So, are you a Family Guy? I have a friend who is who you would never imagine he was. I am referring of course to the animated Fox TV show created by Seth MacFarlane. When my friend recommended the show–it was as though Neil Armstrong was raving about the latest Jimi Hendrix riff–I had to check it out.
Family Guy is hilarious. Think of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert bringing you the news through animated characters. It is that kind of topical, current events driven wit. It’s funny in ways that SNL wishes it still were. It is also a catechism of sorts for the politically correct class. If you wonder what the MSNBC crowd watches after hours, you’re wondering is over. Family Guy is a consistently funny political attack on dumb right-wing people [fans of Family Guy would question if the ‘dumb’ qualifier was necessary], people who have ANY problem with ANY homosexual behavior and the favorite whipping boy of the left, religion.
In the case of homosexuality, to say that the show is obsessed with that topic would be an understatement. There seems to be more than one reference in every show. The sub-text to the jokes seems to be the following; Can you believe there are people in society who may have an issue with this behavior? Here is the episode summary of an upcoming show:
To make money and pay off his debts, Peter participates in medical experiments, including one that makes him gay. He winds up in a relationship with another man and leaves Lois and the family brokenhearted, however, they realize the important thing is that Peter is happy.
That was my first impression. But, maybe I was reading too much into the 5 or 6 shows I had seen. So I googled a bit about MacFarlane. I learned that politically he’s a lefty [yawn], an atheist [only Captain Renault could have been shocked!] and that my perceptions of the homosexuality issue on the show were not wrong. This from an interview from Feb 2008 in the Advocate–“an award winning LGBT news site.”
Advocate: The Parents Television Council voted the episode, along with many others, “Worst TV Show of the Week.” Do you appreciate that honor?
SM: Oh, yeah. That’s like getting hate mail from Hitler. They’re literally terrible human beings. I’ve read their newsletter, I’ve visited their website, and they’re just rotten to the core. For an organization that prides itself on Christian values—I mean, I’m an atheist, so what do I know?—they spend their entire day hating people. They can all suck my dick as far as I’m concerned.
Advocate: Using the news anchor couple Greg and Terry you’ve also tackled LGBT issues on American Dad, most recently in the adoption episode “Surro-Gate.” Do you think you’re influencing viewer opinion?
SM: I certainly hope that we’re doing a small part to advance progress in that area. But there are some bits that we do on Family Guy and American Dad that are just pure comedy which I hope are not influencing people.
You’ve got to give MacFarlane credit, he’s advocating his beliefs while making $100 million [see article at end of post]. But as a viewer, this highlights an ongoing issue for me regarding entertainment. How much do I allow my beliefs, religious and/or political, to influence or constrict my viewing choices? Multi-cinemas have solved my problem at the movies. On TV, it’s been an uncomfortable compromise. For example, I know HBO runs some programming which I don’t approve of, but many which I do enjoy, so I subscribe. But my general dissatisfaction with the attack on my politics and religion [I’m Catholic] has brought me to the point where my regular TV viewing consists of some sports [ok, all Heat and Marlins games on DVR], Fox cable politics, HBO comedies and 24. I rarely watch anything live anymore–I consider it to be a logistical failure.
So I am not a Family Guy. Not because they can’t make me laugh, but because in the course of making me laugh, they advocate ideas which I am opposed to. But since I still believe the marketplace is a beautiful place, I fully expect that a ‘Stewie’ more palatable to my views will emerge anytime now. Hurry please.
Articles referenced is copied in full at end of post.
Seth MacFarlane’s $2 Billion Family Guy Empire
Saturday, November 01, 2008
Josh Dean – Fast Company
It’s not hard to find someone who delights in attacking the show Family Guy. Which isn’t a criticism, per se. Much of the animated sitcom’s purpose seems to be to stoke the opposition, to offend the easily offended. But that’s not the only reason it annoys people. There is a school of thought that says the show is hackish — crudely drawn and derivative of its cartoon forebears. Members of this school would include, most prominently, Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi, and Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the fathers of South Park, which is probably the only show on television that rivals Family Guy for objectionable content per half hour. South Park has devoted entire episodes to attacking Family Guy, portraying the show’s writers as manatees who push “idea balls” with random jokes down tubes to generate plotlines. Kricfalusi has said, “You can draw Family Guy when you’re 10 years old.”
What does Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane — who earlier this year inked a $100 million — plus contract with Fox, followed by a breakthrough deal involving Google — have to say about that?
“I would say, ‘How many violas do you have?’ ”
MacFarlane is hovering over the soundboard in the control room of the Newman Soundstage on the 20th Century Fox lot in Los Angeles. Various engineers twiddle knobs and adjust levels as he looks out on a gymnasium-size room full of classically trained musicians tuning their instruments. Every piece of music on every episode of Family Guy is recorded live by an orchestra that on this day numbers 56. The only music that ever repeats, even once, are the opening and closing themes, and those too are frequently updated, just because. Now, it is not unprecedented to use a live orchestra in today’s TV world. But it is highly unusual. “All the shows used to do it,” laments Walter Murphy, one of Family Guy’s two composers. “It’s mostly electronic now — to save money.” The Simpsons, he says, still uses an orchestra, as does Lost. King of the Hill has a small band. And, of course, there’s an orchestra on American Dad, the other show created by MacFarlane, who is now the highest-paid writer-producer in the history of TV.
MacFarlane, despite being 35 and looking like an average dude, possesses the musical inclinations of a septuagenarian drag queen. A significant percentage of Family Guy episodes feature extravagant Broadway-inspired song-and-dance numbers (because, really, why have the cartoon doctor tell his patient he has end-stage AIDS when a barbershop quintet can break the news via song?), and only some of them are sacrilegious or scatological. Among the features of his new contract with Fox is a Family Guy movie he imagines as “an old-style musical with dialogue” in the vein of The Sound of Music, a poster of which hangs above his desk. “We’d really be trying to capture, musically, that feel,” says MacFarlane, whose father moonlighted as a folk singer. “Nothing today feels like it’ll play 50 years from now, like Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hart.”
If you’re waiting for the punch line here, there isn’t one. Critics may dismiss MacFarlane’s show for being vulgar, but when he writes a song, it’s going to be lush and jazzy and, at least musically, exactly as you might hear in something by Irving Berlin. It’s all part of a manic attention to detail that not only gives the show its layered humor but also has made MacFarlane a massive multiplatform success.
MacFarlane is more than just an eclectic entertainer. Stripped of its crude facade, Family Guy — indeed, all of MacFarlane Inc. — exposes itself as a quintessentially modern business with lessons that extend far beyond TV land. MacFarlane has divined how to connect with next-generation consumers, not simply through the subject of his jokes but by embracing a flexibility in both format and distribution. He has also stepped outside the siloed definitions of a single industry (Hollywood) and exploited opportunity wherever he could find it (Silicon Valley). And perhaps most instructive, his success is not predicated on his product being all things to all people. He has bred allegiance from his core customers precisely because he’s been willing to turn his back on (and even offend) others — a model of sorts for how to create a mass-market-size niche business in our increasingly atomized culture.
MacFarlane is a fairly unassuming young man. He is partial to long-sleeve T-shirts, fraying jeans, and laceless black Chuck Taylors. Various stories have described him as prematurely graying, but today his hair is convincingly black and lightly gelled, and he’s wearing wire-rimmed glasses. Beard stubble is a staple. The net effect is the look of a full-grown, thinking man’s frat boy, which also pretty well sums up the target of his comedy (minus, perhaps, the full-grown part).
His show concerns the Griffins of Quahog, Rhode Island, whose patriarch is Peter, voiced by MacFarlane. Like Homer Simpson, he is lovable but bumbling, overweight, and a little slow-witted (a recent plot development is that he’s mentally retarded, but just barely). His wife is Lois, cartoon sexy and much sharper; she adores him despite his flaws. They have three children: Chris, overweight and dim, in so many ways his father’s son; Meg, smart but underappreciated and ever the butt of jokes about her homeliness; and Stewie, the infant pedant with the football-shape head who secretly wishes to murder his mother. Rounding out the clan is Brian the talking dog. He lusts after Lois, drinks martinis, and has been known to snort the occasional line of blow. (MacFarlane also voices both Brian and Stewie.)
Back in the soundstage control room, with the orchestra on the other side of the glass, a bank of flat screens are frozen on an image of Stewie staring out a window, forlorn. MacFarlane tells me that in this future episode, Stewie has been left home alone while the family goes on vacation.
“Let’s try it once with the dialogue,” Murphy says to his musicians. Stewie’s quasi-British voice — inspired by Rex Harrison, MacFarlane says — booms through the control room. “Oh, Mommy! Thank God you’re home! I promise with all my heart that I’ll never say or do anything bad to you for the rest of the evening.” Comedic pause. “By the way, I disabled the V-chip and watched so much porn.”
Out in the orchestra room, trombonists erupt in laughter.
It is a violent collision of high and low — classical musicians accustomed to the Hollywood Bowl recording music for a show heavy on poop jokes — and a perfect lens for examining why this man sipping coffee from a paper cup emblazoned with the Fox logo has such an enormous and perpetual grin.
It would be fair, at this point, to call Family Guy a juggernaut. If you’re looking to get acquainted, it airs Sunday evenings at 9, just after The Simpsons, which it has surpassed as the most-popular animated show on TV. Among males 18 to 34, often cited as the most desirable demographic in advertising, Family Guy is the highest-rated scripted program in all of television (American Dad ranks sixth). It is the second-highest-rated show among males 18 to 49. It is among the most-downloaded shows on iTunes and the most-watched programs on Hulu, and it was the eighth most-pirated show of 2007 on BitTorrent sites.
Next spring, MacFarlane will introduce The Cleveland Show, a spin-off starring the Griffins’ African-American neighbor. The show will be MacFarlane’s third in prime time and the first new product of his megadeal with Fox. (He is also prepping a live-action movie, but no title or dates have been announced.)
A common complaint about MacFarlane’s shows is that they are random and disjointed, with episodes that veer wildly off course for no apparent purpose. A human-size chicken, for example, has been known to show up and battle Peter, apropos of nothing, in elaborate fight scenes that mimic movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and stretch for more than a minute.
The show’s tangents are intentional, but in no way intended to advance plot. MacFarlane admits that sometimes vignettes are inserted into an episode just to fill time, or just because they’re good for a laugh, regardless of plot relevance. As a result, Family Guy is easily digested in bite-size portions — the breakout gags, like the musical numbers, can be watched in isolation, at any time, and still work. This makes MacFarlane’s show especially well suited to the Internet and mobile devices — perfect for viewing during a boring history lecture or on the dreary commute home on the 5:07 to Ronkonkoma.
Easily masticated comedy — plus a fervent audience of college kids in baggy cargo shorts bursting with disposable income and electronics — also made MacFarlane a natural fit for Google. In September, the first of 50 bizarro animated shorts by MacFarlane appeared online. Seth MacFarlane’s “Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy,” distributed by Google via its AdSense network, is a series of Webisodes that MacFarlane describes as edgier versions of New Yorker cartoons come to life. Running from 30 seconds to just over two minutes, the shorts are sponsored by advertisers and noteworthy for a host of reasons. For fans, they are MacFarlane’s first non-TV venture and so exist outside the reach of censors and network suits and introduce a universe of entirely new characters. For the entertainment industry, they mark the first experiments with a bold new method of content distribution (and the entry of the beast Google into its world). This purportedly unsophisticated hack comic now finds himself, in some ways by accident, at the intersection of advertising, television, and the Web — all of which are blurring together.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that while a MacFarlane product like Family Guy may seem slapdash when you’re watching it, the creative process behind it is decidedly sophisticated. “He’s kind of a modern-day cross between George Lucas and Norman Lear,” says his manager, John Jacobs. “He thinks on a big canvas.”
Says Norman Lear himself, a man who was once also the highest-paid creator on TV: “I’m crazy about him and his work. I can’t think of anybody doing a better job right now of mining the foolishness of the human condition.”
A Family Guy episode is more or less a nine-month undertaking, from first script to finished animation. All episodes take shape in the writers room on the third floor of an unremarkable office building on Wilshire Boulevard, home to MacFarlane’s Fuzzy Door Productions. It’s pretty much as you’d imagine: a conference table surrounded by rolling chairs and covered in computer monitors, action figures, and the assorted detritus of the comedy writer’s diet: soft-drink cans, candy wrappers, half-finished bags of beef jerky. MacFarlane takes a chair in front of a dry-erase board as his 16 writers stagger in drinking coffee and stabbing at cups of fruit. One of them asks the boss how a concert he’d seen the night before had gone, and when MacFarlane complains about the bathroom lines, the guy suggests he stick to “lesbian shows, like the Indigo Girls.”
The typical episode begins with a single writer producing a script, but then the whole team gets involved, dissecting each scene and line to decide if a) it’s actually funny and b) it can be made funnier. In a loose but laborious process, each gag gets chewed over ad infinitum in this peanut-gallery forum. The goal is to produce an episode overstuffed with jokes — something that gives fans plenty to discuss late at night on bulletin boards. “I think we’re the most joke-per-minute show on television,” asserts executive producer David Goodman.
This late-summer afternoon, the challenge is to fill out a scene in which Stewie and some friends are at nursery school. Ideas are tossed out in various impressions of Stewie’s voice: There’s a molestation joke, some poop jokes, a joke about a rogue chicken because, according to the writer who pitches it, “chickens just wander around the yard at some schools.”
“Is that safe?” MacFarlane asks. “Aren’t chickens aggressive and, like, poke your eyes out?”
Anyone can speak, and jokes are called out with no introduction. MacFarlane sits up front, along with Goodman, reclining in his seat and appearing in no way dictatorial. He’ll chime in, but his input seems no more or less important than anyone else’s. “If the writers in that room don’t laugh — it’s not going on,” says Goodman. “That’s a tough room. If we laugh, it’s probably funny.”
The prevailing meta-joke about Stewie is that, despite being an infant, he is the most intellectual character on the show, even if the only family member who can hear him speak is Brian the dog.
“Stewie could wear a cop hat and go up to a white girl standing with a black kid and say, ‘Are you okay, miss?’ ” one writer suggests.
Awkward, almost embarrassed laughs break out around the table. It’s a joke that could be viewed as offensive, or as fairly pointed social criticism. A digression on race follows, before everyone moves on to another idea, about toddlers as obnoxious art critics picking apart one another’s finger paintings.
There isn’t a comedy writers room in America where the banter doesn’t often veer toward extreme subjects. The difference with this crew is that the extremes are the goal. Watch enough Family Guy and you’ll almost certainly see something that makes you cringe; it might not offend you personally, but you can imagine how someone won’t find it funny. Family Guy savages politicians and celebrities, and is more than willing to tackle all manner of touchy subjects in the name of comedy — race, Islam, Christianity (Jesus is a recurring character, because FCC rules stipulate you cannot use “Jesus Christ” as an exclamation unless the deity himself is present), homosexuality, bestiality, pedophilia, the physically impaired. A favorite example tossed out by opponents is a sight gag that involved a JFK Pez dispenser in which the candy emerged from a hole in the president’s head. (MacFarlane later admitted that maybe, just maybe, that one crossed the line.)
MacFarlane doesn’t argue with the notion that many of his jokes border on offensive, but the notion that the content is actually offensive irks him. Each episode is vetted by a team of Fox censors editing with the FCC in mind. But beyond that, he contends, “There’s an enormous amount of self-policing that goes on and a lot of intelligent conversations about whether a show is worth doing. I would stack the ethics of one of my writers up against the average Washington bureaucrat on censorship any day.” MacFarlane is mystified in particular by the two things that most upset the FCC — two basic elements of human life that, in his view, are far less sensitive than, say, religion. “For the FCC, it’s sexual references,” he says. “But even more than that, shit jokes. Any time we even show somebody on a toilet, we get in trouble.”
MacFarlane doesn’t argue with the notion that his jokes border on offensive. But the notion that they are actually offensive irks him.
Which brings us back to the writers room. A source of ongoing consternation is Stewie’s inability to master the commode. MacFarlane assumes the child’s erudite voice and says, speaking in character to his fellow children, “I’d like to make an announcement: It’s the elephant in the room. I made a stool. Now let’s just all go about our business as if nothing happened, and it’ll take care of itself in due time.”
Most everyone in the room laughs. The joke is in.
Seth MacFarlane was basically fated to this life. His middle name, Woodbury, was chosen by his mother as an homage to the town drunk back in Kent, Connecticut. “Some of the foulest jokes I’ve ever heard,” he has said, “came from my mother.” MacFarlane started drawing at 2 and published his first cartoon, “Walter Crouton,” in a local paper at the age of 8. At 18, he left for the Rhode Island School of Design and, after his adviser sent his thesis film, “Life of Larry” (starring a lovable schlub with a tolerant wife and a talking dog), off to Hanna-Barbera, he was hired to work as an animator and writer on shows like Dexter’s Laboratory and Johnny Bravo. In 1996, he created a sequel to “Life of Larry” that aired in prime time on the Cartoon Network. Fox development executives took notice and hired him away to work on interstitials to run between sketches on Mad TV.
A few years later, Fox asked MacFarlane, then 25, to develop an animated pilot, giving him a scant $50,000 to do it. MacFarlane emerged three months later with a nearly completed pilot, for which he had drawn every frame and voiced every character.
Fox bought the show, gave MacFarlane a reported $2-million-per-season contract, and premiered Family Guy in the highest-profile slot possible, following the 1999 Super Bowl. He was the youngest person ever to be given his own primetime network show.
It drew 22 million viewers but then became a sort of network foster child. For the next two years, Fox execs moved the show all over the schedule, trying it in 11 time slots, including in the death zone opposite Friends. Despite the fact that Family Guy tracked well with young men, the show’s ratings were low. Fox canceled it in 2000, revived it briefly the next year, then canceled it again.
But a funny thing happened. The show lived on over at the Cartoon Network, with even edgier versions specially edited by MacFarlane. Regard for the show was so low that Fox essentially gave the Cartoon Network the first 50 episodes for free; Fox simply asked for promotion of the show’s DVD in exchange. (They were having trouble persuading retailers to stock it — another in a list of miscalculations that seems inconceivable in retrospect.) Family Guy’s audience, ignored at every turn, followed the show to the Cartoon Network, dug in, and swelled, regularly beating both Letterman and Leno in the desirable young-male demographic. When Fox released the first 28 episodes on a series of DVDs in 2003, it sold more than 2.5 million copies. (In 2005, a straight-to-DVD movie called Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story sold about 3.5 million copies, bringing in almost $80 million.)
Twentieth Century Fox TV president Gary Newman (now chairman) summoned MacFarlane to his office in 2004 and did the unthinkable: He asked him to restart production. “I had gone into the meeting not knowing why I was going in there,” MacFarlane recalls. “He said, ‘We’d like to put this back into production,’ and I almost fell out of my chair.”
David Goodman says that when Family Guy was initially canceled, MacFarlane told him Goodman’s job would be safe if it ever returned. “I’d been on 14 canceled TV shows,” Goodman recalls. “They never come back. It’s never happened before — ever.”
Fox brought the show back in a big way, ordering 35 episodes (22 is typical) and handing over the Sunday-at-9 slot, where it boomed. The 100th episode aired in November of 2007, pushing the show into syndication. Though schedules vary, Family Guy airs up to 27 times a week in a single market, with reruns on Fox, TBS, the Cartoon Network, and in 20 major markets on channels owned by Tribune Broadcasting.
“Animation is something that, if it works, it’s more profitable for a studio than any other show,” MacFarlane says. People don’t buy Everybody Loves Raymond T-shirts, but they do buy shirts bearing the devious visage of Stewie, as well as action figures, stickers, posters, and video games. Increasingly, they also buy song clips and ring tones. And Fox, which owns the show, also owns the intellectual property (but kicks a percentage of sales back to MacFarlane). Reports have valued the Family Guy franchise at as much as $1 billion. Though neither Fox nor MacFarlane’s team would confirm that number, a little back-of-the-envelope math indicates that it is overly conservative. At a reported $2 million per episode, Family Guy has garnered at least $400 million up front from syndication. DVD sales have totaled almost another $400 million, while 80 licensees have contributed at least $200 million from sales of various clothing and baubles, actual and digital. Fox’s ad revenue off Family Guy can be estimated at at least $500 million over the years. “Suffice it to say, with it being a studio-owned show, and being on the Fox network, it’s of substantial value,” Newman told me. And none of this figures in revenue from MacFarlane’s other hit product, American Dad.
Team MacFarlane, of course, also recognized the value of what MacFarlane has brought to the network. By the time negotiations on a new contract began more than two years ago, the challenge for both sides was how to put a number on MacFarlane’s worth, considering that he isn’t just a writer-producer but also an animator and actor. MacFarlane’s team felt the need to let his contract expire, “to have him on the open market,” explains one of his representatives. For more than two years, MacFarlane worked on Family Guy in good faith, without a contract. “There were a couple days when I was ‘sick,’ ” MacFarlane says. “At times, that helps bring the negotiations back when they’re stalled.”
When the writers strike broke out last year, he sided with the guild and walked off the set. Fox decided to go forward and edit episodes without MacFarlane’s participation — they did own them, after all. MacFarlane called it a “colossal dick move.” When asked about it now, he says it’s a sore that’s been salved ($100 million has a way of doing that). “They gave us money to go back and edit the shows the way we wanted, and we made nice.”
One Fox-inflicted bruise that has yet to fade involves shots taken at Family Guy by The Simpsons, a show that MacFarlane says he admires greatly. Most famously, in an episode called “Treehouse of Horror,” Homer creates a sea of clones even dumber and more dim-witted than himself. One of these is Family Guy’s Peter Griffin. MacFarlane decided to return fire. He wrote a joke in which Peter’s perverted friend Quagmire attacks and molests Marge Simpson. Fox, he says, nixed the idea. “They said, ‘We want the feuds to end.’ I thought it was very conspicuous that this came about only when we decided to hit them back.”
What did he do? He left it in anyway, and delivered the edit to Fox, which then edited it out. “It’s still a sore point,” MacFarlane says. “It’s still this wound that has never quite healed that says, ‘We don’t value you quite as much,’ which I can’t imagine is true, but …” The thought trails off and, perhaps realizing that it’s best not to follow this logic, he turns a corner. “To be fair to Fox — for the most part, creatively they have been a very easy company to work with. This was kind of a rare lapse in judgment.”
MacFarlane’s contract hiatus didn’t just buy him leverage with Fox; it was an expansion opportunity. While the studio was noodling on the deal, MacFarlane’s management team went out and signed him up with Google. The resulting “Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy” is outside the bounds of the Fox relationship. “In a completely perfect world,” Dana Walden, chairman of 20th Century Fox Television, has said, “he wouldn’t be able to do that.”
He did. The idea stemmed from conversations between MacFarlane’s lawyer and agent and representatives of Media Rights Capital, an L.A.-based multimedia financier. Loosely tied to the talent agency Endeavor (which reps MacFarlane, naturally), MRC partners with content creators — whether that’s director Alejandro González Iñárritu on Babel; or Sacha Baron Cohen on his next film, Bruno; or MacFarlane — giving them funding and a share in ownership, plus creative control.
MacFarlane produced the Cavalcade shorts with a team of six writers. The animation is instantly recognizable as his, as is the humor. The shorts lean heavily on pop culture (say, “Fred and Barney Try to Get Into a Club,” which is fairly self-explanatory); they’re rude (in one, Tara Reid’s grotesque belly flab talks); and of course, they’re crude (a boy is told he is adopted by two parents with nipples that stick out of their chests like javelins; his name, they tell him, is not Michael Sticknipples but rather Albert Horsefeet Turdsneeze — whereupon the boy sneezes a turd that sprouts horse feet and gallops off).
The Cavalcade shorts are also distributed in an innovative way: targeting young males where they lurk by popping up in ad windows on sites such as Maxim.com and Fandango.com (while simultaneously appearing on YouTube). “The idea is not to drive someone to a Web site but to make content available wherever the audience will be,” explains Dan Goodman, president of digital at MRC.
Also unprecedented is the way MacFarlane is being paid. MRC is not Fox; it can’t just write him a nine-figure check. Instead, MacFarlane’s status as an equity partner in the deal entitles him to split the ad revenue with Google and MRC. Because the whole idea is new, it’s hard to draw parallels to current entertainment and marketing models but, essentially, MRC provides the funding and sells the ad partnerships, MacFarlane provides the content, and Google serves as distribution outlet, providing the “broadcast” via its AdSense network. Then all three split the proceeds. It can, and will, be replicated with other content providers. Already, MRC is working with the Disney Channel’s Raven-Symoné on kids-targeted programming. You could easily imagine it with, say, Rachael Ray.
Each Cavalcade short carries a single advertiser. The first 10 were bought by Burger King, and — in yet another unprecedented move — MacFarlane animated the company’s ads for them. It’s an option available to any of the sponsors if they choose to pay extra for it.
For Burger King, the appeal was obvious. “Seth’s fan base intersects squarely with our audience of young men and women,” says Brian Gies, vice president of marketing impact for Burger King. In other words, MacFarlane’s comedy provides a very powerful and friendly connection to a very targeted audience, one that tends to get the munchies. Says Google’s Levy: “We know where to find them, and we’re putting the advertising in an environment they’re comfortable in.”
“The idea is to take the TV experience and provide it on the Web,” says Alex Levy, Google’s director of branded entertainment. “But brought to the people you want to reach, when, where, and how you want to reach them.” For a company that likes to say it’s not in the content business, that’s a remarkable statement. Google, in essence, is trying to use its ad-distribution network to turn content distribution upside down. (Google calls it the Content Network.)
There’s no guarantee the new model is going to stick, of course — advertisers could decide they get as much value by just buying regular Web ads and avoid paying extra. But early returns showed viewers were responding well to the shorts. In its first days, Cavalcade was the most-watched channel on YouTube, and the videos racked up 5.5 million views across the various sites running them. And MacFarlane wins no matter what. Unlike his Family Guy characters, every horny frog and lusty princess and sarcastic talking bear created for Cavalcade is owned by him, and can be deployed for future revenue. And for all this, he has zero financial risk.
A couple of years ago, MacFarlane nearly worked himself to death. He collapsed at his desk and was rushed to the hospital. He was sick, he says, and “didn’t have the time to stop.” So he passed out right there under the Sound of Music poster. He ended up spending, as he tells it, “a lovely afternoon at the emergency room.”
“We’ve been behind schedule on Family Guy since day one,” he explains. “In reality, you can’t do a prime-time animated show in the time allotted, so that always puts a glaze of stress over the whole process.” He takes a breath. “I refuse to let that control my life. I did that in my twenties. Now I insist on a balance.”
MacFarlane has handed off the day-to-day control of both American Dad and The Cleveland Show, and he is increasingly delegating on Family Guy. He reviews all the drawings and obsesses more than a little over the music — there is some stuff he just can’t give up. And what’s easy to forget is that MacFarlane is also the star of Family Guy. Actually, several stars of Family Guy. He voices three of the six main characters, and is in virtually every scene, sometimes playing several parts at once. He’s also the voice of Quagmire, a major secondary player, and hundreds of ancillary characters and one-timers. And, of course, he’s the voice of Stan, the lead on American Dad, and almost certain to guest-star often on The Cleveland Show. This summer, he showed up as a voice actor in Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II and is very soon planning to step in front of the camera in live-action projects. He also intends to direct movies.
One afternoon in August, MacFarlane and two sound engineers are in the tiny control room outside the recording booths in the Family Guy offices. In strolls the actor Gary Cole wearing shorts and sunglasses. For a show that likes to pick on celebrities, Family Guy has little trouble attracting them, especially those whose résumés include the kind of wonderfully awful performances that ultimately get embraced as cult in-jokes: Drew Barrymore, Haley Joel Osment, Gene Simmons, Bob Costas, Phyllis Diller … Michael Clarke Duncan was in earlier this morning. Richard Dreyfuss is due to arrive this evening.
Cole has done the show 23 times. Today, he’s doing Mike Brady, reprising a role he played in The Brady Bunch Movie. In this script, Mr. Brady is verbally abusing Mrs. Brady in one of those trademark pop-culture tangents.
“You know, you can really go as loud as you want,” MacFarlane says in director mode. “We’ve never heard Mike Brady yell before, so this is new territory.” He then assumes the role of Carol Brady.
“Huh, I don’t remember asking for a warm beer,” Cole says, his voice quiet but seething.
MacFarlane, as Carol, flips out: “I didn’t want to quit working — you made me!”
Five minutes later, Cole exits and MacFarlane is off to the next thing, laying down lines in furious fashion, typically in three or four takes, which he then selects from on the fly. His sound engineers tag his favorite takes and move on. He swaps from voicing Stewie to Peter to Quagmire to various odd parts, including a bit as Paul McCartney and another as Vince Vaughn.
Next up: A writer is doing Patrick Swayze, who is not, as you might expect, the butt of a cancer joke, but rather a tight-jeans joke followed by repeated takes of the writer growling, as throaty redneck Swayze, “Roadhouse!” It’s another one of those cult jokes, a little snippet of Dada theater.
“Even a hair more badass,” MacFarlane directs, and over and over they go until that one simple word becomes absurd in its own right. You can already hear it as a ring tone.