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MacFarlane has a plan for hosting the Oscars show

FILE - This Oct. 1, 2011 file photo shows Seth MacFarlane in Los Angeles. NBC announced Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012, that Seth MacFarlane will host“Saturday Night Live' for its 38th season premiere on Sept. 15. Musical guest will be Frank Ocean. The multitalented MacFarlane created the Fox series “Family Guy” and serves as writer, producer and voice artist on the show. He recently directed his first feature film, “Ted,” and furnished the voice for its teddy-bear title character. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles, file)

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By USA Today
Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013, 11:33 a.m.

Seth MacFarlane knows hosting the Academy Awards can be a sink-or-swim deal — especially for a first-timer.

But the rookie insists that he has a plan, even if it does sound fishy.

“They say look and find a friendly face in the audience. I'm probably going to find Denzel Washington or maybe Joaquin Phoenix,” he says with a straight face. “Actually, I am very fond of my (Siamese fighting) fish, and I'm going to take the tank and put it right in the front row. If I get nervous, I'll look at the betta.”

MacFarlane, 39, is going to need all the friendly faces he can find Sunday night as he takes on one of the most high-pressure gigs in entertainment in front of a potential worldwide audience of more than a billion. The creator and behind-the-scenes force of popular TV series such as “Family Guy” and “American Dad,” as well as this summer's raunchy comedy flick “Ted,” hopes he can attract younger viewers to the program. At the same time, he needs to satisfy a theater full of Hollywood's biggest stars, nervous about their Oscar-award chances.

“It's a tough gig,” says MacFarlane's friend, comedian Bill Maher. “We've seen a lot of people crash and burn doing this. There's a lot of anxiety in the room during the night.”

There are also a lot of people counting on MacFarlane to turn the recent tide of declining Oscar viewership. Though it's usually the year's second-most-watched show, after the Super Bowl, its ratings have been all over the map in the past five years: a low of 32 million viewers in 2008, a high of 41.7 million in 2010, and 39.3 million last year.

Oscar producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan insist MacFarlane represents a powerful draw for the masses, especially the younger ones.

“The Oscars have been criticized for seemingly not being relevant,” Meron says, “and that goes to our choice of Seth. He's a reflection of the current pop culture and completely relevant. We love that.”

Tom O'Neil, editor of the Oscar blog, says the academy has looked in vain to find a host who can provide star quality and reach out to a broader demographic —from David Letterman to Jon Stewart to Chris Rock (“They were all great comedians, but miscast on the Oscar stage,” says O'Neil) to 2011's debacle with no-chemistry hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway.

“That backfired so spectacularly because they were casting for the demographics rather than who is best for the job,” O'Neil says. “That's what makes this choice compelling. It's a dangerous choice in more ways than one. We're handing the Oscar holy torch to the man most people know by his fictitious character Stewie (from ‘Family Guy'), who is this diabolical character. It's brilliant, and it shows just how courageous the Oscars are. I think he's going to be one of the great Oscar hosts.”

Even the question of how far MacFarlane will take his comedy — he is the R-rated host of Comedy Central's celebrity roasts — can bring in more curious viewers.

“It's the unpredictable quality of the show,” Zadan says. “With certain hosts, you sort of know what the show is going to be. With Seth, no one knows what the show is going to be.”

That will remain an academy secret until curtain time, as MacFarlane will give only a few clues.

“There is a certain element, even in the days when Johnny Carson was there, of roasting,” says MacFarlane. “It's just a matter of how black the meat gets. I'm going somewhere from medium to medium-well.”

But he vows that no matter where the humor goes, the show will remain family-friendly — as long as it's a modern family.

“The Oscars will still be something a family in 2013 can sit down and watch and be just fine with,” he says. “A family in 1955 might have some issue with it. In 2013, everyone will be fine. Then again, I'm not married, and I don't have kids. And my mother was saying (nasty things) out loud by the time I was 5. So maybe I'm the wrong guy to ask.”

As for the hosting, MacFarlane insists the rules do not change on the mechanics no matter what the forum. It's about adjusting the specifics, finding the right tone and getting into the audience's living room.

To aid this, he met Billy Crystal at the nine-time Oscar host's office. Crystal was helpful with a list of do's and don'ts, ranging from telling MacFarlane to get used to his show shoes (“I'm wearing them to rehearsals now”) to broader topics like dealing with stars in the theater.

“He said, ‘Don't cut them deeply right off the bat. Because you are not part of the club,' ” MacFarlane says. “Which is true. I'm not Robert De Niro getting up there. I've made one movie. It's all about balance. In one form or another, that's what this comes down to.”

And the ardent whiskey drinker admits that he'll take a calming tipple before the show starts.

“I'll have a thimble-full before I go out there,” he says, joking that he'll consume more as the show progresses. “But we'll wait until 30 minutes in before that happens.”

No matter what, MacFarlane insists it is going to be a one-time gig.

“Actually, just thinking about getting out of there in one piece, I'll take that,” he says. “And that Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington didn't corner me in the hallway afterward and go all Matt Dillon on me.”

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