This is a story about The Show That Wouldn’t Die, an unprecedented example of how you really should never say never. Canceled not once but twice (after both its second and third seasons), “Family Guy” rose from the ashes like a phoenix in 2005 — a full three years after its primetime farewell. It had been canceled in 2002. Everybody moved on — physically, if not emotionally. A few dreamers, primarily creator/exec producer/principal voice Seth MacFarlane, continued to harbor hope. Then came an unfathomably hot-selling DVD, a well-rated run on Cartoon Network, a full-on reincarnation at Fox, and, well, now it writes another unlikely chapter: a 100th original episode.
You could have received some very long odds in Vegas on this ever happening. But the TV listings don’t lie. Sunday night at 9, the 100th installment of primetime’s naughtiest cartoon this side of “South Park” materializes on Fox with an episode titled — forebodingly — “Stewie Kills Lois.”
Stewie would be Stewie Griffin (MacFarlane), the homicidal 1-year-old who speaks like Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins in 1964’s “My Fair Lady.” Lois would be Lois Griffin (Alex Borstein), his sweet and even-tempered (but long-suffering) mother. Stewie has wanted to kill Lois for a long time for reasons that remain unclear. He evidently succeeds on Sunday night — unless, of course, he doesn’t.
To say it wasn’t supposed to turn out like this for “Family Guy” is pretty much the understatement of the young millennium. The show had been hyped famously with rare abandon prior to its original premiere in January 1999. But then Fox seemed to take an active interest in taking the show down by — as someone once wrote — dancing it around the schedule like a ballerina on methamphetamines. It would inhabit three different time periods on Tuesday, three others on Thursday, two on Wednesday and a ninth on Sunday before being axed early in 2002, presumably permanently, after three seasons.
There was a big write-in and phone call campaign by outraged fans. But outraged fans do this all the time, and their indignation leads nowhere. They are simply urged to get a life, and that is that. The flip-flop occurred because a 28-episode “Family Guy” DVD compilation released almost as an afterthought in 2003 sold some 1.6 million copies, an astounding sum that made it that year’s top-selling TV DVD. A second volume with 22 episodes sold an additional million copies. And those 50 reruns instantly became the most popular element on Cartoon Network’s late-night “Adult Swim” programming block, averaging nearly 2 million nightly viewers.
“It was the first show of the DVD age to tangibly benefit from sales of its episodes,” explains Dana Walden, chairman of 20th Century Fox TV. “This wasn’t just about the creator talking to 10 friends about keeping his show alive. It was a wake-up call to the fact there was a viable core audience that missed ‘Family Guy’ and would do anything to get new episodes.
“And I have to give credit where it’s due. I sat in many meetings with (Fox TV chairman) Gary Newman where he was insisting that Fox Broadcasting needed to reconsider the cancelation decision on ‘Family Guy.’ Here was a guy beating a dead horse that turned out not to be dead.”
For his part, Newman insists that “Family Guy” should never have met its early fate in the first place, that it suffered because of the scheduling of the show. “Fox tried to use it as a battering ram on Thursday nights, and it got hammered. I all but begged them to return it to a safer time period. But wow, to bring the show back after it had been out of production for two full years and have this kind of success, that’s unbelievably satisfying, and, well, it’s never happened before.”
It was all part of Newman’s plan for the Fox Broadcasting Co. to see the error of its ways, arranging to essentially give the episodes to Cartoon Network initially “because we couldn’t sell them anyplace else,” he says. “And we felt the Cartoon Network awareness might help push the DVD. Then Fox stepped up after that. And now we feel like what we’ve got is a franchise that will be around as long as the creative people who make the show are interested in making it.”
Newman will get no argument on that score from Fox Entertainment chairman Peter Liguori, who believes the lesson learned from the potholed route to success taken by “Family Guy” is that “great humor conquers all. This show is simply just funny. And in a TV environment with a paucity of comedies, to have a show that gives you genuine belly laughs — and does it in a very Fox-like fashion — is a real gift. We’re just fortunate that the DVD sales alerted us to the genuine hunger out there for Seth’s brand of humor.”
Ah, yes. “Seth’s brand of humor” and comedy that makes you laugh in a “Fox-like fashion.” This would be coded language for an animated comedy that is not only arch but also proudly offensive, planting tactless humor bombs timed to detonate in abundant rat-a-tat-tat fashion. It tells the outrageous tales of that wacky Irish-American Catholic clan — the Griffins of Rhode Island: bumbling and clueless dad Peter (MacFarlane), tolerant wife Lois (Borstein), diabolical infant Stewie (also MacFarlane), homely teen daughter Meg (Mila Kunis), goofy and dumb teen son Chris (Seth Green) and intellectual dog Brian (MacFarlane again).
There are also numerous other recurring characters — too numerous to mention — on “Family Guy,” but all seem to work together for the common goal of being utterly broad and generally unctuous. The staccato punch line style of the show isn’t everybody’s cup of java, to be sure, and its attack-dog mentality has had the desired effect of offending virtually every ethnic culture and religious group.
When the show was resurrected by Fox with an announcement in 2004, Smith admits to having had trouble believing it because “it was like the Blues Brothers putting the band back together. But the only way it was even possible is because the show is animated. Were it a regular sitcom, the kids could be in college and the dog would be dead.”
If it seems as if being a writer and producer for the show might be an endless laugh fest, well, exec producer/writer Chris Sheridan says yes and no.
“It involves a lot of hard work,” Sheridan acknowledges, “like anything else in entertainment that’s any good. But at the same time, it’s 15 of the funniest people I know sitting around a table cracking each other up. That’s a pretty good job to have.”
Sheridan answers those critics who lash out at the show for its aggressively and relentlessly insulting manner by explaining that “Family Guy” features jokes for all ages, all mind-sets and all intellectual levels. “There are so many jokes that if you miss one, there’s another right around the corner,” he says. “It’s a very collaborative process for the writers. And each of us has our own line we won’t cross. Well, a few are never offended by anything, but ultimately, Seth’s line is the one we go by, and there isn’t much that he won’t do.”
There are, however, moments on “Family Guy” that make even the executives who pushed for its return to gasp.
“I cringe sometimes while watching it,” Walden confesses. “But that’s really part of the formula for any comedy that reaches the status of cultural phenomenon, as this one has. If the creators aren’t constantly pushing the limit and sometimes stepping over the line, they won’t be part of the zeitgeist.”
“‘Family Guy’ is an equal-opportunity offender,” Newman observes. “Part of what makes the show funny is that sense of danger, of not knowing who or what will be the next target.”
Newman says that he watches the show with his son, who is now 13. But the kid also watched the show when he was far younger, which Newman defends. “There are jokes he didn’t get when he was younger, and I’m sort of thankful he didn’t.”
But family groups, in particular, criticize “Family Guy” for being wildly inappropriate viewing for young children, especially as it airs on Fox at an hour when they can watch — which is even more the case since it entered off-network syndication this fall. David Goodman, an executive producer on the show, as well as its head writer, doesn’t allow his own 11-year-old son to watch the show even though most of his buddies at school do. He reasons, “It’s just a personal thing with myself and my wife. We don’t feel comfortable with it.”
Goodman has other reasons to worry about how his job is impacting others, however. A forthcoming episode finds Mort Goldman, a middle-aged Jewish pharmacist, accidentally stumbling into a time machine built by Stewie and getting transported back to Nazi Germany — requiring Stewie and Brian to go back and get him.
“That episode, I’m fairly certain, will get me kicked out of my temple,” Goodman predicts. “But that’s why they pay me. If I myself am offended, then it’s probably funny.”
While the writers are often required to log marathon weeks spent fine-tuning the scripts, for the voices the job is the predictable breeze. “It’s the only job that I never want to go away,” Kunis discloses. “For sure, it’s the easiest and most fun gig.”
Mike Henry, who is the voice of Peter’s buddy Cleveland, as well as Cleveland Jr., Herbert the pedophile and the Greased-Up Deaf Guy (don’t ask), and also serves as one of the show’s writers, says that even the long hours as a scribe are ridiculously enjoyable. “Today, as I was writing some gags, I mentioned to someone how these were the same gags I wrote in the seventh grade but was just taking them to another level,” Henry notes. “I get to pitch jokes, make up characters, do them on TV and then get paid for it.”
Another salient point is that a series once dismissed as a failure can now no do wrong — except for the occasional lawsuit. Carol Burnett sued in March seeking $6 million in damages for “Family Guy” having used her Charwoman character in an episode. A judge tossed the suit out in June on the grounds that parody is protected by the First Amendment. Then earlier this month, the publishing company that holds the rights to the song “When You Wish Upon a Star” filed a copyright infringement lawsuit for a satirical version of the song entitled “I Need a Jew.” It seeks to stop the episode’s distribution in addition to unspecified damages.
This is the kind of stuff that happens when you’re a big fish who is dissed in front of millions. The sheer extent of the “Family Guy” phenomenon was confirmed for the production staff in September when there was a spoof of the song “Shipoopi” — originally crooned on screen by Buddy Hacket in the 1962 musical “The Music Man.”
“And what was the No. 1 search on Google the day after the episode aired?” Sheridan asks. “Why, ‘Shipoopi,’ of course. That’s the crazy kind of crowd that embraces this show.”