‘Effortless’ Takes Effort: Lessons from Seth MacFarlane

Any number of things could come to mind when someone mentions Seth MacFarlane. Good, bad, laudatory, critical…depending on who you are or what you like to laugh at, it could even be a combination of all of those things. But for me, when I think about him, this Hulu commercial is one of the first things that comes to mind:

Clearly, there’s a lot going on here. But that fast pace, slightly uncomfortable subject matter, and ever changing voice is symbolic of the career that MacFarlane has built for himself. Since he became one of Fox’s youngest executives in 1999 (just shy of 25 years old- ready to evaluate your life against his example? I’m not..), he’s been a juggernaut of crude yet creative energy. Some of his efforts go over better than others; this is natural for anyone who creates for an audience, but especially (and statistically) for those who are prolific.

The guy that created Family Guy is also the driving force behind Cosmos’ return to TV. Yup. IMAGE CREDIT: GQ

And prolific he is. His hands are in Family Guy, American Dad, the recently cancelled Cleveland Show, the forthcoming Flinstones reboot, Ted and its upcoming sequel, AND…in a turn that shows something very special about him, Cosmos. He also made headlines recently for donating $1M to LeVar Burton’s Reading Rainbow Kickstarter project.

The breezy pace of the Hulu commercial could lead you to believe that Seth’s work is effortless; at first glance, he moves in and out of voices and giggles without much trouble. Perhaps because it has its obvious crude moments on the surface, much of it is equated with being ill-considered. After all, if it’s gross or offensive, it must be the product of unintelligent or thoughtless minds, right?

Well…no.

Consider the quote from a recent profile in Variety that assessed MacFarlane’s canon using the following description:

His milieu is a mix of scatological* sophomoric material (his Twitter profile describes him as a “dysentery enthusiast”) and twisted bookish jokes.

*Full disclosure: I’ve never seen “scatalogical,” a word used to describe the study or discussion of feces, as much as I have before I started digging in to write this piece. I’m sure many a journalist had been waiting to use that word and needed a subject that merited it.

Fast Company’s profile on MacFarlane expressed similar bewilderment at the wild contrast in his work:

It is a violent collision of high and low — classical musicians accustomed to the Hollywood Bowl recording music for a show heavy on poop jokes — and a perfect lens for examining why this man sipping coffee from a paper cup emblazoned with the Fox logo has such an enormous and perpetual grin.

When you read descriptions like this, it makes a little more sense to learn that MacFarlane both embraces the idea of long-form jokes that lack context, AND (true story) sits on the board of the National Academy of Science’s Science & Entertainment Exchange. For my own part, I am incredibly appreciative of the humor that comes from the ipecac joke shown in the Hulu commercial- and equally appreciative of the Benjamin Disraeli joke that appeared in an earlier episode, immediately followed by a cutaway to a dour mutton chop-sporting English gentleman, moaning “You don’t know who I am…”

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not always a fan of the end result of MacFarlane’s thought process. However, I am consistently awestruck and inspired by his creative process. His philosophy has embraced the way I bring myself to the office, and it can do the same for you. How?

Write for yourself and your people. Paul Jarvis, who I spoke to last week, calls them your “rat people.” Seth Godin is fond of the term “tribes.” Whatever you choose to call the people that get your work, create for them. Not everyone is a fan of Family Guy or American Dad. But the people who are fans were powerful enough to bring a cancelled show back from the dead at a time where it wasn’t as common a practice as it is today. Some of the most intense TV fans right now are following shows whose creators write for themselves. Two notable examples? Dan Harmon, creator of the recently revived Community, truly revered the advice that “it’s okay to write for what makes you laugh.” And who did he learn that tidbit of wisdom from? Mitch Hurwitz, creator of the Netflix-rescued Arrested Development.

Some of us don’t have the flexibility of a showrunner to decide what our end product looks like. What do you do then? I really liked Paul’s response to this when I asked him about it last week:

As long as my message is still the same and intact, and what I’m trying to say sounds like me, then it’s okay. Adapting your art is fine, as long as it stays true to you and the original message is intact.

We don’t all have the creative control to decide that a My Fair Lady-inspired musical number can stay in our presentation to the board. But as long as our spirit is imbued in the work that we do, either in motivation or actual finished product, our work will “sing” in the way that MacFarlane aspires to have each joke do on his shows. He gets to bring himself to work in a way that few of us dream- I wish I could make my love of literature, musical theater, and silly jokes fit into my day-to-day. If you can’t, bring the spirit of those interests to the table. Odds are, your work will be better for it.

Be ready to hustle. I have well-documented opinions about hustle. And Seth MacFarlane could have easily been added to the tribe of folks who have hustled hard for the level of success they’ve achieved. He voices over half of Family Guy‘s main cast, has a hand in physically animating many of the scenes, supervises the musical contributions (one of my favorite elements of his shows), and signs off on much of the writing. Does it sound exhausting? It is; MacFarlane collapsed at his desk a few years ago after fifteen straight months of work and landed in the ER. Since then, he’s cooled off, delegating daily writing on much of his non Family Guy endeavors to trusted project contributors. So, y’know, hustle, but hustle safely.

An attractive element of MacFarlane’s hustle is that he rarely confines it to any one area. He animates, writes, sings, wrote and directed a film…and, to challenge himself, picked up an instrument and wrote a novel while doing that last thing. So many of us would be afraid to put our hat in that many rings, fearing being bad at something. But to borrow a phrase from another one of my favorite cartoons (Adventure Time),

IMAGE CREDIT: Tumblr

Seth MacFarlane doesn’t wonder if he’s good at melodica or writing a novel, he just gives it a whirl. And if he has both the time and humility (remember: his failures are far more public than yours or mine), so do you.

Details matter; they’re what creates the illusion.

In casual conversation, he is nothing like the stereotype of the comedian who can’t stop delivering one-liners.

“We would fly all the time together back and forth from L.A. to Santa Fe, and he’d have his headphones on reading his book (and) wouldn’t say anything for an hour,” says “A Million Ways” co-star Theron. “It’s so refreshing to not have someone constantly walking around with a drum set going ‘bad dum bum.’ ” But then, she adds, he’d pick up on something going on around him out of left field and toss off a comment that floored anyone nearby.

Even with a lot going on around you, pay attention. The nature of our society (phone scrolling while waiting! TVs everywhere from cabs to waiting spaces near elevators to gas pumps! Cat videos!) makes that more of a challenge than it was when MacFarlane first started his empire. But he is nothing if not attentive. He constantly references his inspirations, drawn from musical theater, classical literature and film, and even other animated shows. And what does all that hard work produce?

If you’re waiting for the punch line here, there isn’t one. Critics may dismiss MacFarlane’s show for being vulgar, but when he writes a song, it’s going to be lush and jazzy and, at least musically, exactly as you might hear in something by Irving Berlin. It’s all part of a manic attention to detail that not only gives the show its layered humor but also has made MacFarlane a massive multiplatform success. (emphasis added)

I’ve written previously about expertise being seen as effortless. And it rarely is. I remember, from my years as a gymnast, hearing from others about how easy our routines looked when done well. Anyone performing them, especially at higher levels, knew that wasn’t true. But part of the work we did to prepare, was learning the things that made them look easy. Smiling at mount and dismount, controlled breathing, and attention to small details like pointed toes and tucked heads disguise the grunt work being done underneath. Trust me, it was there.

And it’s those details, that attention to the rules and desire, that create the illusion of ease. Sometimes this can mean knowing the rules at the back of the book (example: one reason that Jesus shows up on Family Guy so often? According to the FCC, you can only use the phrase “Jesus Christ” if it refers specifically to the deity. How many showrunners bother to learn that, and then use it?), but it always makes you better than those who haven’t done the legwork or the conditioning.

 

Take a moment to watch an episode of Family Guy again. If it were me, I’d recommend an episode from that original four season run. What first seemed simple (both in execution and subject matter) might look a little more complex after reading this far. But your first reaction- this isn’t so hard- was an intentional one. The great ones always make the complex look attainable. And, like his final products or not, Seth MacFarlane falls in that camp.

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