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Seth MacFarlane bringing a surprise factor as Oscar host

By Piya Sinha-Roy

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Oscar night traditionally comes packed with shocks and upsets for the winners, but on Sunday the biggest surprise could be the host - provocative comedian, actor and singer Seth MacFarlane.

MacFarlane, 39, the creator of the edgy animated TV series "Family Guy," "American Dad" and "The Cleveland Show," has awards watchers and audiences intrigued as to what he has up his sleeve for the movie industry's biggest night.

"We love the expectation of the newness of Seth and we love the fact that people don't quite know what they're going to get with him as a host. We think it adds to the speculation and the interest in the show," said Neil Meron, who is co-producing the Academy Awards telecast for the first time with Craig Zadan.

Zadan and Meron, who produced the film version of musical "Chicago" as well as Broadway shows, recruited MacFarlane last year, saying his skills "blend perfectly with our ideas for making the show entertaining and fresh."

After 2011's much-panned "youth Oscars" with hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway, and 2012's return to tradition with nine-time master of ceremonies Billy Crystal, Sunday's three-hour Academy Awards show will be all about the unexpected.

MacFarlane has often come under fire from U.S. watchdog groups for making crude jokes. The Parents Television Council regularly ranks "Family Guy" among their "worst prime-time shows for family viewing" on the grounds that it may include gratuitous sex or obscene language.

But while the star-studded audience at Sunday's ceremony may be squirming in their seats in anticipation of MacFarlane's barbs, Meron and Zadan say they are not worried.

"We're not nervous because everything he writes, he runs by us," Zadan told Reuters.

Still, the audience inside Hollywood's Dolby Theatre and an estimated one billion watching on TV around the world can expect to see some the improvisation skills MacFarlane's showed off when hosting "Saturday Night Live" in September.

On that live venue, MacFarlane impersonated Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte and "Star Trek" actor George Takei.

"We live for the moments that happen on stage. Those are some of the great Oscar moments of the past. ... We hope there are moments where Seth can be completely spontaneous because that makes for a better show," Meron said.

"TED" APPEAL

Compared to well-known hosts from previous years such as Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin and Ellen DeGeneres, MacFarlane is better known by the numerous voices on his animated television shows and is not a regular in the Hollywood movie or TV scene.

The comedian has been playing up his outsider status in Oscar promotions. "Hi, I'm Seth MacFarlane - ask your kids - and I'll be hosting The Academy Awards - ask your parents," he quips in one video.

But MacFarlane holds strong appeal in a demographic highly desired by the Oscar organizers and advertisers - the coveted 18-49 audience who love his animated shows.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which hands out the Oscars, has struggled in recent years to appeal to a younger audience. More than 39 million Americans tuned in to watch Crystal take the helm in 2012, but some critics called the show old-fashioned.

MacFarlane earned his movie credentials last year after his raunchy directorial debut with "Ted," about a foul-mouthed pot-smoking teddy bear, became the highest-grossing R-rated original comedy in movie history.

The film's star Mark Wahlberg will be joining the naughty bear on stage on Sunday to present an award.

MacFarlane has also showcased his singing talents on "Family Guy," with big musical numbers such as the catchy "Shipoopi" from Broadway hit "The Music Man" and a cheeky musical retort to federal TV regulators.

The host is also nominated for an Oscar for writing the lyrics to "Everybody Needs a Best Friend" from "Ted."

"You don't hire Seth MacFarlane and not have tons of comedy. Because Seth also has a beautiful voice, it allows a host who does a lot of comedy and sings beautifully. So we are going to make use of his ability as a singer," Zadan said.

(Reporting By Piya Sinha-Roy, Editing by Jill Serjeant and Todd Eastham)

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