Seth MacFarlane's Third Act
The Halloween scene this year at Salem, Mass. was pure sensory overload, as is traditional.
By James Norton
Pimps consorted with fairy princesses. Inflatable penises ambled along, dominating the avenues. A procession of Knights of the Round Table, resplendent in their chainmail and backed up by a coconut-clapping servant, passed by a deeply horrifying Frank the Bunny, complete with mask.
But one reveler stood out amid the throng. He sported the hulking oblong head of Stewie, the Henry Higginsish infant whose scheming, bitchy personality was one the main draws of "Family Guy," a Fox animated sitcom now in syndication on Cartoon Network.
Stewie was the belle of the ball, hailed by the masses wherever he wandered. "Stewie! WOO!" yelled a group of casually dressed onlookers. "Steeeeewie!" cried a group of Benedictine monks. Assembled bargoers all called out: "Stewie! ALL RIGHT!"
"At least they're getting the reference!" said "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane in a recent phone interview. "Ironically, the show has more awareness now than it did on Fox. It used to be, maybe 5 out of 10 people, if that, had heard of it. Now it's literally like 9 out of 10 people. I guess all it needed was time."
For a guy who gets canceled more often than Lennie Brisco cracks wise over a stiffening corpse, MacFarlane is flying pretty high right now. Although "Family Guy" has been off the air for 18 months, the cartoon is poised to make a comeback with 35 new episodes on Fox in 2005.
"It's a combination of the completely unexpected number of DVD sales, coupled with the success of the show on Cartoon Network," MacFarlane said. "It's something that all of us who worked on the show had kind of hoped for. It was kind of a pipe dream: 'Wouldn't it be great if the show had a life beyond cancellation
like Star Trek?' But we really did not predict it would be this big."
MacFarlane, a 28-year-old graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, has a lot on his plate. He's working on two unnamed movies, one of which is a non-G-rated animated film. And in addition to the possible resurrection of "Family Guy" (the third time the series will have "debuted" on network TV, if the deal comes through), he's got a pilot in the works for a new show. Tentatively titled "American Dad," the program would depict an eccentric animated family composed of a right-leaning CIA agent, his wife, their two kids, a Francophile goldfish and an alien named Roger.
Word on both shows may come as early as this week. "Everything's still sort of pointing to new shows, though we're still waiting for that concrete stamp," he said. "But we're very close. Definitely within a week," he said on Nov. 21. "Certainly on 'Family Guy,' possibly on both of them."
If the answer is "yes" for either show, MacFarlane's fans will have played a big role in putting him back in the game, despite populist crusades' generally low success rate in TV-land. "Futurama" got the ax despite a massive online petition; "Farscape" bit the dust, though it will make a brief return as a miniseries; and "La Femme Nikita" pranced sexily into oblivion despite a determined revolt of the viewing proletariat.
"Anytime I really fall in love with something, it gets canceled," sighed MacFarlane. "There's a show on Cartoon Network called 'Home Movies
' It's so damn funny. I TiVo it when I can. I don't know what its future is, but boy is it funny."
The future for "Family Guy" seems a bit brighter, if equally uncertain at the moment. And while time has pulled some of "Family Guy's" creative team off to other projects, MacFarlane said he's hopeful that most of the old crew will be reunited under the new "Family Guy's" roof and/or that of "American Dad."
"Some of them are available should new episodes be ordered," MacFarlane said. "And others are working on other shows. We have people on 'Will and Grace,' 'Yes, Dear,' and several other different shows. Hopefully, we'll get as many of those people back as possible.
"One of the positive aspects of 'Family Guy' constantly being pulled off [the air] is that we were always having to restaff writers," he added, referring to cancellations that were largely spurred by the show being knocked around mercilessly within the Fox lineup. "And as a result, there are many many good writers who are now versed in that animation style. It's not going to be hard to find a good crop of people for both shows, if need be."
Fans worried that "American Dad" will be a major departure from the formula that made "Family Guy" one of the funniest shows on TV have little to worry about; MacFarlane sees the new show as an evolutionary step, not a major departure.
"It's sort of a combination of 'All in the Family' and 'Family Guy,'" he said.
"It's going to be a very visual show like 'Family Guy,' but where 'Family Guy' is a very pop culture-oriented show
the main character [of 'American Dad,'] the father, works for the CIA, so we'll also draw from current events as well. The idea is for it to be in kind of the same universe, but give people something they can't get from 'Family Guy.'"
Like "The Family Guy," "American Dad" will also feature the sort of big-band, high-production, patter-rich tunes that only MacFarlane has really suceeded in bringing to the animated small screen.
"Fortunately, [songs work] with the style of 'Family Guy,' and subsequently 'American Dad,'
I kind of built [the shows] to accommodate that style, where a character can break into song and it fits with the world we've established. And if it doesn't then you get things like 'Cop Rock.'"
"Family Guy" won an Emmy for one of its songs in 2002, and MacFarlane is enthusiastic about keeping the musical torch burning.
"I love the lush orchestration and old-fashioned melody writing
it just gets you excited, that kind of music," he said. "It's very optimistic. And it's fun. The one thing that's missing for me, from popular music today, is fun. Guys like [Bing] Crosby, or Sinatra, or Dean Martin, or Mel Torme
these are guys who sounded like they were having a great time."
"We used a 35-piece orchestra for every episode of 'Family Guy.' It's something you'd think you wouldn't have to do, but if you could hear some of the cues synthesized, instead of an actual band playing them, it's like night and day. They've got this big, sort of fat quality of sound you just don't get from electronics."
In relying upon real intruments, and snappily written lyrics, MacFarlane harks conciously back to the era of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
"It's not the most cutting-edge comedy in the world, but there's just a flavor to that stuff that I think is just so wonderful," he said. "Particularly things like music, and an air of showmanship
take those Brian and Stewie songs we did in the Road Show [episodes] both were tunes from old Hope-Crosby movies that we rewrote the lyrics to."
Fuse that old-school Hollywood craft with modern-day jokes, and you've got the creative engine that may power a rejuvenated "Family Guy" and "American Dad" back into America's cultural klieg lights.
"That's sort of what we try to do overall on 'Family Guy,'" MacFarlane said. "In the design style and music, it's very traditional, but we layer the outrageous comedy on top of that. What you get is the best of all worlds."
E-mail James Norton at firstname.lastname@example.org.