January 08, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Forget about the tree-trunk-limbed defensive linemen and the lip-synching halftime acts — the most terrifying force this Super Bowl Sunday is a baby named Stewie. The enfant terrible is the youngest offspring of lunkheaded Everyman Peter Griffin, star of Family Guy, Fox’s new animated sitcom that’s scored the coveted post-Super Bowl time slot for its Jan. 31 debut.

A swaddling-clothed megalomaniac, Stewie’s got a voice as sinister as The Simpsons‘ Mr. Burns’ and a mind as treacherous as a Bond villain’s. Then there’s Peter’s wisecracking pooch, Brian, who in one episode gets sent to the pound, where he lies in his cell thumbing through a dog-eared copy of Barely Legal Bitches. A Pillsbury Doughboyish creature also makes a Family cameo, cursing like a South Park refugee. And in a scene in which the Griffins veg in front of the tube, they witness Murder, She Wrote‘s Jessica Fletcher revealing a secret past — as a poster girl for Planned Parenthood.

Before these bits managed to limbo their way past network censors (and the good-taste police) they were dancing around the brain of 25-year-old animator Seth MacFarlane. Practically a baby himself, MacFarlane just locked up a decidedly grown-up $2.5 million-a-year production deal with Fox.

Not a bad haul, considering it’s sparked by a ‘toon that began as a project from MacFarlane’s undergrad days at the Rhode Island School of Design. ”I was still figuring out what I wanted to do within animation,” he says. ”And it’s funny, because it was either that or a sci-fi cartoon. But economically, the whole tactless-guy thing seemed to be the way to go.”

After graduating from RISD in ’95, MacFarlane moved to L.A. and got a gig at animation giant Hanna-Barbera, where he wrote and did some directing on series like Johnny Bravo. Meanwhile, his student film was generating buzz (much like that other originally underground novelty South Park). After seeing MacFarlane’s reel, the producers of Fox’s MAD TV discussed having him create some shorts. When that plan hit a snag, the net steered him toward developing Family Guy for its video clip-fest The World’s Funniest!, hoping it could break out as The Simpsons had from The Tracey Ullman Show.

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