Bryan Alexander, USA TODAY
BEVERLY HILLS - Seth MacFarlane knows hosting the Academy Awards can be a sink-or-swim deal - especially for a first-timer.
But the rookie insists 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 (ABC, 7 p.m. ET/4 PT). The creator and behind-the-scenes force behind 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 chances.
"It's a tough gig," says comedian Bill Maher, a friend of MacFarlane's. "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 also are 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.
At the same time, attendance in movie theaters had been falling until a slight uptick in 2012.
Oscar producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan say MacFarlane represents a powerful draw for the masses, especially the younger masses.
"The Oscars have been criticized for seemingly not being relevant," says Meron, "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 Goldderby.com, says the film academy has long 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," says O'Neil. "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 open 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," says Zadan. "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, since MacFarlane gives only a few clues.
"There is a certain element, even in the days when (five-time host) 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."
MacFarlane is game for any question during an extended Valentine's Day discussion on the outdoor patio of the Beverly Hills Hotel, where he shows up, apologetically, a half-hour late for an interview in jeans, a slightly unkempt gray T-shirt and a Boston Red Sox cap pulled low over his head.
"Every once in a while, like this morning, my body just says we are keeping you unconscious for another two hours," he says. "Your body will allow you to push yourself so far and then it just kind of takes over."
His first night of seven-hour sleep in weeks was worth it, but he's still "the dictionary definition of over-scheduled," he says. "I am nowhere near on time."
It's something he had to consider when being offered the gig in September. MacFarlane was immediately on board, despite his packed TV schedule - especially with Family Guy, which he maintains a heavy creative stake in as well as voicing four of the main characters.
"Oddly, I had no reservations," he says. "Subsequently, the thought crossed my mind maybe I am in over my head. But we've all worked so hard on this program. If this thing tanks, it won't be for lack of preparation. I will have put five months of work into this."
The producers have tantalizingly leaked a few details of the show: It will be full of musical performances, including Barbra Streisand singing for the first time at the Oscars in 36 years, and Adele performing the theme from Skyfall. MacFarlane, who has recorded an album of pop standards, also will show off his pipes, but it definitely will not be in a Streisand duet ("She'll do just fine on her own").
He'll also dance, something that is out of his comfort zone. "It's coming along," he insists. "I'll get by."
As for the hosting, MacFarlane says 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 Beverly Hills office. Crystal was helpful with a list of do's and don't's, ranging from telling MacFarlane to get used to his show shoes ("I'm wearing them to rehearsals now," says MacFarlane) to broader topics such as dealing with the 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."
MacFarlane has tipped his comedic hand by giving some barbs when he announced the Academy Award nominations in January, and he managed to get the word "erection" into one Oscar promotion - though ABC would not allow it on the airwaves.
"There was a big fight about it with Broadcast Standards," says MacFarlane. "I even went so far as to call my friends at Fox Broadcast Standards and asked if there was any way to win this."
The promo appeared online only at first, though later it ran on ESPN. MacFarlane admits there have been some "lively discussions" with the traditionally conservative academy about some content.
"But the academy has been extremely open-minded to things which I am sure give them pause in some ways," he says, adding that all parties (producers, academy and host) are on the same page.
"Even if I wanted to turn this into a Comedy Central roast, I'm not an idiot," says MacFarlane. "It would crash and burn because this is just not the audience for it. It just wouldn't work."
There will be sendups of the leading stars and leading movies. MacFarlane goes on a roll talking about the best-picture nominated Les Misérables.
"When Anne Hathaway was doing her big solo, all I could think of was, 'Wow, she seems fantastic, but I really want to give her a Kleenex. There's that mucus puddle right there in the left nostril. Is there a way we can take that out in post (production)?"
"That's not one of my jokes, fyi. That's just me commenting. There are a lot of great movies that are ripe for lampooning."
He's also blessed by a year with vigorous box-office results for the Oscar-nominated films, which should secure an engaged audience. But that doesn't entirely relieve the tension in these days before the big night. At points during the outdoor interview, MacFarlane fears the Southern California sun will give his face a distorted sunburn for the show.
"I'm petrified," he says. "I don't want to walk out of here looking like the Frank Gorshin episode of Star Trek."
And the ardent whiskey drinker admits 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 says, it will be a one-off hosting gig. The schedule has been too demanding to consider another crack.
"We've done our prep work. We've worked really hard on this," he says. "Whether it sinks or swims is out of our hands. We think we've come up with a really fresh take on this."
After the show and the glitzy post-show parties, MacFarlane says, he'll be looking forward to relaxing at his Beverly Hills home, where he's building a library. His idea of a vacation will be hitting growing stacks of unread books by the fire with a cigar, perhaps mulling an Oscar success.
"Actually just thinking about getting out of there in one piece, I'll take that," says MacFarlane. "And that Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington didn't corner me in the hallway afterwards and go all Matt Dillon on me."