It’s no secret that American Dad! started life in 2005 as a tweak on the established Family Guy formula, which was already a tweak on the Simpsons formula, which was itself a tweak on decades of sitcom tropes. The animated series was picked up by Fox in the brief window after Family Guy ended its original abbreviated run but before that show was revived as a now-permanent fixture on the Fox lineup. American Dad!’s most explicit difference from Family Guy was a reliance on political humor, with the writers choosing timely cultural references or direct nods to the goings-on of the George W. Bush administration over the cutaway-heavy humor and wacky randomness of Family Guy.
However, even that one thing that separated American Dad! from Family Guy in the beginning wasn’t very original: It was just a modern take on All In The Family, with Republican CIA agent Stan Smith as a heightened parody of “truthiness”-era conservatism and his hippie daughter Hayley as a toothless “both sides are equally dumb” parody of feckless, early-2000s liberalism.
That was the core relationship that American Dad! was built on, but the rest of the family was similarly conventional: Stan’s wife, Francine, was the clichéd sitcom housewife with no life of her own, and his son, Steve, was a huge embarrassing nerd. Then there were the two wildcards: Klaus, a talking goldfish who has the brain of an Olympic skier from Germany, and Roger, an alien who lives in the Smith’s attic. Klaus’ superfluousness to the family is basically the whole point (one recent episode was about him faking his death and learning that the Smiths’ mutual hatred for him is what keeps the family together), but Roger was designed to be the show’s breakout character—the Urkel, the Barney Stinson, the Kramer, or (to put a finer point on it) the ALF.
Speaking with The A.V. Club back in 2012, American Dad! showrunners Mike Barker and Matt Weitzman explained that Roger really was originally just ALF, albeit with more Fox-appropriate sensibilities, and he was where American Dad! co-creator (and Roger and Stan voice actor) Seth MacFarlane’s worst Family Guy sensibilities came through. Like ALF, Roger would mostly just stay at home and comment on whatever was happening with the rest of the family; basically, he was a more energetic and depraved version of Brian from Family Guy. And, like Brian from Family Guy, this version of Roger was awful. He wasn’t funny or clever, he was just an exaggerated version of a sitcom trope who made jokes about sex and alcoholism and just happened to be an alien. For example, a weird amount of Roger’s early storylines involved an obsession with junk food, like with him making a deal with Hayley in the pilot to do her homework in exchange for sugar after Francine puts him on a diet. Any show could do that with any character, and it’s emblematic of the fact that American Dad! had no idea what it was doing early on.
But then something unexpected happened: Family Guy returned, Seth MacFarlane could once again focus on the baby he actually liked, and Barker and Weitzman were left to figure out how to make American Dad! work without him. As they explained in that 2012 interview, the political humor they were doing was always in danger of instantly becoming dated, so it was dialed back in favor of an emphasis on the absurd reality that the show already took place in. The writers generally played this up by taking on an trite storyline—say, Stan has been spending a lot of time with his friends and Francine is jealous—and then pushing it as far as possible into absurdity, with, say, Francine putting on a high-tech “man suit,” complete with emergency fart button, so she can pose as an agent from the CIA’s Chicago office and pull sausage with Stan’s guy friends.
The change made to Roger, though, has been the most significant. At some point between the early years and the 300th episode, which airs tonight, American Dad! came up with the idea of going all-in on Roger’s “personas”—elaborate costumes that reflect completely different characters and personalities that he can take on whenever a plot requires it. Sometimes it’s just a fake mustache and a sweater for when someone’s at the house who doesn’t know he’s an alien. Other times it’s literally every store owner or ghost-hunting medium or member of the Nerd Brigade trying to fix the TV that Stan’s father-in-law broke on Thanksgiving. Sometimes it’s even Ricky Spanish, a character so dark and hateful that he embodies all of Roger’s worst impulses in one cool vest and ironic T-shirt.
By focusing on Roger’s personas, the writers turned him into someone who is obsessed with stories—specifically the stories that he can create by pretending to be a completely different person—and that made American Dad!’s stories better as a whole. Roger can be anyone and do anything, which means individual episodes can also do anything, no matter how weird it may be (and it is often very weird). Roger’s been a horse, Kevin Bacon, a couple different psychiatrists, an honest politician in Nevada trying to stop a chemical company called Tetradual from polluting the water supply, a yoga instructor/cult leader, half of private investigator duo Wheels and The Legman, a veteran rock band groupie named Abbey Road, a pet store employee who has only earned a single mouse on his nametag, a member of the 1980 “Miracle On Ice” Olympic hockey team, a football fan named Raider Dave, Julia Roberts’ character from Sleeping With The Enemy, a police academy rookie who becomes a crooked cop after five minutes on the force, and the corrupt CEO of a company called Tetradual that’s been polluting the water supply in Nevada. Roger has even sort of given birth a few times, first to Hayley’s husband Jeff (it’s too complicated to explain) and then to a sentient tumor thing named Rogu (also too complicated to explain).
Across all of those identities, though, the smartest thing that American Dad! has done to make Roger a special character is to regularly reiterate that the Smiths choose to keep him around. We know they all love Roger because they actually say it from time to time, and in the episodes where he tries to leave or gets kicked out, the Smiths either immediately replace him with another “fey, pansexual, alcoholic non-human” (specifically Andy Dick, whose appearance in one episode is essentially a parody of old Roger), or they do whatever they can to get him back. That’s also largely what the 300th episode is about, with the payoff to a running gag about a One Ring-esque golden turd that Roger pooped out in the first season forcing the Smiths to recognize how important he has become to their lives—and, somehow, to the world. Roger may be a creep, but as the show has evolved, American Dad! has made a compelling case for why he deserves to be loved.