Seth MacFarlane on Moving ‘Orville’ From Fox to “Classier” Hulu, Comedy’s Controversies and His ‘Ted’ Hopes

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Seth MacFarlane is focusing on the future, for better or worse.

For the prolific producer and performer, not to mention noted sci-fi fanatic, this means he’s ready for viewers to finally enjoy his futuristic series The Orville: New Horizons, of which he is creator and star, playing Captain Ed Mercer. The show first premiered back in the fall of 2017 on Fox and has evolved quite a bit from the first season, which included plenty of comedy amid space-battle tension.

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After two seasons on Fox, the series has shifted to Hulu for season three, which launches June 2 and promises to be the most dramatic and action-driven one yet. It’s clear that MacFarlane, whose first series Family Guy still airs on Fox, is not wistful about Orville’s old home, as he told attendees at its season three premiere event attended by The Hollywood Reporter that it’s “an absolute thrill” to have left the network behind.

As for the future of The Orville, it’s unclear if a fourth season is in the cards, as the castmembers’ contracts have already expired. For now, everyone seems focused on wanting fans to enjoy season three, which is dedicated to the late Norm Macdonald, who reprises his voice role as the ship’s gelatinous engineer Yaphit in the new batch of episodes. Also hazy is what the future looks like for the progressive causes that MacFarlane champions, as he explains in the below sit-down with THR.

During the interview, MacFarlane discusses the notes he’s received from Hulu, the fact that he was three whiskeys deep before taking the stage as the 2013 Oscars host, what he would advise people who are frustrated by Dave Chappelle’s jokes and why he feels “a little detached” from some of his shows.

What evolution did The Orville undergo amid the change from Fox to Hulu?

The biggest change is in tone. Not even so much on the page — we really landed on that in season two. We had kind of moved away from the punchline model and really leaned into letting the comedy come out of these characters and their personalities, and just being a real workplace. It’s full of jeopardy and things we never have to deal with in our workplaces, but it’s still a bunch of people working together, and the personalities have to feel real. So, that’s changed.

The biggest difference for me being on Hulu is that I don’t have to tell a story that’s exactly 43 minutes long every week because I have to make room for a certain number of commercials. That’s not how storytelling works — different stories are different lengths, and you start to fall into this cadence where you’re shaving scenes down, you’re cutting things that don’t need to be cut. The best part about being on Hulu is that those moments where you want to linger on an actor’s face because it’s meaningful and it helps to tell the story? You can do that. You have the time; you can be indulgent in that way.

The Orville: New Horizons: Capt. Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane), Lt. Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes), Lt. Cmdr. Bortys (Peter Macon) and Cmdr. Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki). - Credit: Courtesy of Michael Desmond/Hulu
The Orville: New Horizons: Capt. Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane), Lt. Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes), Lt. Cmdr. Bortys (Peter Macon) and Cmdr. Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki). - Credit: Courtesy of Michael Desmond/Hulu

Courtesy of Michael Desmond/Hulu

Do the notes differ in terms of what you would hear from Fox compared to now?

Yeah, there’s a lot less… not gonna go there. (Laughs.) Yes, it’s definitely different than being on Fox. Certainly, it’s a classier association. (Laughs.) But I do think, from an executive standpoint now, we were really supported by Hulu. I’m trying to think of any point where they really gutted [an episode], and they didn’t. They’ve given us really intelligent notes. They don’t give notes unless they have notes, which is always, to me, the sign of a smart executive. They’re not just talking to hear themselves talk.

The thing that’s going to surprise audiences the most is going to be the scope. As the season goes along, it gets more and more and more expansive — at the same time, the stories are always about the characters. We never let the visual effects become the narrative. But when they’re there, our visual effects team has done some pretty impressive work this year, as great as anything I’ve seen on TV. I’m excited for people to see it.

In the first episode of season three, we see the impact of Isaac’s (Mark Jackson) deadly actions from last season. The episode seems to almost be looking at cancel culture and what could be next after someone does something wrong. Was there an element of that to the episode?

Not specifically — that’s an interesting way to look at it. It was a little bit drier, I suppose — initially, this idea of, at what point does an A.I. start to be vulnerable to the same kind of emotional trappings that we are? Isaac really has done a terrible thing. So that’s a very specific situation, but certainly, how do you find ways to coexist with people who seemingly are so absolutely far gone and so different from you in personal and political philosophy? That’s a big part of the season, and not specific to cancel culture — more to a general, “Can the wounds be healed? Can we coexist with each other?” Finding that allegorically through fictional alien races with prosthetics on their faces is fun from a writing standpoint.

The Orville was never a straight comedy, but it was certainly more comedic earlier on, whereas the types of prestige shows that get attention these days are typically on the serious side. Has respect for comedy diminished, and does your sense of wanting to tell weightier stories feel more prevalent right now?

No, not necessarily. At the same time, I’m doing a Ted series for Peacock, so I’m obviously still living in that world. But for this genre of sci-fi, I will say, taking a little bit of the pressure off to not have to have a joke every page was very nice and made it a lot more of an organic writing process. Rod Serling’s biography was called TV’s Last Angry Man, and it told the story of this guy who had fought in World War II and who had seen all these terrible things and came back and wrote The Twilight Zone. It was because he was angry about injustice. Rather than watch the news and shout at the TV, it’s satisfying to channel some of that into storytelling. There’s just no better genre to me than sci-fi to do that because you can really find ways to engage that aren’t just preaching to the audience and proselytizing. The Orville is the most fun writing job I can remember in my career.

Ted, from left: Mark Wahlberg, Ted (voice: Seth MacFarlane), 2012 - Credit: Claire Folger/Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
Ted, from left: Mark Wahlberg, Ted (voice: Seth MacFarlane), 2012 - Credit: Claire Folger/Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Claire Folger/Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Obviously, you have a connection to the Oscars as a previous host, and to jokes that push boundaries and buttons. Do you have a take on where comedy is going, especially in light of the Oscars, and do you know how you would have handled the Oscars slap?

I don’t think anybody could have handled it better than Chris Rock. Of all comics to have that happen to, it’s a guy who’s universally beloved. Everybody loves Chris Rock. So if you’re gonna hit somebody… (Laughs.) I don’t know. First of all, the day that I did the Oscars, I had had about three whiskeys before I’d even walked on stage. So I probably wouldn’t have felt it much by that time in the show if it had happened to me. Look, comedy is in a strange place. I’ll say this: There’s a lot I read in the news and a lot I see on the news every day — obviously, right now — that makes me angry.

I have never felt that particular emotion after watching a comedy show or a sitcom or anything that’s designed to generate laughter, even if I think, “Man, that’s pushing it.” I don’t leave with that sense of anger — that’s what’s a little foreign to me. Obviously, the Roe v. Wade situation makes me very angry, and I don’t feel that anger when I watch Dave Chappelle. I’m having a laugh. It’s the old saying: Pick your battles. I think if we can do a little more of that, we can maybe find that a lot of us can unify ourselves a little more. Not all of us, but those of us who can be saved are kind of on the same side.

There’s an argument that it’s easy to get mad about the Oscars. It’s easy to get mad about comedy because it doesn’t really require a whole lot of work. It doesn’t require you to know history or science or math. But to dig in and get angry about, let’s say, a harmful bill that’s making its way through Congress, that takes a little bit more work. It takes some research, and it takes some some reading and some effort, and we don’t want to do that. It’s a lot easier to get pissed off at something a comedian says. So I do think that’s part of it. There is a laziness element to what we choose to allow ourselves to be enraged by.

The Orville feels cinematic, and now you’re turning Ted into a Peacock series. Does it feel easier to work on a series than to get a film made right now?

Look, at some point I’d love to do a film musical; I do love the film medium as a writer. I find television particularly fulfilling because you don’t have to tell one big make-or-break, live-or-die, world-ending story. If that story doesn’t work, you’re screwed. With television, you can experiment, you can try things and if it doesn’t work that week, there’s next week. You screw up enough times, then you’re off, but it gives you the canvas to experiment.

Certainly television has become more cinematic all across the board as the medium has changed. We’re absolutely in a peak era of television. You’re playing in a pretty intimidating field these days. I just watched Severance, and when I was a kid, you wouldn’t have been able to find this on TV. You’d find a great movie with a great sci-fi premise, but for something like this to be on television — I can watch it in my own home, first-run — the medium has changed.

With TBS moving away from scripted series of late, do you have a sense of what might be next for American Dad after its contract is up next year? 

American Dad is run by Matt Wiseman every day. I’ve been a little detached — I do the voices — but I have a cheat sheet somewhere. (Laughs.) I tend to kind of focus on one thing at a time.

What can you tease about the Ted series?

Ted, which is taking up a lot of my time right now, is a prequel, taking place in 1993. It centers around the period pretty shortly after Ted became kind of washed up, and he’s now living outside Boston with John and his family, and he’s forced to kind of make his way through high school. So it’s a piece of Ted’s life in between what you saw in the opening titles of the movie and in the opening montage, and where we find him with Mark Wahlberg that’s a part of that story we haven’t told yet. It turns out that it’s a pretty ripe area to draw from. Whether people still have an appetite for Ted remains to be seen. It’s a very specific kind of comedy, but we are allowing it to be what it is.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Hulu’s The Orville: New Horizons begins streaming June 2.

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