In the first of many signs that it would follow an unpredictable path, Family Guy was originally conceived as a series of bumpers for Mad TV, but it was rescued from obscurity when that plan fell through. Fox let Seth MacFarlane launch his series as a half-hour show that evolved into a pop-culture-savvy comedy about a loutish father, his practical wife, their three children, and their boozy, urbane talking dog. When Family Guy premièred in 1999, some derided it as a crass knockoff of The Simpsons, but it was always more whimsical and less derivative than its harshest critics insisted. Even the show's most notorious episode, "When You Wish Upon A Weinstein"–which Fox refused to run, fearing accusations of anti-Semitism–is fundamentally sweet and respectful, though characteristically irreverent, in its depiction of Judaism.
Fox canceled Family Guy in 2002, but recently ordered 35 more episodes. For network television, this is an unprecedented move, sparked by huge sales for the show's DVDs and shockingly high ratings for its reruns on TBS and the Cartoon Network, but above all, the fierce, undying devotion of a rabid cult following that simply would not let the show die.
MacFarlane possesses the wit of a sledgehammer satirist, but he also has the fanciful soul of a song-and-dance man, a quality that finds vibrant expression in Family Guy's many elaborate musical numbers. MacFarlane is now in charge of two shows simultaneously: the resurrected Family Guy and American Dad, an animated satire about a CIA agent, his family, an alien that talks like Paul Lynde, and a mutant goldfish. (American Dad premières after the Super Bowl on Feb. 6.) The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with MacFarlane about Family Guy's long, strange trip, DVD audio commentaries, his unrequited reverence for The Simpsons, and getting paid to talk to himself.
The Onion: Now that you have two shows, you're officially a TV mogul.
Seth MacFarlane: Yeah, it's interesting. I don't feel like one. Hopefully that doesn't scare away the funny.
O: It's got to be kind of amazing to think that DVD technology, which was just getting started when you began Family Guy, would help bring it back from the dead.
SM: I had always thought maybe, if we were lucky, we would get a shot at doing a direct-to-DVD feature or something. But as far as new episodes, that was the thing that took me by surprise. It's unheard of for a network to reverse a decision about cancellation, for no other reason, usually, than ego. Luckily for us, Fox is thinking in a business way rather than an ego way. It's good.
O: Once you saw the DVD sales and the Cartoon Network ratings, was an uncancellation ever in the back of your mind?
SM: No, no. Only in a "Boy, wouldn't that be cool, but it'll never actually happen" kind of way. There was a lot of press coming out about the show topping Leno and Letterman, and the DVD selling really well, and I thought "Maybe there will be some additional life for the show that will come out of this." But Fox had told us for so long that they were finished with the show. Certainly they were not expecting this kind of response to the DVD and the reruns. Even with all that was going on, I never in a million years would have thought that they would actually order more episodes.
O: You came up with Family Guy's voices before the character designs, right?
SM: Yeah. For the most part, at least for the characters that I voice on the show, that's usually how it works. I find it easier to come up with the personality first, figure out who the character is, then do the drawing after the fact. Stewie's head, for example, is shaped the way it is for no particular reason other than that was how the voice sounded like it should look. It's usually the voice and the personality that comes first.
O: He sounded like he should have a football-shaped head?
SM: [Laughs.] I sat at my desk, trying out different designs and different bizarre-looking head and body shapes. That one emerged as what the character sounded like he should look like.
O: How did you end up doing so many voices on the show?
SM: Part of it was the fact that there was no money, initially. Part of it is that it's just the way I like to work. I like the freedom of being able to just get in there and do it myself. To look at a storyboard and be involved with what the visual acting looks like, as well as the voice acting, is nice. It frees me up to do jokes that are maybe unconventional that need to be done an exact, specific way, that can only be done by involvement with both parts of the process.
O: Did it seem strange that instead of giving you the normal million-dollar budget for an animated pilot, Fox gave you $50,000?
SM: It didn't, because a) I didn't know any better at the time, and b) I figured I was the new guy, I had no credits, and "Whatever it takes, I'll pull this off." It was a pretty exciting carrot to dangle in front of an animator. I wasn't in a position to say, "Well, I'm not sure I want to do that, I'll hold out for more money." The opportunity was there, and I didn't know if it would ever come again.
O: Did you ever think, "Wow, maybe this is too good to be true, I'm 23 years old and have a show on TV"?
SM: In retrospect, yes, but it was strictly out of naïveté that I thought, "Oh, okay, I guess it's just this easy." In retrospect, so much of it was timing and what I was bringing them, when I was bringing it to them, who the people were in charge. There were so many factors that contributed to the good luck. It seemed, despite the amount of work, to turn the pilot in and then have it picked up for 13 episodes was all I knew. I didn't even know what the sitcom process was until I started producing the episodes with the other executive producer at the time, David Zuckerman, who had worked on King Of The Hill. I had to learn from him–and the other writers who had worked on other shows–what the process was, how you break a story, what the time constraints were. Really knowing nothing about it going in, it didn't occur to me at the time that this was as unlikely as it was.
O: Didn't you have other people auditioning for some of the voices? William H. Macy auditioned for the role of Brian the dog–that must have been kind of surreal.
SM: It was. For someone like me, who hadn't dealt with celebrities, it was a little jarring. But it's funny how quickly you get used to that. It was a lot faster than I thought it would be. Now, we've had some terrific people on the show. Drew Barrymore has done a couple of episodes. James Woods is playing himself. The school on the show is called James Woods High, and he got wind of that and thought it was funny and wanted to do the show. We were obviously thrilled, so we wrote an episode around him. Kiss has done the show, Haley Joel Osment.
O: Didn't Osment do a bunch of shows back in his pre-fame years?
SM: He did. You know what was funny–at one point, I think The Sixth Sense had come out, but he was still coming into Family Guy to say the line, "Oh no, Cavity Creeps!" In retrospect, it's like, "God, why was he wasting his time with us?" Family Guy has this weird thing of attracting people. People either hate it or can't get enough of it. There's really no one in between. There doesn't seem to be any group that can take it or leave it. It's either, "I laugh my ass off start to finish, it's my favorite show," or "You guys are pathetic." Ken Tucker, for example, would be one of [the latter]. He would write these venom-spewing articles about Family Guy in Entertainment Weekly that, oddly enough, I could never figure out where it was coming from, because there was never a specific argument beyond "This show sucks and it's not funny." But what's nice is that at this point, there are a lot of high-profile actors who are fans of the show, and it's a little easier for us to bring those people on than it used to be.
O: How did Adam West become the mayor?
SM: I wrote on a show called Johnny Bravo when I was at Hanna-Barbera, and he guest-starred as himself. He was so funny, and he's got this way about him. I think he likes playing into what he's known for, even on a casual basis. He's a really fun guy to work with, and genuinely gets comedy. It's not the type of situation where you just bring somebody in to make fun of themselves. The character we've created is kind of this alternate-universe Adam West where he's mayor of this town, and we deliberately have not made any references to Batman, because we like keeping that separate. It's the obvious place to go. We tried it, we thought it would be funny to do something different with the mayor of this town. People like Clint Eastwood and Martin Sheen who have taken whacks at this sort of thing–there's a precedent for it, actors getting into politics. He's the mayor, but he's this guy who clearly does not have it all together. The first couple episodes we did, we got a great response from fans in their teens, who I can't imagine, necessarily, know who he is from the old Batman show. He's one of the characters we get the most requests for more of. It's nice, because to me it means we've built a funny character around him that doesn't just play off of the fact that he's a celebrity. He's playing himself, but he's not playing himself.
O: You've talked a lot about The Simpsons as a formative inspiration. You're on the same network; do you have a relationship with the series?
SM: Apparently they hate our guts. I'm not sure why. I've said this before, but that show, at its best, is up there with the best episodes of All In The Family, Mary Tyler Moore, and Dick Van Dyke, I think. I was reading a quote from one of the writers, from a lecture that he gave, that said "The Simpsons staff hates Family Guy." Who knows why? I'm not losing any sleep over it.
O: There have been a couple of references to Family Guy on The Simpsons, but it's not clear whether they were fond, paying homage, or–
SM: [Laughs.] I don't think they were paying homage. The other side of that is, for us to make a stink about that would make us the biggest fucking hypocrites in the world. Like, you gotta take it if you're going to dish it out. They certainly have every right to slam us in any way they please.
O: On one of the commentary tracks for the Simpsons DVDs, they said they stopped doing flashbacks and non sequiturs because they felt that was Family Guy's terrain. You affected the evolution of The Simpsons.
SM: That's interesting, because that style is something that they kind of started. What we did was make it kind of the main course of our show. It's more par for the course on a weekly basis.
O: When you started out, were you worried about the similarities between the two shows?
SM: We got that criticism early on, and I think any animated show that comes along is inevitably going to be compared to The Simpsons. King Of The Hill was compared to The Simpsons, and is clearly its own show in its own right. It's not even close. Stylistically, the way we tell our stories, we're more like The Simpsons than King Of The Hill. They set a new style of animated show, just like Seinfeld. I believe Friends was a result of the new Seinfeld sensibility on sitcoms. You're certainly influenced by people who changed the terrain before you. Initially, there was criticism that the shows were too similar. I think as we went along, that went away, and people started to see it for what it was. Absolutely, we were influenced by The Simpsons. We'd be stupid not to be. They put that out there: "Here's how you do it. Visually, storytelling-wise, timing-wise, editing-wise. This is how it works." And we took a cue from that.
O: Do you strive to make Family Guy as little like The Simpsons as possible?
SM: No. I think at this point, we don't have to. It is its own thing. As far as breaking new ground, as far as the types of jokes that we do, doing a fight scene with Peter and a giant chicken that goes on for two straight minutes, I think we've kind of taken it to the next level. The show now absolutely has its own voice. We don't want to do the same stories as they have. Every once in a while, a story will come up and somebody will say, "Well, you know, The Simpsons did an episode like that a few years back." That's really the only time it comes up. We want the show to be as good, if not better. Particularly when you hear that [the Simpsons] staff hates our guts. It's obviously a good motivator to do as good a show as possible.
O: The audio commentaries for The Critic discuss how Fox encouraged the creators to make all the characters more attractive between the first and second season. Did you ever get any pressure from Fox to make the characters more pleasing to the eye?
SM: Not with Family Guy. A little bit with American Dad, because there are more eyes on it. To me, who the hell wants to look at an attractive cartoon character? The Simpsons are ugly-looking, and they should be. That's what works. That's one of the things that's funny.
O: Do you think ugly drawings are inherently funnier than attractive ones?
SM: I think so. I think the way [The Far Side's] Gary Larson used to draw, there was something just inherently funny about the way those characters looked. It's the same thing. Those bulbous eyes that would just stare blankly and you had no idea what was going on in the head of the character. I remember reading somewhere about someone on The Simpsons saying that when a character is being addressed or spoken to, they always prefer to keep them emotionless, with a blank stare, rather than give them reactions. It's just a great rule of thumb that I absolutely took to heart for this show. It's just funnier. A dumb-looking character standing there, staring blankly, is much funnier–and cheaper–than a character mugging. The other end of the spectrum is the Disney/Warner Bros. style of very lush animation, where people just don't stop moving. Everything is played to the hilt. I prefer to go the other way, and I think that's something that is inherently funny to look at. When a dumb-looking character is standing there, you don't know how they're registering the information that's being fed to them. It's funny.
O: On one Family Guy commentary track, you talk about shifting Stewie's character's emphasis away from taking over the world toward sexual confusion and angst. Was that conscious?
SM: Not really. It was something that kind of emerged in the writers' room. In the fourth season, we've kept an eye on not completely losing his origins. There are a couple of episodes where he hearkened back to classic Stewie, because we realized that we want to keep the sexual confusion, but we want to balance it with the old Machiavellian Stewie. That's one thing that on the third season, we may have strayed a little too far away from. What we did was good, I think, but the idea is to keep both sides of his personality alive.
O: So now he wants to take over half the world.
SM: Right. Like recently, we began an episode with him trying to kill Lois, which we realized was something we hadn't done in a long time.
O: Do you think it makes him more sympathetic that he's more confused than power-mad?
SM: I think so. I think a lot of it is how small he is physically. I think you can get away with a lot if a character is… The best example I can think of is Herbert, the creepy old man who's always hassling Chris. This guy is basically a pervert, and if he looked any other way, he would not be the least bit funny. But the fact that he's so old, and so decrepit, and has a walker, and can barely move on his own, makes it funny and makes it work. I think it's the same thing with Stewie. Because he's a baby, pretty much everything is forgivable.
O: When you conceived the show, did you think of him as being a breakout character?
SM: No, no. I was very surprised. I thought that maybe Peter would be the character people would respond to–and they have–but really, Stewie and Brian have been the ones that have tested the highest. Stewie was a surprise, because I thought that maybe a small group of people would be amused by him, but he's such a bizarre character, that if they weren't, then it's all right, because he wasn't going to be a major character. But when he emerged as the breakout character, then there became the task of figuring out different types of stories to do with this baby.
O: Your commentary tracks for the Family Guy DVDs were reportedly heavily edited for content. Why? What kind of stuff got cut out?
SM: We had all this beer in the recording room, so I'm trying to remember what it was we said. I don't remember. I think at one point I went off on a rant about this local newscaster in California whose politics I didn't care for. I think more than anything, it was swearing, which is surprising that it would be a problem.
O: It seems unusually spare.
SM: It is, and a lot of [the tracks] were cut out, and there are a lot of long gaps where they edited out stuff. I tried to get a hold of their legal head at one point, and I didn't have a whole lot of luck.
O: There isn't much laughter on the Family Guy commentaries.
SM: A lot of it was that we'd seen them all a hundred times. There weren't too many surprises. I think we were conscious of saying things that weren't remotely interesting. So much of commentary is just so fucking boring. People are clearly sitting there, very monotone, alone in this dark room. The only commentary I've ever listened to start to finish was Michael Crichton's for The Great Train Robbery, which was so unbelievably interesting. There was all this really interesting cultural information about Victorian England. He's obviously a fucking brilliant guy, but I guess that era was a passion of his. It was like listening to a guy give a lecture at a college or something. But I'm always amazed when someone tells me they've listened to the Family Guy commentary, like, "Really? You could honestly sit through that?"
O: One of the episodes on the third-season DVD is "When You Wish Upon A Weinstein." It was surprising that it didn't air–it seemed sweeter and less offensive than almost any other Family Guy episode.
SM: Absolutely. It was made out to be much worse than it was. It wasn't really the episode itself, it was the political battle that took place at Fox. There were two groups of people. There were the people who were saying "Absolutely no way," and people who were saying, "No, no, this is great." It went so far as us getting letters from rabbis who we had sent the episode to saying, "Yes, it's a little on the edge, but he learns the right lesson in the end, it's probably okay." We would send those letters to Fox. It became this battle of wills between the two sides. It really was an issue. Eventually, the naysayers won out. But that's the absurd thing. You look at an episode like the one with the pope, which skirts much closer to the line of being offensive to Catholics than the Weinstein episode does to Jews.
O: One interesting paradox is that the worse things are for the public as a whole, the better they are for satirists, because they have that much more to work from. Do you think that helps a show like American Dad?
SM: Yeah. There are people on staff who have made that point, that the upside to a second Bush term is that it makes American Dad work better. To me, the price is too high. I would gladly give up the comedy to have a President Kerry. But you work with what you have.
O: You were scheduled to travel on one of the planes used in the 9/11 attacks. Did the fact that you were nearly part of it affect how you viewed the subsequent fallout?
SM: Not especially. I'm not a fatalist. I'm not a religious person. I'm sure there are close calls that we're not even aware of hundreds of times a year. You cross the street, and if you'd crossed the street two minutes later, you'd have been hit by a car, but you'd never know it. I'm sure that kind of stuff happens all the time. This was obviously a big one. What I felt more than anything else was gratitude toward my travel agent for screwing up my itinerary. It didn't change my perspective on what I do or anything like that. I couldn't really let it. You gotta keep the funny intact.
O: You didn't resolve to make the most of every moment?
SM: No, no. If anything, I started drinking more.