Seth MacFarlane's 'Ted' adds a bit of soul and sincerity with the requisite raunch
The scene could be right out of an episode of "Family Guy." A man wearing a turban orders at the deli counter of Beverly Hills' famous eatery Nate ‘n Al. An older gentleman pushes a walker into the restaurant's doorway, while two yarmulke-wearing boys are greeted with a "Shalom" by the Hispanic hostess. The only thing missing is Quahog, R.I.'s most famous resident, Peter Griffin, uttering some obliviously offensive statement about one of the patrons.
Yet Seth MacFarlane, the man behind the proudly politically incorrect Fox animated series and the new R-rated movie comedy "Ted," slid into a booth on a recent afternoon without even a passingly inappropriate peep. Polite and easy with a laugh, MacFarlane peppers his conversation with "Star Trek" references and musical-theater jokes, not the crass humor and snide one-liners that define his signature comic voice.
"It's either all or nothing," MacFarlane, 38, said of his equal-opportunity offensive approach. "You either make fun of nobody or you make fun of everybody equally. You can't just make fun of black people or white people or Asian people. Well, I guess you could just make fun of white people and everything would be fine. But that's what we do every week through Peter Griffin."
"Ted," which opened Friday, hits all the required "Family Guy" notes: ethnic slurs, sexual gags and ridiculous farce, not to mention a few pop-culture cutaways. The movie's star is a teddy bear who comes to life when his child owner wishes he were real; years later, he's a party animal with a penchant for drugs, cheap women and anything involving Flash Gordon. Now a grown man, his owner, John (played by Mark Wahlberg), can't quite seem to part with Ted, even as their relationship creates problems with his girlfriend (Mila Kunis).
Despite its brazenly raunchy spirit, the film also has a sincerity you wouldn't expect from a writer-director who built a career on the back of a protagonist whose chin resembles a crude illustration of a pair of testicles.
"We didn't want to do an episode of ‘Family Guy,' " said MacFarlane, who co-wrote the "Ted" screenplay with Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. " ‘Family Guy' does have a sweetness, but often enough it tends to get broken with a joke. This movie was different; we wanted it to have the feel of an R-rated ‘E.T.' "
MacFarlane, who also created the adult-themed cartoon shows "American Dad" and "The Cleveland Show," initially hit upon the idea for "Ted" as a potential animated television series, but he became fascinated with using the technology invented for big-budget action movies on a smaller-scale comedy. Ultimately "Ted's" special-effects team used the same process that transformed Sigourney Weaver into a 10-foot-tall blue alien for James Cameron's "Avatar" to realistically render the character for the $50 million film. MacFarlane voiced and performed the animated character wearing a motion-capture suit.
"There has never been a lead actor in an R-rated comedy that's an effect," said Modi Wiczyk, co-chairman and co-CEO of Media Rights Capital, the company that financed the film before selling it to Universal Pictures. "We had to get it exactly right to make it believable at all."
Finding the right partner for Ted also was critical. Although Seth Rogen and Ryan Reynolds were considered to play slacker John, MacFarlane sparked to Wahlberg playing the affable loser once he saw his comedic turn in the Will Farrell buddy comedy "The Other Guys."
"The script didn't call for broad comedy all the way through," MacFarlane said. "It called for funny, but it also required a subtle performance from him to make the bear seem all the more real. Mark was the only guy I could see who could pull that off."
Still, convincing Wahlberg to act opposite a foul-mouthed animated bear wasn't easy. The 41-year-old actor, who had never seen "Family Guy," wasn't initially interested, even though the film is set in his hometown of Boston.
"It's a hard movie to describe — a kid with no friends has a bear and he wishes it comes to life and it does. That was basically the pitch. When I told my wife that, she said, ‘Oh my God, that will end your career,' " said Wahlberg with a laugh.
For their scenes together, Wahlberg listened to the wicked Boston accent Connecticut-native MacFarlane used for the bear piped in through an earpiece. And for a sequence that called for the longtime friends to brawl in a hotel room, Wahlberg spent a week slamming his body against the wall, the floor, across a bed, either holding a stuffed bear torso or with furry legs strapped to his shoulders.
"I hated the idea of doing it. I just felt so ridiculous flailing around by myself in this room with the crew watching me," he said. "I didn't think it would make it into the movie, but a lot of people I talk to all talk about that scene, so what do I know?"
MacFarlane compares the scene to something you'd see in "The Bourne Identity." "It's something I look at now and I'm pretty proud of it. I haven't seen that elsewhere, and it plays just as real as we wanted it to," he said.
While "Ted" might be MacFarlane's most high-profile project at the moment, it's not the only new endeavor for the perfectionist who refuses to leave a scoring session until the music is just right. Last year he released an album of jazz standards called "Music Is Better Than Words" in which he croons favorites from the big-band era, and he has signed a deal with Fox to revitalize the 1980 documentary miniseries "Cosmos" with Carl Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan.
The 13-part docu-series, co-produced with the National Geographic Channel, is scheduled to air in 2013.
With "Family Guy" just wrapping its 10th season, MacFarlane's career is at something of a crossroads. While the show is scheduled to continue for another season, he worries about overstaying his welcome on the small screen.
"If I'm being objective, can I think of any television shows that have gone beyond nine seasons and have gotten better?" MacFarlane said. "I can't think of one."
A "Family Guy" movie has been talked about for years, but MacFarlane has no plans for additional films.