Seth MacFarlane. He is the creator of "Family Guy," "American Dad" and "The Cleveland Show," all of which are still on the air. And now he has a new CD in which he sings not comedy, not with irony, he just sings great songs from the '50s, a lot of obscure ones, songs that Sinatra sang or might have sung, Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, people like that. And the album is called "Music Is Better Than Words." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Seth MacFarlane. He created the animated series "American Dad," "Family Guy" and "The Cleveland Show." And now he has a new album in which he sings songs from the '50s. It's called "Music Is Better Than Words."

I want to mention here that you've become a great roast master. And you're the one who emceed the roast of Charlie Sheen recently. And, wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Like I really could hardly believe some of the things you said.

MACFARLANE: That is a perfect argument for the V-chip.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Well...

MACFARLANE: You do not want your children watching that thing.

GROSS: OK. Well, I'll say this part is offensive but clean. There is no expletives in this. And I just want to play your introductory remarks, which again, are offensive but not in a dirty word kind of way. So, here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MACFARLANE: Yes. We're here tonight to honor - and hopefully arrest a man who was...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MACFARLANE: ...great in two things 25 years ago, Charlie Sheen.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

MACFARLANE: Actually, there's a lot of Sheen on TV this evening when the show airs. Tonight on "Two and a Half Men," they're actually having Charlie's pretend funeral, believe it or not. There's no need to switch over, though, just wait a few months. You can probably see the real thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)

MACFARLANE: I mean, we all know there's a good chance Charlie will be dead soon, so I wrote an obituary.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MACFARLANE: Charlie Sheen, who became a tabloid fixture, due to his problems with drugs and alcohol, was found dead in his apartment. Actually, you know what? I kind of actually just copied Amy Winehouse's obituary.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE )

MACFARLANE: It's - I only had to change three things, though, the sex of the deceased, the location of the body and the part that says a talent that will be missed.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GROSS: Ouch.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You know, it's become like a whole genre now, the roast. And, I mean basically you're joking here about the likelihood that Charlie Sheen is going to O.D. These jokes, they really cut - both about his talent, his bad behavior, the fact that he might not live very long.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Is there such a thing as too tasteless in your...

MACFARLANE: Well, when you put it that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I can only imagine the jokes that you threw out because you thought oh, those are going too far.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MACFARLANE: Yeah, and there were. And there were.

GROSS: Were, really? Yeah.

MACFARLANE: Yeah.

GROSS: Perhaps this isn't the venue to tell them.

MACFARLANE: No, I don't think so.

GROSS: So, what's the process when you are writing for a roast like that? I mean how much do you care about seriously wounding the person?

MACFARLANE: Well, you know, when somebody signs - I mean there have been many, many of these roasts. When somebody signs on to do one or decides they want to do it, they know what they're getting into and they know it's going to be pretty harsh. It can't be like it was in the days of the Dean Martin roast. It's just, you know, I mean that was, those were entertaining but the humor is of the time. You know, I mean I think if we did the jokes that they did on those shows, it would come off as unfortunately, as a little soft. And, you know, particularly on Comedy Central late at night, it's got to have some bite to it. But he knew what he was getting into. You know, there's plenty of precedent for this kind of humor in previous roasts that it's not like he's coming out there, you know, having no idea what to expect. He knows that it's going to get pretty cutting, but he was fine. I mean he was out there. He seemed to be having a good time. He was detaching himself from his prior actions and just kind of enjoying the comedy, believe it or not.

GROSS: Is there an editor whose job is to say, among other things, this is going too far, you can't say that?

MACFARLANE: Yeah. Yeah. I mean a lot of the comics really kind of do that on their own. I made Comedy Central has, you know, their own standards and practices department that determines what they can and, you know, what they want to do and what goes beyond the acceptable limits of their identity as a comedy network. But in my experience, it's really up to each of us to decide whether this is something that we want to deliver because each comic, really, you know, if something goes south, it's not the network. You, the guy delivering it, is going to be the one who kind of takes most of the heat for it.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. You did when you were young, like in high school maybe, you did a weekly comic strip for a local newspaper called "Walter Crouton?"

MACFARLANE: Yeah.

GROSS: Okay. So what was the strip?

MACFARLANE: Yeah. For The Kent Good Times Dispatch. That tells you what kind of an idyllic town I grew up in. That was the name of the newspaper. Yeah. That was, it was a weekly one-frame or three-frame cartoon. It was kind of all over the place, depending on what it was I wanted to do. Some weeks it was political. Some weeks it was just purely joke-based. But it was a way for me to kind of explore and kind of feel out what I wanted to do and learn about what my own style was. And it was a great way to kind of teach myself about that medium. And it's funny that even then I would get an occasional bit of blowback for something I would do that was maybe over the line. I remember when I was about what, like, 10 or 11 years old, I did a strip. You know, I was always weirdly fascinated. I would go to church on Sundays, I was in the church choir, and I was always like just weirdly fascinated by the Communion ceremony. There was something about it that just struck me as so odd. And when I was a kid, you know, I remember turning to my mom and saying, oh my god, he said they were drinking blood. Is that really blood? That's disgusting. And she said, no, no, no. It's wine. It's all fine. But there's just something just bizarre about that ceremony. So I did a strip that had a guy kneeling at the altar taking Communion and saying can I have fries with that? And to my 11-year-old brain that was comedy and...

GROSS: Did they print that?

MACFARLANE: They printed it, yeah. It's interesting in retrospect. I'm not quite sure why they didn't say, you know what?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MACFARLANE: It's - that, you know, that tells you the kind of support I had from that town because they were like, you know, let the kid figure it out on his own. And I got an angry letter from our local priest who said, shame on you for insulting the Almighty God and those who love him. And I remember thinking, god, this is probably the one time that a priest has written a negative letter to an 11-year-old boy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MACFARLANE: But there was a lot of, you know, upset over it. It created sort of a little mini-controversy in our little town.

GROSS: It was kind of a blueprint for you in the sense that, you know, you're doing this comic that some people think are funny or charming and other people think you've really crossed the line, and it's been that way in your professional life kind of ever since, right?

MACFARLANE: Yeah. Yeah, pretty much.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So, one more question. And I know you've been asked this a lot. But on September 11th you were supposed to be on that plane that was supposed to fly from Boston to L.A., but instead was hijacked and flown into the north tower of the World Trade Center. And you were late. Your travel agent gave you the wrong time, so you missed being on that catastrophic flight. Do you ever think of the rest of your life as being this kind of gift? Because you just, it could have all ended for you that day.

MACFARLANE: One of my favorite quotes by Carl Sagan is that we are, as a species and as a culture, we are significance junkies. We love attaching significance to everything, even when there is really no significance and something is just a coincidence. And this is a perfect example to me of something - you know, I really, in all honesty, you know, not to sound cold but, you know, I don't think of it that way. I think of it as, you know, I'm living the same way in 2011 as I was in 1999. And the reason for that is that, you know, I had missed a lot of flights for being late. I'm a perpetually late person. You know, every flight that takes off, you've got to figure somebody's missing the flight or somebody is late. And on top of that, you know, who knows how many times a day we have similar close calls as the one that I had. You know, I mean this morning crossing the street; if I had crossed five minutes later I would have been hit by a car. Who knows? So in my case, you know, obviously the day itself was a tragedy and a disaster, but if we're just talking about my case, it doesn't strike me as something that I am attaching an unbelievable amount of significance to because of those reasons. Because, you know, I've missed a bunch of flights.

GROSS: Seth MacFarlane, thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been fun. I really enjoyed it.

MACFARLANE: All right. Thank you.

GROSS: Seth MacFarlane created "Family Guy," "American Dad" and "The Cleveland Show." His new album of American popular song is called "Music Is Better Than Words." You can hear three tracks from it on our website, freshair.npr.org. This is FRESH AIR.

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