Twenty years after “Family Guy” first had audiences laughing at risky, edgy and taboo-busting gags, creator Seth MacFarlane says he’s proud the animated comedy remains “an oasis for people who aren’t really onboard with being told what to laugh at and what not to laugh at.”
Over the years, the show’s deliberate line-crossing and sacred cow-slaying provoked all manner of umbrage, from formal protests to celebrity lawsuits to online outrage. But it’s weathered it all, even as American culture has grown hair-trigger sensitive to perceived offensive, off-color humor. After handing over the day-to-day creative reins in 2010, MacFarlane thinks the series still has straddled the dividing fissures of modern outrage culture quite nicely.
“The show tries to walk a line,” he says. “We’re not in the business of rolling over to every social trend. We’re in the business of commentary and parody, the way we always have been. And sometimes that skirts close to the edge, and sometimes it doesn’t. But when it does, that’s how you learn where the boundaries of comedy are.”
Indeed, a recent episode skewered the very concept by having Brian the dog become the target of an angry Twitter mob following a snarky tweet.
Executive producer Alec Sulkin says the show’s brand of humor “in a way has sort of been grandfathered in. … We have always said we’re an equal opportunity offender.”
While some of the production team finds it mystifying that a generation of young viewers raised on “Family Guy,” “The Simpsons” and “South Park” could be enraged by anything they see on TV today, Alex Borstein, who voices mom Lois, says she recognizes that the show has imposed a few new boundaries.
“There’s so many things we would not do now,” she says. “There are a lot of things that have had to bend with the current [to] kind of follow where things are going. … It’s forced us to think differently and try to be a little bit more creative. Sometimes it’s a bummer. Sometimes you do miss some of the gross, harsh, brash things that you’d be able to do, but you’re aware that it’s a totally different climate.”
Still, MacFarlane believes “Family Guy” is protected from some of the harshest criticism because “animation is weirdly protected in this little bubble because there isn’t a specific face to it.” As he explains, “You can’t send Peter Griffin an angry tweet — he doesn’t exist. … It’s a lot easier for us to f— up and recover than it is for a comedian whose face is up there on the screen.”
Executive producer Rich Appel, who joined the series a decade into its run, credits that keen, unsparing cultural commentary as much as its endearing leads as the reason for the series’ success.
“The reason the show has lasted is it’s really not cheap shots,” he says. “It’s observational on a lot of levels, and sometimes those levels are uncomfortable or controversial, but you would always go for it.”
But Charlie Collier, Fox Entertainment’s CEO, credits MacFarlane himself for the show’s unique brand of humor, saying, “Simply put, Seth is remarkable. He’s brilliantly comedic. … His work represents the type of risk-taking and bold storytelling this network is known for.”
When MacFarlane conceived the series in his early 20s, he never imagined that his upstart brainchild would last long, and in fact the series was cancelled not once but twice early on. But it persevered, hitting the two-decade mark and emerging as a full-fledged pop cultural institution, the cornerstone of his own multimedia empire and the standard bearer for a particular style of comedy that would pervade not just animation but also live-action as well.
“I never really had a specific agenda, beyond doing what I enjoy,” MacFarlane says. “When I began in the business, I really wanted to do a primetime animated series. I have a great admiration for ‘The Simpsons’ and that team, and the way they had transformed the business and really opened the door for people like me to produce shows that weren’t necessarily for kids, that took us back to the days of ‘The Flintstones.’”
After a successful stint as a writer-animator for uber-hip Cartoon Network fare including “Johnny Bravo” at Fox, MacFarlane unleashed the Griffins and the inhabitants of Quahog, creating both an indelible group of characters that would, over time, pervade the public consciousness — particularly Stewie, the scheming, matricidal, British-accented monologuing baby of the family (one of many roles voiced by MacFarlane) — and a staggering facility for outrageous cutaway bits that took tangential comedy to its furthest extremes.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about characters,” MacFarlane says. “If you have even one character that makes the kind of imprint on popular culture that a character like Stewie has, that’s enough.”
While “Family Guy” didn’t invent cutaway storytelling, the show certainly perfected it. “‘The Simpsons’ was the first to do that in animation, but what ‘Family Guy’ did was make a primary feature of it,” says MacFarlane. “Like with anything, you learn from your predecessors, and take things to another level.”
He also notes that the style was in line with such concurrent live-action primetime fare as “30 Rock.” “We were, in many ways, doing the same show.”
Former Fox executive Gary Newman, who championed the show from the beginning and lobbied for further life after its cancellation before rising to co-head the network, remembers just how fresh — even startlingly so — “Family Guy’s” sensibility was while watching early cuts.
“The show is sort of famous for just holding on beats uncomfortably long,” he says. “I almost had to stand up and walk around as I watched it, because it made me so uncomfortable. … Just silence and characters looking at each other and then FINALLY they would break it, and it would be incredibly funny.”
Mila Kunis, who voices daughter Meg on the show, says she got “so much good street cred” from being a part of the project. “‘Family Guy’ made me super cool,” she says.
Kunis was impressed with the show’s penchant for epic, twisted musical sequences, “these weird songs coming out of it that I thought I’d never seen before in animation. And that was 100% Seth being a theater nerd and wanting to simply sing. He was like, ‘I’m going to give myself a platform where my characters break out in song and dance.’”
Seth Green, who voices son Chris, echoes Kunis’ sentiment, noting that the benefits from being part of “something that is globally loved” are touching and wide-reaching. “People express that to me that it’s a show that they love, that it’s like a staple of their evening,” he says. “A lot of people tell me that it’s what they watch in their home at night. That’s really the way that I can assess it is just people that I meet seem to love it, and then they give me some credit for the association.”
Beyond standing the test of time, MacFarlane says he’s pleased that “Family Guy’s” current custodians have allowed it to evolve. “With a lot of shows, once you have success you wind up with a fear of messing with the formula,” he says. “I think our team has done a really great job of not giving into that. They’ve tried to experiment with the formula, and to try different things and to really use the medium.”
And there’s always a fresh infusion of new blood in the writing and animation ranks — people who first watched “Family Guy” when they were in middle school.
“I constantly think ‘Oh the next generation, they’re going to be too cynical or too smart to want to watch a cartoon like this,’ and they’re not,” says executive producer Kara Vallow, who has worked on the show since its inception. “Generation after generation seems to find it and like it.”