[2 November 2007]
And so the lesson is clear. Every TV show should be so lucky to be so canceled.
“Family Guy” was pulled off the air by Fox after just nine episodes in mid-1999. And then again, after trying other time periods, in the fall of 2000. And then again, after more aborted airings, in the spring of 2002, when the vagabond adult cartoon was actually, finally, permanently canceled by the network.
Until its Lazarus-like return three years later.
And now the animated Fox fave airs its 100th episode Sunday (at 9 p.m. ET).
Of course, there’s quite a tale in between cancellation and celebration, and it’s one not many series could duplicate. This story includes the personal support of cultheads who happened to be network executives. And a vertically integrated corporate structure among producing studio, presenting network and DVD distributor, where the success of one benefits all, and the success of all three powers the universe. And a fan-base sweet spot covering the hardest-to-reach, most-coveted demographic in pop culture.
And lions and tigers and bears.
Just kidding on that last one. You gotta poke indiscriminate fun when it comes to “Family Guy.” That’s what the show does. As Entertainment Weekly once wrote, series auteur Seth MacFarlane is “either a rapier wit or a cheap-shot, free-associating vulgarian.”
That may be why much of America didn’t “get” this scattershot animated sitcom when Fox premiered it to great fanfare in the prime slot following the 1999 Super Bowl. Animator-writer-voice actor MacFarlane, then just 25, had crafted what seemed to be some knockoff of “The Simpsons,” with its madcap suburban Rhode Island family with three kids and a dog. Except that dog Brian was an erudite martini-swilling raconteur and baby Stewie (with the football-shaped head) talked like a power-mad demon while scheming to kill his mother and dominate the world.
Mom Lois was sweet but with a demented streak, while dad Peter was a meathead whose insulting blunders made Homer Simpson look intellectual.
Did we mention that MacFarlane’s random-access sense of humor relentlessly, ruthlessly (and often pointlessly) mocked the most sacred cows of politics, culture, mass media, any kind of propriety and every sort of race, creed, gender and lifestyle known to man?
Well, now he’s really gone and done it. The 100th episode of “Family Guy” finds homicidal tot Stewie actually succeeding at the central mission of his diaper-wearing life. The half-hour’s title is “Stewie Kills Lois,” so you can tell where it’s going.
But first, you can see how it got there in a half-hour “Family Guy 100th Episode Special” (Sunday at 8:30 p.m. on Fox), filled with memorable, outrageous and offensive clips.
It’s as good an introduction as any for viewers who haven’t yet sampled MacFarlane’s fusillade funnies.
How many people can that be, though, considering the show’s 2005 resurrection to strong ratings? Plus the tally of its pre-revival DVDs alone selling more than 3 million copies?
That feat is what got “Family Guy” to the point where Stewie could actually kill Lois. Although the show’s original run of 50 episodes had bounced through various time slots across four different days of the week - until in April 2002 Fox gave up on its anemic ratings - MacFarlane’s merciless insanity (or is that inanity?) had lured a small but devoted cult of mostly young male viewers. They kept agitating online to get the show on DVD, a goal that provided much of the motivation for cult member Gord Lacey to create the Web site tvshowsondvd.com, where since 2001 a quarter-million viewers have registered to vote which shows they’d buy on disc. Studios paid attention, and in April 2003, Fox Home Entertainment released the first “Family Guy” DVD set.
Which in weeks sold well over 1 million copies.
Which was unheard of for a TV show. Especially one that was deader than, well, lots of its own thudding throwaway gags. Add to that the record ratings “Family Guy” repeats were doing in Cartoon Network’s late-night Adult Swim block, and by late 2003, Fox was putting MacFarlane back to work on new episodes, which debuted in May 2005 on the same network that had canceled the show three years earlier.
“Family Guy” had some inherent advantages. Then-Fox network program chief Gail Berman had often publicly voiced support for the show. Because it was produced through the Fox studio, and distributed by Fox’s DVD arm, the show’s prime-time return could help boost both those corporate divisions, even if network viewership didn’t grow. But it did, with new fans lured through the cable repeats and DVD buzz.
Even better, that fan base was largely young men, a demographic TV finds tough to attract, making it yet more valuable for advertisers to reach. That demo also tends to be extravagant with disposable cash, so “Family Guy” could tap a deep merchandising well with video games, collectibles and other branded products. (The trade publication Video Business estimates 2005’s straight-to-DVD release “Family Guy Presents Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story” alone generated $78 million in sales and rentals.)
Also, of course, the show used animation rather than live action. Sets didn’t have to be rebuilt, and actors didn’t have to be pried from other obligations or bribed with beaucoups bucks to return.
Script ideas were less likely to run dry, too, thanks to MacFarlane & Co.‘s predilection for random gags riffing wildly off into digressive cutaways, flashbacks, fantasies and musical numbers.
That lampoon-anything-for-no-reason spirit has helped “Family Guy” appeal to iconoclast youth at the same time it may alienate critics, parents and even those who might otherwise seem the show’s natural audience.
Its haphazard gag-targeting fueled an April 2006 episode of Comedy Central’s scathing satire “South Park” called “Cartoon Wars,” in which more pointed parodists Trey Parker and Matt Stone lambasted “Family Guy” as being written by manatees arbitrarily floating “idea balls” to piece together plots. But “South Park” also endorsed MacFarlane’s right to uncensored free speech, even for “just one random interchangeable joke after another.”
MacFarlane took it in stride, soon telling Harvard’s 2006 graduating class that “the boys at `South Park’ are absolutely correct. Those cutaways and flashbacks have nothing to do with the story. They’re just there to be funny.”
For millions of “Family Guy” fans, that’s plenty good enough.