Fall TV preview: ''Family Guy'' -- A look at creator Seth MacFarlane's empire

Returning Comedy
Starts September 28, 9-9:30PM, Fox

There are more than 50 people crammed into a former law office conference room for a Family Guy table read, but the guy to keep an eye on is the one in the sweatshirt, faded blue jeans, and black tennis shoes. He’s the one slicing through the multiple personalities (infantile tyrant Stewie Griffin, urbane alcoholic dog Brian, and finally dad Peter, a man so rotund and stupid, he seems to be missing a Tweedledee) with barely a breath in between. It’s a neat trick, gliding so effortlessly through all those funny voices. But then a thought bubbles up: This guy is worth $100,000,000. As in eight zeros.

Yep, that’s how much Fox ponied up to keep Family Guy creator and 34-year-old wunderkind Seth MacFarlane in-house for the next five years, where he will continue to oversee Sunday-night mainstays Family Guy and American Dad, as well as Guy spin-off The Cleveland Show, which is slated for 2009. And because he isn’t quite busy enough, the multi-hyphenate also signed a separate deal with Google to create Seth MacFarlane’s Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy, a hub for animated Web shorts bundled with MacFarlane-inked ads that will debut this month. Thanks to that $100 million deal, MacFarlane gets to call himself one of the highest-paid exec producers in television. Indeed, with his animated seed spread across the network like so many Law & Orders, he’s nothing short of a Dick Wolf for the frat-boy set. Only nobody panics when Dick Wolf sneezes.

”The last thing we need is Seth getting a head cold,” groans Guy exec producer Chris Sheridan in his L.A. office. ”We’ll always have to rerecord [the show], because you can hear it. It sounds like Peter, Stewie, Brian, and Quagmire have colds — and all in the same episode.” But it’s not just germs that make the Family nervous. Take MacFarlane’s recent foray into the crowds of the Comic-Con convention. ”You’d better believe I was standing right next to him,” recalls Sheridan. ”These security guards are like, ‘We got him, we got him, we got him.’ And I’m like, ‘You’re seven feet away! You know what can happen to this guy in seven feet?”’ All the fuss about MacFarlane’s health and safety underscores the fact that he is a mogul — thanks to a show about a family from Quahog, R.I., that has been critically derided (including in the pages of this magazine) as a sophomoric Simpsons knock-off. A show that Fox canceled due to low ratings. Twice. If Seth MacFarlane is indeed building an animation empire, Family Guy remains its most unlikely crown jewel.

Family Guy‘s ascendancy is the stuff of legend — practically urban legend, it’s so unbelievable. After the show failed to garner Simpsons-size ratings when it debuted in 1999, Fox pulled the series after season 2. A last-minute reprieve gave the show another year before the network canceled it for good in 2002. Or so everybody thought…until the DVDs racked up surprisingly robust sales (a DVD of the first 28 episodes sold more than one million copies in 2003), and the reruns made Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block a cult hit. All of a sudden, Fox wanted MacFarlane back in — and on — its Family. ”In certain respects, there’s nothing more valuable than our Sunday-night animation block,” says Fox Entertainment president Kevin Reilly, and ”Seth is the tentpole of that block.” For the first time, by a margin of 175,000 viewers, Family Guy edged The Simpsons in the ratings last season (in a tougher 9 o’clock time slot). Then there’s the money, with Guy, its DVDs (including the show’s Star Wars spoof Blue Harvest), and merchandise reportedly raking in $1 billion for the network. Since you can’t have an empire without territory, MacFarlane carved that out, too: With American Dad, he controls half of Fox’s prime-time Sunday lineup, and will soon expand his reach with The Cleveland Show.

”There had been talk of some sort of Family Guy spin-off for a while,” explains MacFarlane over a Sunday brunch of waffles and eggs at an L.A. diner. He nixed the idea of letting loose Guy‘s Mutt and Jeff duo, Brian and Stewie, or of busting Quagmire out of Quahog. Then Mike Henry, who voices Cleveland, and former King of the Hill and Simpsons producer Richard Appel approached MacFarlane with an idea: Move Cleveland back to his hometown of Stoolbend, Va., where he reconnects with a lost love. MacFarlane bit, and so did Fox, which ordered 13 episodes — although the studio did initially balk at MacFarlane’s decision to voice a ”foreign-accented” bear for the spin-off. ”Anything that they think might possibly take me away from Family Guy freaks them out. It’s funny when you walk into a studio and say, ‘Here’s a way to make a whole bunch more money,’ and they go, ‘Oh, s—.”’

With three shows, a start-up Internet series, a billion-dollar business, and legions of fans, life for MacFarlane and the rest of the Guys must be (as Peter would say) freakin’ sweet, right? Yeah, but no. There’s the critical drubbing the show’s taken since its inception, along with shin kicks from The Simpsons and South Park (the latter of which had so much trash to talk about Family Guy, it took two full episodes). The South Park smackdown, says Sheridan, ”made us feel like they’re acknowledging how powerful our show is.” Adds exec producer David Goodman: ”They didn’t like it.”

Then there was the excitement that Guy had been short-listed for an Emmy nomination in the comedy series category, only for it to miss out in favor of safer choices like Two and a Half Men and Entourage. ”The depressing thing is that I sort of knew that it wasn’t going to happen,” says MacFarlane. ”The attitude oftentimes is, Well, it’s a cartoon. What is there to do? Don’t you just draw it?” Judging by his gargantuan contract, the network, at least, realizes the value in what MacFarlane does. ”It’s such a silly amount of money,” he admits, slathering his waffle in butter and syrup. ”It shocked the hell out of me when I found out. I expected to get maybe a quarter of that. But when you look at what the show has made for the studio, on the other hand, it’s a fairly small fraction.” Besides, MacFarlane thinks of it as back pay. ”They gave me a hundred million dollars, I gave them my 20s. That’s kinda fair.” And as Sheridan points out: ”They have no choice but to do it because he’s everything on the show. You can’t do the show without him. That’s a strong place to be.”

Strong like golden handcuffs. To earn his —100 million, MacFarlane will still have to divide himself between three shows. For Family Guy he’s playing Peter trying to persuade Jesus to quit his job at a used record store, then directing Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase’s Spies Like Us reunion in another episode, and planning a sequel to the show’s Emmy-nominated Star Wars spoof, temporarily nicknamed ”Something, Something, Something Dark Side.” In his spare time, he’ll be twisting his voice into alien Roger’s nasally Paul Lynde rasp for a Broken Arrow gag on American Dad, and making sure that Cleveland doesn’t run itself into a ditch. In addition, there’s a Family Guy movie that Fox would very much like to make, given that the Simpsons‘ first big-screen outing grossed $527 million globally. ”We have an idea what it would be about,” MacFarlane says. But ”how do we do it while we’re doing a series? That’s the problem The Simpsons faced for 20 years.”

Still, there’s hardly call to weep for Seth MacFarlane. He’s got that $100 mil burning a hole in his pocket, starlets on his arm (he has reportedly dated Eliza Dushku and Amanda Bynes), and a private plane at his disposal. If he had to ”bust [his] f—ing ass” during his 20s, it certainly seems worth it. If he has to run from brunch to redraw storyboards (”There’s just no time to spare until you’re canceled”), so be it. And if he wants to pay for your valet parking on the way out, let him. The guy can afford it.

Family Guy
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