'UK comedy is so much more advanced' | Interview with Family Guy's Seth Green

'UK comedy is so much more advanced'

Interview with Family Guy's Seth Green

Animator Seth MacFarlane has created three of the most successful of today's animated sitcoms: Family Guy, American Dad! and The Cleveland Show. Over the next three days, we'll interview some of the stars and collaborators on the shows  – starting with Seth Green, who plays son Chris in Family Guy

In Family Guy you play Chris – have you ever met anyone like him?

I've never met anybody who summarises him perfectly, no. He's so bizarrely indescribable because he's not any one thing. In the whole first season we thought that he was just stupid. And then we realised he's not just stupid, he's a weirdo. And he's not just a stupid weirdo; he might have arrested development but he might also be brilliant in some cases.

So he's an artist, and he's a singer and a peacemaker and a virgin, like all these weird things that don't seem to go together. It's really fun.

The writers have given me such gold over the years that I don't complain. I don't read the scripts, which is probably unprofessional, but I’m a big fan of the show. The process of our record is such that I don't have to read the entire script. I can just come in and do my lines. I'll record four or five episodes at a time, and then I get to watch the show on television like a fan, having no concept of the context of my recorded dialogue. Then I'm like, ‘Oh, that's what that means.’

Do they just hand you a script and you go into the voice booth?

Yeah. I don't like to prep on it, unless it's something that I have to know. Like sometimes Seth MacFarlane [the show’s creator] comes to me with ‘They want it to sound just like this’ or ‘We've got a song that you've got to sing.’ If there's something very specific that we're imitating, I'll study it. But for the most part, I like to get my pages right when I walk in the booth.

I don't need to think about it a lot. It's almost scientific. This kind of show is compiled somewhat scientifically. As much as humor is just a sense, there's a science to it, and there are things that you'll laugh at and things that you won't. So when they have a line, often written by a writer in a particular voice, you've got to execute it just like that. So I'll go, ‘What does it sound like?’ And he's like, ‘Da-da-da-DA da-DA da-da.’ Then I do that line, and that's funny. But I'll do five episodes at a time and have no idea what I've done.

What were you like when you were Chris's age?

When I was 15 years old, I skateboarded quite a bit and I was always in trouble. I knew my principal's office in detail. I was not a kid that fitted in. I was confident in a way that was disproportionate to my success, and very optimistic, but always getting in trouble. I couldn't resist it.

You seem to go further than other animations, like The Simpsons. Do you often get surprised that you can be a bit ruder?

I think it's just what the audience will bear and things come over time that builds on something that existed. If it wasn't for shows like The Simpsons or The Flintstones, for that matter, we wouldn't be able to do the things that we have.

I remember the first time I heard the word ‘bitch’ on television, what a shock that was, and just where we've come as a culture, like what we find funny, what we find acceptable, you know.

In the UK, you know the comedy over there is so much more advanced in its rudeness and yet innocent in its portrayal. There's this sense in the UK that everyone has a bit of folly in their youth. You might see a girl on Page 3 and then she's meant to become respectable at a point in her life. They just won't tolerate an older woman behaving this way. Like there's a real cultural mandate for proper behaviour.

I think that that allows for a more ribald kind of humor on television because no one takes it so seriously, whereas we're more puritanical in the States, so the notion of topless women or swearing on television is so offensive because it's implied that it will literally crumble the structure of our family values. I just find that to be so funny.

So how do you balance everything that you're doing? You've got the acting. You've got Robot Chicken. You've got this. There's a lot that you're cramming in there.

It's true. I work all the time and I don't really sleep. And I've just sort of accepted the fact that I love working. I have a lifestyle that allows me to really get the best enjoyment out of all of it and not complain too often, although I'm exhausted today.

Is it also good to diversify rather than just being an actor waiting for the next gig?

That is the thing. It's really impossible in today's climate to just be an actor waiting for the next gig. Plus I'm not that kind of actor. I've never really been the guy everyone’s like, ‘Get me him for this lead in this romantic comedy’. That's just not what I really do. I put way more emphasis on self-generation and just collaborating with superior talent and trying to find things that are appropriate for me to perform and also finding ways to actualise these crazy ideas that my friends and I have.

Have you got ideas buzzing away for things you want to do in the future?

Yeah, it's tough, especially with trying to make movies. It takes so long. The process of actually generating and producing film is like that. Unless you can get some momentum, unless you have something that comes out that makes a ton of money and everyone speed-tracks what you want to do next. But anything that you just want to invent takes a really long time. So you've got to be patient and stick with it.

What are you most proud of?

I'm still here, dude. I started when I was seven years old. I've been acting more than 25 years and people are still sitting in a room waiting to hear me say something. That is a phenomenal accomplishment, in my opinion.

Why did you start at seven? Is it something you wanted to do?

I like acting. I really like acting.

It wasn't your parents pushing you?

No, no. It was almost the opposite. Not to say anything against my parents but no one believes that you're capable of any kind of success when you start. And they're right. The odds are stacked against you to do anything.

What did you say at 7? ‘I want to be an actor’?

No. My folks were working at a summer camp, and they had a drama programme there with all the teenagers. I was six years old just hanging out with the teenagers in the drama programme, seeing them try on costumes and seeing them rehearse their lines and sing and perform. I was like, ‘Maybe that's what I do.’

I'd always been inventive and a mimic, creating characters or impersonating anyone I saw on TV. I was just drawn to that.

And I was just really fortunate all my life to have a purpose. I think that so many of my friends suffered as a result of going into college for something that they estimated they'd be interested in, and then they rediscovered themselves along the way. You see a lot of people wake up in their thirties in a career that they can't imagine how they got to and they don't feel like there's any opportunity to do what really makes them happy. And I've just chased. I've just chased what makes me happy all my life.

So many people who start off that young in this business end up crashing and burning. How did you manage not to?

I wasn’t famous, and I think that makes a huge difference. Anyone who starts their career by becoming famous, especially as a child, has a completely different burden than I do. I had such consistent heartbreak and failure [laugh] and it really gave me an even temperament and just an impersonal understanding of the way the business works.

I'm not shocked by anyone's opposition to me as a suggestion, you know. But I didn't have anything to overcome. I was not that kid from that movie. By the time I was 19 years old, I was a somewhat accomplished character actor who had a variety of performances under my belt. So when people thought of me, they weren't able to put a pin on me.

What kind of idols did you have?

I guess I'm not comfortable with the term ‘idol,’ but there were people that were heavily influential to me. I just got to work with Robin Williams. He was a guy that I always grew up looking at because I felt like we had similar opportunities. He was a heavily comedic actor who made a huge splash as a dramatic actor and has enjoyed that versatility. Even though his style of comedy is broader than mine, I've always felt like we had similar paths. I look at a guy like that and say, ‘Okay, this is how you do it over 30-plus years.’

  • Season Nine of Family Guy is out on November 1. Click here to preorder from Amazon.
  • Tomorrow: The Cleveland Show’s Mike Henry

Published: 6 Oct 2010

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