Even God took a swipe at President George W. Bush, asking him to downplay their relationship in the pilot of “American Dad.”
The writers came out swinging when the animated series kicked off the preview episode following the Super Bowl in 2005, marking one of the first TV series to tap into the post-9/11 sensibilities of the country. The main character was uber-Republican Stan Smith, a CIA agent dedicated to keeping terrorists at bay.
“In the beginning, the show was really informed by this moment in time, with restricting civil liberties in the name of public safety. For our creators, the pendulum was swinging too far,” says Gary Newman, chairman of 20th Century Fox Television. “The most conservative people in the country controlled both the legislative and executive branches, so it was the perfect time to skewer that point of view.”
Initially, writers concentrated the humor on the world of color-coded threat levels, where paranoia ran rampant.
“The political things they did were making fun of life at the moment,” says Stephen Battaglio, business editor for TV Guide magazine. “Everyone was scared, and if you make people laugh at their fears, that’s a good thing.”
Creators Seth MacFarlane, Matt Weitzman and Mike Barker made Stan their Archie Bunker and filled in the rest of their animated “All in the Family” with ditsy wife Francine, liberal daughter Hayley and nerdy son Steve. There’s also talking goldfish Klaus, who has the brain of a German scientist, and insecure drunk Roger, an alien rescued from Area 51.
From the beginning, the highly charged political piece took aim at Bush and conservatives with pointed jokes targeting Harriet Miers, a screaming Howard Dean and others.
“We had an awesome joke about Harriet Miers in our first season,” Barker says of Bush’s then-controversial Supreme Court nominee, who has since slipped into obscurity. “We have to wiki our own (earlier political) references.”
The producers realized “American Dad” needed some tweaks as they transitioned from the conservative, war-on-terrorism tone of the Bush administration to the Obama years filled with domestic issues.
“As the political landscape changes, we shoot ourselves in the foot trying to keep up,” Weitzman says. “And our audience now would say who was Howard Dean and why is he screaming? If you have to think and remember why something was funny, funny goes out the window.”
Series creatives still prides themselves on its subversive nature and don’t shy away from hot-button issues from gun control to gay rights. But Roger has become the breakout character, and the audience now has a solid younger demo.
Compared to all broadcast programming last season, “American Dad” ranked among the top 10 programs in teens and the top 20 programs in adults 18-34 and males 18-49.
“Stan, six years later, is still fairly angry and self-righteous, and clearly a Republican. But we’ve become less politically specific and less reference specific,” Barker explains. “We realized the stories that got the most laughs were not political.”
Stan’s now fighting on a new front. Rebel daughter Hayley marries her boyfriend in the 100th episode and the two move into the house, making Stan frustrated because he believes anyone can make it on her own in America even in tough economic times.
“You think what you write will be evergreen, then you look at it five years later and realize it’s dated,” says Weitzman. “The show started out with a political agenda, but as time goes on you rely more on family stories with a bit of social and political edge. We began with a high degree of frustration about the Bush administration but have evolved.”