Back when it premiered in February 2005, animated comedy “American Dad” was widely seen as a “Family Guy” knockoff due to similar styles of animation and comedy and the same creative auspices in “Family Guy” impresario Seth MacFarlane, who created “American Dad” with Mike Barker and Matt Weitzman. But they get the last laugh as “American Dad” reaches the 200-episode mark with “The Two Hundred,” airing at 8:30 p.m. March 28 on TBS.
“I think we figured out who we were and it happened fairly early on,” Weitzman says. “We had to separate ourselves from ‘Family Guy.’ In the very beginning we had a few more cutaways and flashbacks and soon figured out that wasn’t going to work, otherwise we’d be a carbon copy. So then we were focusing on stories and characters and realized that was going to be our bread and butter.”
Weitzman says the show’s writers still made comedic left turns, but with a goal of “staying much more intact as far as our storytelling goes” to differentiate “Dad” from the ADHD-style of “Family Guy.” “I feel like Monty Python has a pretty good influence on us,” Weitzman says. “We’re telling a story, it gets a little bit weird, and then we come back to it. We never want it to get that far away from story like ‘Family Guy,’ but we still wanted to have fun with jokes and gags.”
“American Dad” follows the antics of CIA agent Stan Smith (voiced by MacFarlane) and his family, including wife Francine (Wendy Schaal), daughter Hayley (Rachael MacFarlane, Seth’s sister), son Steve (Scott Grimes) and German-speaking goldfish Klaus (Dee Bradley Baker) and gray alien Roger (Seth MacFarlane).
|Matt Weitzman, Seth MacFarlane and Brian Boyle chat at the “American Dad” 200th episode table read, on Dec. 10, 2014 (animation takes a long time). Frank Micelotta/PictureGroup|
For “The Two Hundred,” “American Dad” ventures from its usual contemporary stories for an episode set in a post-apocalyptic future when a heavily tattooed Stan is trying to find his family while survivors fear a dreaded gang known as “the 200.” Weitzman says an aspect of the episode — Stan’s tattoos — was inspired by Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man,” which features a former carnival freak show denizen whose animated tattoos each tell a different story.
Stan’s tats in “The Two Hundred” illuminate new stories of the show’s characters and their relationships, which highlight what Weitzman sees as the show’s strength. “I like the idea we’re this weird show that does weird stories but always has that emotional core,” he says. “Oftentimes we’ll start with very relatable stories and then get bigger and crazier, but always come back around to who our people are and what they mean to each other.”
Weitzman’s current co-showrunner, Brian Boyle, says actors bring their own personalities to roles, which can inform the direction the writers take the characters. “Slowly you morph the character to be the actor,” Boyle says. “We had Dee Bradley Baker as Klaus and for the first four or five years (the character was) a lech. Turns out, Dee is a sweet guy and we started playing Klaus as a much sweeter guy. Now he matches Dee’s personality better and the character becomes much richer. Stories flow out of that once the actors put their flavor on the characters.”
|“I like the idea we’re this weird show that does weird stories but always has that emotional core.”
In addition, “American Dad” evolved away from its more political origins, vis-a-vis Stan’s right-wing leanings. “That had its place but it also got a little boring,” Weitzman says, acknowledging the realities of the long lead time required to produce an animated series. “You’re writing a show that will air in a year, (and by then a political joke) has no relevance whatsoever. We learned to do evergreen kinds of stories about family.”
The biggest change over the show’s run was its move from Fox to TBS in 2014, which allowed for more leeway with language.
“Two ‘sh–s’ and an ‘a——’” became the new mantra in the TBS era, Boyle says.
“We can now show sideboob, which we couldn’t do on Fox,” Weitzman adds, before cracking, “I think the audience is really relieved to be able to finally see that. You couldn’t even show cartoon butts on Fox. TBS, they’re all about the butts. They couldn’t be more encouraging when it comes to showing heinie.”
Otherwise, not much changed.
“When TBS got the show, what they wanted was the show they knew,” Weitzman says. “So the marching orders were, keep it the same show, but you can swear a little bit more.”
TBS executive vice president of original programming Brett Weitz says “American Dad” helped “set a due north course” for where TBS wanted to head as a brand. “It’s the same thing we did with ‘Conan’: If you build it, they will come,” he says, adding that the comedy-driven cabler’s renovations will continue next year. “We’ll build more animation around (‘American Dad.’) We have things in development for 2017. We couldn’t be more excited about what these guys have provided. They’re part of setting the network on this new trajectory. This plus ‘Conan’ made this possible. They’ve given us brand legitimacy with both the consumer base and the creative community.”
|Stan takes a ride with daughter Hayley and goldfish Klaus, who became a kinder, gentler character over the seasons. Courtesy of TBS|
For Twentieth Century Fox Television, the studio behind the series, 200 episodes marks another milestone for the show with the potential for more to come. “‘American Dad’ is quite simply one of the funniest and most starkly original comedies on the air, with an incredibly devoted audience,” says Fox Television Group chairman and CEO Gary Newman. “It’s a testament to the creative talents of Mike, Matt, Seth and Brian that a show born nearly 15 years ago out of a very specific political climate remains so relevant and vibrant today. And our superb voice cast does more than land every joke; they ground each character in humanity and heart. We think this show could literally go on for as long as its talented team wants to make it.”
Earlier this month, “American Dad” hosted a table read for the show’s 233rd episode. Weitzman says “American Dad” has been ordered through 256 episodes, but he’d like to get to at least 260 so “Dad” will surpass “King of the Hill’s” 259 episodes: “That would be something that’s not really important, that I really want.”