Seth MacFarlane Talks Ted

What jokes went too far, how he got his big surprise celebrity cameo and why Mila Kunis isn't your typical movie girlfriend.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

 

We were hoping to go one on one with Seth MacFarlane, but when you’ve got three animated series and a feature film opening, we understand he’s busy. At a press conference for Ted, his talking bear movie, we got to share an audience with the voice of Peter, Brian, Stewie, Quagmire and now Ted.

 

Free at last from the FCC.

You’re not dealing with the restrictions imposed by the FCC. They’re self-imposed so in a way that does make it harder. You actually have to think about it, as opposed to just taking for granted that you’re not going to be able to do this. With a movie like this, most of it was language. This movie’s been labeled hard R. I don’t think of it as a hard R movie. It’s a fairly moderately R movie. There’s no graphic sex, there’s no “heavy” drug use but it’s language. It’s R for language. So if that doesn’t bother you, you’re fine. The first cut of this movie had a lot more uses of the word “f*ck,” and we did cut that down somewhat because we found that, even though it’s an R-rated comedy and you can do whatever you want, it was starting to eat into the sweetness of the story a little bit. So you do have to impose restraints on yourself, and it is more difficult than just being told by someone you can’t do something.

 

Why it took 10 years for Seth MacFarlane’s directorial debut.

“Family Guy” had that little cancellation thing happen to it, and I wanted to make sure that it was fully on its feet after coming back before I stepped away to do a film because it did mean stepping away from the show completely for at least a year, and that was something that I hadn’t done yet. This was an idea that had actually been floating around in my head for a while. I had originally conceived it as an animated series idea and for a number of reasons shelved it. And when it came time to do my first movie, it seemed like a story that would make a much better film than a series.

 

Ted fighting Mark Wahlberg is not the chicken fight from “Family Guy!” Really, it isn’t!

The chicken fight was very cartoony and broad in a lot of ways. This was supposed to be something very different. The whole joke of this was that we wanted to play it as realistically as possible. We wanted it to feel like a fistfight in The Bourne Identity, except one of the characters happens to be a teddy bear and I think we pulled that off. I mean, Mark just sold it 150%. Even without the bear in there, when you look at that raw footage with the sound effects and him getting the sh*t kicked out of him by this invisible adversary, it actually still kind of works. Hopefully we made it painfully realistic.

 

Brandon Routh did not approve the use of his image in Ted.

I don’t hate Brandon Routh. The jokes at the end of the movie are probably the closest things to what people may expect from me because of shows like “Family Guy.” It’s a satirical jab. I’m sure he’s a very, very nice guy. 

 

The Johnny Caron guest they erased to make Ted’s “Tonight Show” appearance.

It was Emmanuelle Lewis.

 

Spoiler alert: The ‘80s icon who appears in Ted.

The Flash Gordon idea was just it’s a cult movie that a lot of people know and it’s ridiculous and absurd and it seemed like a funny piece of pop culture for John and Ted to bond over. It was something that worked as their movie that was kind of the symbol of their friendship. We just looked up Sam Jones and asked if he wanted to come do it, and he was very enthusiastic.

 

The fine line with racial humor.

Well, in a movie like this, we adhere to the same rule as we generally do with the animated shows, that if you’re going to make fun of one group, you’ve got to make fun of them all.  Of course, the cliché is equal opportunity offender. In this movie, pretty much every religion, race, creed is poked fun at. The white trash name alone is the white folks taking it. Of course the guy that brings the duck to a party is our little friendly jokey jibe at our Asian friends. It’s all across the board so I think that if you’re going to make fun of one group of people, you’ve got to go all across the board.

 

Test screenings tell him what’s too much.

As far as something going over the line, the systems that are in place as far as the screenings and audience testing, it’s pretty clear what’s over the line and what’s not. If something gets a gasp eight times in a row at eight screenings, you know it’s probably got to go. There’s been a couple of those jokes. Even on “Family Guy,” we do screenings of each episode before it goes to full animation and our own staff is not shy about going, “No, no, no, no, that’s way over the line!” If you’re getting enough laughs on the way there then it’s probably okay. If even your friends are telling you that it’s offensive, then they’re probably right.

 

The one Ted joke we’ll never hear.

There was only one that I can think of that I won’t repeat here because it didn’t work.  For the most part, by the time it got to the test screenings, we had excised most of that material. There was one that we pulled out because the audiences just thought it was too over the line.

 

Why Ted happens in Boston.

The comparison I always make is to Ghostbusters, as weird as that is because to me, one of the reasons that movie worked was that you had this ridiculous fantastical element to the story, but it was set against not just a realistic city but a city we all know. You had ghosts running around, these exterminators who had to eliminate them, but New York is the very familiar, very real New York with all of its warts that we know and it kind of grounded everything and kind of earned you the rest of the stuff. That was kind of what I wanted this movie to feel like. You have a talking bear. The rest of the movie should be as real and grounded as possible to earn that and one of the things that you can accomplish that with is by setting it in an actual city with an actual regional flavor.

 

Making sure Mila Kunis isn’t just the bitchy girlfriend.

I will say nine times out of 10 in a movie like this you do see the image of the hands on the hips, “Oh you. Stop this nasty behavior” kind of tone tone. That’s one of the reasons we wanted Mila for this. We tried to make sure it wasn’t that on the page, but even where we missed spots, Mila was there to very shrewdly, with laser-light precision, make sure that that did not happen. And the character has a very valid point. In a lot of ways, she had the hardest job in the movie, but in a lot of ways, it’s the character with the most realistic goal because she has this guy who’s very childish and she likes those things about him. She likes the fact that he’s not perfect. She likes the challenge of maybe having to fix this guy, a little bit. But, at the same time, in the higher part of her brain, she wants the stability, she wants the responsible boyfriend who’s going to step up. That’s very, I hope, very relatable. I think her beef with him is legit, in the movie.

 

The music of Ted.

They’re song choices that fit with the movie. I’m a film score junkie. I’m the world’s biggest John Williams fan. I wanted this movie to have a classic film score because I felt like what it would do, it would play against the edginess of the comedy and earn you some of the harder jokes. You kind of have to have that to balance things out. With “Family Guy” for years that’s what we’ve done is we’ve got these hard-edged jokes but we have a pretty serious musical style. I think it works in tandem with each other.

 

Technical question: designing Ted.

As far as the bear’s design, I wanted to keep it very simple. There’s a style of 2D animation that “The Simpsons” employs and that “Family Guy” employs. I use Homer as an example. When Homer Simpson is being addressed and he’s just sitting there listening, it’s a blank stare. It’s just a blank, wide-eyed stare and there’s something 100 times funnier about that than if there were a series of Disney-esque subtle reactions because each audience member can kind of imprint what they think is going on inside his head based on their own bullsh*t. I wanted to do the same thing with Ted and oftentimes CG characters are so humanlike that they come off kind of creepy looking. Did you ever see Jack Frost, that movie with Michael Keaton, that terrifying snowman that just gave you nightmares? That would be an example of CG gone wrong, and they all acknowledged it after that movie. And I wanted to keep Ted simple. His eyes are very kind of blank. There’s a little expressiveness with the eyebrows but it’s a pretty simple design and that was deliberate. I wanted to leave enough to the imagination that what that expression is or what that thought process is would be maybe a little different for each audience member.

 

We ask if the special effects were a bigger pain in the ass than he expected.

No, the special effects were surprisingly a smooth part of the process. We were trying a fairly new technique of doing it all live on set, to get a sort of improvisational feel, but it went surprisingly smooth. We had two great studios, Tippett and Iloura, that just knocked it out of the park for us.

 

We follow up asking how much of Ted’s dialogue was rewritten in post-production.

Yeah, we had a little bit of liberty to do new Ted lines in post, in case something didn’t work. That was kind of a luxury that we took advantage of. We would screen the movie and if something didn’t work we’d try a different line at the next screening. That’s one of the good things about an animated character.