You would think that Seth MacFarlane, creator of the hit animated TV show "Family Guy," has collected enough artistic titles at this point. He is an animator, screenwriter, actor, composer, director, producer and Grammy-nominated singer. Now he is adding another lofty label to his expanding resume: novelist.
His latest project, a comic western titled "A Million Ways to Die in the West," is being published next week by Ballantine Books, nearly three months before the premiere of a film of the same name. Mr. MacFarlane also co-wrote, directed, produced and starred in the movie.
Like most everything Mr. MacFarlane does, the novel is packed with raunchy, twisted jokes that push the boundary between spit-take humor and poor taste. The prose is peppered with gags about infanticide, child brides, bestiality, incest and one of his comic staples, diarrhea (Mr. MacFarlane identifies himself as a "dysentery enthusiast" on his Twitter profile).
The story opens in Arizona in 1882 as Albert Stark, a timid sheep farmer who despises living on the frontier, tries to talk his way out of a gunfight with an irate rancher. Then his girlfriend dumps him, his mother dies, a string of women reject him and he manages to cross the deadliest outlaw in the region.
Mr. MacFarlane, 40, had an advantage over most debut novelists when he started writing the novel about a year ago. He had already fleshed out the story as a screenplay. In an inversion of the usual adaptation process, Mr. MacFarlane reverse-engineered "A Million Ways to Die in the West" from a script he co-wrote with his friends and frequent collaborators, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. The novel largely sticks to the contours of the film. But Mr. MacFarlane and his publisher are aiming to give the book a life of its own and establish his credentials as a novelist by releasing it three months ahead of the movie.
"We see this as the beginning of his career as a novelist and want it to be treated as its own thing, not as a piece of tie-in movie merchandise," said Jennifer Hershey, senior vice president and editor in chief at Ballantine Bantam Dell.
For Mr. MacFarlane, a rising Hollywood mogul who presides over the hugely lucrative "Family Guy" empire, writing a novel may simply be another creative itch to scratch. "It seemed like a fun challenge to see whether our story did indeed have actual legs and could sustain itself in this form," he said. "It felt like a nice potential teaser for the movie."
As a longtime fan of Western films and novels by Louis L'Amour, Mr. MacFarlane wanted to bring his own cynical sensibility to the genre. The story has all the hallmarks of a classic Western—gunfights, a stagecoach robbery, hostile Indians—but Mr. MacFarlane mocks those tropes at every turn. Albert bows out of the gunfight—though he does manage to get a few verbal jabs in as he ribs his opponent for showing up late, saying, "I guess high noon to you means 12:15?"
There is the clichéd brothel worker with a heart of gold, but she is hilariously bad at talking dirty to her customers, and makes passionate exclamations like "it's such a treat!" Albert's encounter with a group of Apaches goes off the rails when they peer-pressure him into taking hallucinogens. "That was for the entire tribe!" the chief yells when Albert sucks down a bowl of hallucinogenic liquid. "You're totally going to freak out."
The novel is likely to be polarizing—with some finding it bitingly funny and fresh and others dismissing it as juvenile—much like his animated shows and his blockbuster 2012 comedy "Ted," about a hard-partying, foul-mouthed talking teddy bear (voiced by Mr. MacFarlane).
"You hear his voice in everything that he does. That has been true for his fans whether it is 'Family Guy,' or 'American Dad,' or 'Ted,' which was literally his voice," said Mr. Sulkin, who co-wrote 'A Million Ways to Die in the West.' "With the western, they're going to hear a different shade of his voice."
"A Million Ways to Die in the West" grew out of a long-running inside joke between Mr. MacFarlane, Mr. Sulkin and another longtime collaborator, Mr. Wild. The three men have worked together for around a decade as co-writers on "Family Guy" and "Ted." Several years ago, they started joking about how depressing and dull it must have been to live in the Old West.
"There would be nothing to do. You would rise and go to sleep with the sun," Mr. MacFarlane said. "It takes three hours to get into town from your cabin, and when you get there, there's like, one restaurant."
He suggested they turn the extended riff into a movie. They modeled it partly on Mel Brooks's "Blazing Saddles" and on Woody Allen's "Love and Death," which features Mr. Allen as a cowardly soldier during the Napoleonic wars. Like Mr. Allen's character, Albert feels like he is living in the wrong century. "It's a time-travel story without time travel," Mr. MacFarlane said.
The script came together just as Mr. MacFarlane was extending his brand of off-color comedy to film. His first feature, "Ted," which starred Mark Wahlberg, became the highest grossing original R-rated comedy, pulling in $549 million globally. Studios were hounding him for his next movie.
Universal Pictures snapped up the Western. Mr. MacFarlane claimed the lead role for himself. He plays Albert, a snarky, insecure, sharply observant character whose cynical outlook closely resembles his creator's. He assembled a star-studded cast that includes Charlize Theron as Anna, Albert's sharpshooting and witty love interest; Liam Neeson as the grizzled gunslinger Clinch Leatherwood; Neil Patrick Harris as Foy, the rakish owner of the town's "moustachery," and Sarah Silverman as Ruth, the earnest, hardworking prostitute.
While the cast was in Santa Fe, N.M., shooting the film, Mr. MacFarlane spent his nights and weekends in his hotel room, working on the novel. He didn't tell anyone he was writing it until it was done. "We rib each other a lot, and I knew that if I mentioned it I would start getting the same kind of s— that Stewie gives Brian about his novel on 'Family Guy,'" he said. "And if I didn't manage to finish it, I would have gotten double the amount of s—."
As he continues to take on new formats, Mr. MacFarlane—a workaholic who was once hospitalized for exhaustion after working every day for 15 months straight—may run the risk of overextending himself and diluting his brand. His much-hyped relaunch of "The Flintstones" fizzled at Fox and never aired. Another project, the Fox sitcom "Dads," on which Mr. MacFarlane is an executive producer, has gotten mediocre ratings and abysmal reviews.
But Mr. MacFarlane seems to thrive on creative chaos and experimentation. He's an executive producer on "Cosmos," a reboot of Carl Sagan's beloved science-documentary series, which starts next week. Mr. MacFarlane is executive-producing another animated comedy at Fox, "Bordertown," about a Texas border-patrol agent. He's writing "Ted 2." And he'd like to write another novel.
"I'd like to do one from scratch next time," he said. "Having written a screenplay is like writing the world's greatest outline for yourself before you sit down to write a book. In a way, I suppose it's cheating."
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