When Seth MacFarlane first saw The Simpsons at age 14, he was hooked. He knew then he would create a hit show. An animated hit show. The difference between MacFarlane and every other dreamer in America? He did it. And he's about to do it again.
At 30, MacFarlane is the creator and executive producer of The Family Guy, the only show in TV history to do better after cancellation. How? Cartoon Network ran the show in its Adult Swim block and scored. TBS picked it up as part of its new prime time comedy lineup. The result: Fox realized the smart money meant greenlighting new episodes of the show and putting it back on the air next spring.
It will be joined there by another MacFarlane effort: American Dad, the story of Stan Smith, a CIA agent forever on alert for terrorist activity. Dad will get a huge premiere platform with one episode airing with The Simpsons after the Super Bowl. The two-show punch is indicative of how much Fox believes MacFarlane is the second coming of Matt Groenig, the creator of The Simpsons.
"In a perfect world," MacFarlane says, "we'd be the ones they pass the torch to."
His popularity began when Family Guy premiered on Fox in April 1998. It did huge numbers behind The Simpsons, scoring an average 6.4 rating/17 share. Jazzed, Fox decided it could help weaker time periods.
From then until fall 2001, Fox moved the show all over the schedule. In each new slot, it fared worse in the ratings. It finally died in the Thursday 8 p.m. slot against Friends and Survivor: Africa. By then, even the media was fed up. The Chicago Tribune dubbed it "the somehow still-not-canceled Family Guy."
Then, 20th Century Fox decided to release the show on DVD. To promote the release, Twentieth Television persuaded Cartoon Network to pick up the show "practically for free," says 20th Century Fox Television President Gary Newman.
And that's when Family Guy took off.
To date, all three seasons have grossed about $90 million in sales, according to B&C sister publication Video Business. And with ratings strong, Cartoon Network was happy to renew.
This time around, 20th Century Fox hedged its bets, requiring Cartoon Network to pick up at least 35 episodes in the new production deal. That way, if the show doesn't make it on Fox, 20th will have 85 episodes in the can, enough to put it into broadcast syndication. And News Corp. can make even more money on a show that technically should have been history years ago.
"We were sitting here with a fantastic asset," Newman says. "We had to figure out how to grow it into the home run it should have been."
Which explains why MacFarlane is currently in an expansive but spare office in Los Angeles, huddling with two teams of staffers as they prepare to launch both shows. His partners on American Dad
are Mike Barker and Matt Weitzman, original members of the Family Guy
team. David Goodman is the co-executive producer on Family Guy's new season. To keep ideas for the two family-based shows separate, the writers sit in on each other's table reads.
Fox is just happy to be back in business with MacFarlane.
"Seth is really an auteur," says Craig Erwich, executive vice president of programming at Fox, "but we didn't approach them as two Seth shows. They were just two great shows." The reason is MacFarlane's eclectic talents.
A Connecticut native and a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, MacFarlane was a writer on Johnny Bravo and Dexter's Laboratory. Today, he not only writes most of his shows and draws the storyboards but also voices many of the characters. In addition, he's an accomplished piano player, and his love for music often shows up in hilarious and random animated production numbers, such as when Family Guy's baby sings to sailors in a fantasy scene.
MacFarlane is also a Star Trek devotee. Enterprise's exec producer is a Family Guy fan, a kinship that resulted in MacFarlane's cameo as an engineer on a recent Enterprise episode. His love of all things Trekkian may even have inspired the alien that's joined the American Dad cast.
His plot lines get progressively wackier, but MacFarlane keeps the themes accessible. "Comedy needs to be grounded," he says. "The animation medium is already one step removed from reality. So I don't think it's any coincidence that successful animated shows are all about families. The more simple the premise, the better for comedy."