Television series creator and animator
Born October 26, 1973, in Kent, CT. Education: Earned degree from Rhode Island School of Design, 1995.
Addresses: Office—c/o FOX Entertainment Group, 1211 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10036.
Animator for Hanna-Barbera Studios after 1995; his short animated feature Larry and Steve was shown on the Cartoon Network's World Premiere Toons, 1996; first series, Family Guy, ran for three seasons on FOX, 1999-2002, and was renewed by the network for the spring 2005 season; a second series, American Dad, debuted on FOX in January, 2005.
Awards: Emmy Award for outstanding voice-over performance, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, for voice of Stewie on Family Guy, 2000.
Seth MacFarlane is the creator of FOX TV's animated series Family Guy. Barely out of college when the network handed him his own show, MacFarlane delivered a series known for its tasteless humor and amusingly witty talking dog. Family Guy lasted just three seasons before network executives pulled the plug on the series in 2002, but over the next few years it developed a cult following in cable reruns, and FOX took the historic step of bringing it back for another prime-time run—it is said to be the first show in television history to be resurrected by the same network that cancelled it in the first place. MacFarlane never imagined that Family Guy would return, as he told Josh Wolk in Entertainment Weekly. "There was no precedent for it, " he remarked. "It would require a network to say, 'We've made a mistake.'"
Born in October of 1973, MacFarlane grew up in Kent, Connecticut, a town in Litchfield County whose most notable residents are former U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and the Kent School, a co-educational boarding school founded in 1906. MacFarlane's mother worked at the school, and he himself graduated with its 1991 class. He went on to the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, where he studied animation. MacFarlane's choice of career had been decided for him at the age of 14, when he saw his first episode of The Simpsons, the immensely popular FOX Network animated series about a working-class family. He had already made some of his first sci-fi-themed films with the help of an eight-millimeter movie camera his parents had bought for him.
The Rhode Island School of Design, known informally as RISD ("ris-dee") is considered one of the top art schools in the United States. MacFarlane's 1995 degree from it helped him land him a job on the West Coast at Hanna-Barbera Productions, the famed animation studio in West Hollywood, California. Hanna-Barbera, the creator of such perennial cartoon favorites as Yogi Bear and the Flintstones, became the Cartoon Network Studios not long after MacFarlane joined the team. He worked on the series Johnny Bravo and Dexter's Laboratory.
MacFarlane also wrote his own stories, and honed his comic skills as a stand-up comic for a time. At RISD, he had made a well-received student film called The Life of Larry, the story of a hapless bumbler who became the forerunner of the dad on Family Guy. A sequel he made to it, Larry and Steve, featured Larry's improbably brilliant talking-dog companion, and made it onto the Cartoon Network's showcase World Premiere Toons in 1996. Executives at the FOX Network liked what they saw and asked MacFarlane to do some short animated bits for their MAD TV series. From there, FOX signed him to a $2.5 million-a-year production deal in May of 1998 to create his own series based on the Larry and Steve characters.
The result was Family Guy, and the animated series debuted on the FOX Network on January 31, 1999, right after the Super Bowl game. The storylines revolved around the household of Peter Griffin, a toy-factory worker in Rhode Island, and his wife and three children, who included a genius toddler, Baby Stewie. Rounding out the cast was Brian, the Griffins' martini-drinking, quip-delivering dog. FOX put the show on the air for its first regular season, beginning in April of 1999, in a terrific Sunday-night slot—after The Simpsons and before The X-Files.
FOX launched Family Guy with a generous publicity blitz, and much was made of the boy-genius aura surrounding MacFarlane, its creator, who was just 25 years old at the time. In viewing the show, however, critics were puzzled by the mix of high and low humor, with Entertainment Weekly 's Ken Tucker describing it as " The Simpsons as conceived by a singularly sophomoric mind that lacks any reference point beyond other TV shows." Tucker also mentioned the massive FOX marketing push surrounding the Family Guy 's debut, and predicted that this was "shaping up to be the hollowest hype of the year." In Newsweek, critic Kendall Hamilton also mentioned its "golden launch" and remarked that FOX executives seemed assured in their conviction that Family Guy would be the next Simpsons. "If it isn't, it won't be because Family Guy compares unfavorably with other clever cartoons plying the air-waves, " Hamilton noted. "It'll be because it's not measurably better."
Despite the jibes, and an audience that seemed to dwindle weekly, MacFarlane's Family Guy caught on with a number of viewers who remained devoted to the series. FOX moved the show several times, however—a surefire strategy to lose an audience. For its second season, it was put in a time slot that forced it to compete for viewers with wrestling night on the rival United Paramount Network (UPN). Less than a month later, MacFarlane's series was put on hiatus, but returned with new episodes in March of 2000. This time, network executives placed it up against the hit ABC series Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? on the prime-time Tuesday line-up.
MacFarlane, who was intensely involved in the writing and production of show, also did three of its voices: Peter, Baby Stewie, and Brian the dog. He won an Emmy in August of 2000 for that work, but by then FOX was thinking of canceling the show altogether. He had even had to let some of his staff go, but Family Guy was renewed for a third season, helped by the fact that FOX's new president, Gail Berman, liked the show. "We got a call from the network at one point telling us that it was the single largest fan push for a show that FOX had seen in the history of the network, including Party of Five, " MacFarlane recalled in an interview with Terri Roberts for Ross Reports Television & Film. Berman green-lighted another 13 episodes for the 2001 season, but the finished product went up against the CBS hit reality series Survivor on Thursday nights, as well as NBC's longtime first-place ratings-war winner, Friends. Bested by tough competition, the Family Guy was finally cancelled. Its last episode aired in February of 2002. MacFarlane was not technically out of a job at that point, since his contract with FOX gave him permission to create another series.
There was a still a devoted Family Guy fan base, and some of the more ardent champions petitioned FOX to release all three seasons on DVD. Hoping to recoup some of the production costs (declining ratings for a show means that the network must reduce its rates for commercial air time during the episodes), they agreed, and struck a deal with the Cartoon Network—a cable channel also in the FOX corporate family—to take the show and add it to its weeknight schedule in return for some free promotional spots trumpeting the April of 2003 DVD release.
Family Guy became part of the Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" lineup of animated series, including Futurama, which was aimed at 18- to 34-year-old male viewers. The 50 episodes of MacFarlane's defunct series began to score impressive ratings, and in some markets it even beat out Jay Leno's Tonight Show and Late Show with David Letterman.
The Family Guy DVD release was also an unexpected success. When the first 28 episodes were released in the spring of 2003, they quickly sold a million copies, and Family Guy became the number-two best-selling television show on DVD ever, following first-place finisher, comedian Dave Chap-pelle's first season collection of Chappelle's Show. MacFarlane, meanwhile, had been working on his next series, and had wrapped it up when FOX called him in for a meeting. He knew his new animated show, American Dad, was going to make its debut soon, but was stunned when the president of 20th Century FOX television production, Gary Newman, asked MacFarlane if he would be interested in resurrecting Family Guy as well. "It was like when you ask out a girl and she says yes and you try not to look too excited, " MacFarlane recalled about that meeting in an interview with Devin Gordon for Newsweek. "I'm sitting there, trying to seem professional, and all I'm thinking is, 'My God, how did this happen?'"
To make up for lost time, and to soothe fears about MacFarlane having to rehire a staff he had once had to fire, FOX asked for 35 episodes, instead of the usual 22 per-season deal. They also sweetened the pot with plans for a book, Stewie's Guide to World Domination, and asked for an 80-minute original Family Guy DVD movie. The fourth season began airing on FOX in the spring of 2005, and in its first episode MacFarlane even managed to write in a sly dig at the network with a mention of a long legacy of canceled FOX shows, among them Titus, That '80s Show, Girlsclub, Cracking Up, and Normal, Ohio.
MacFarlane's other animated series, American Dad, debuted in January of 2005. It featured some strong political comedy thanks to the title character, Stan Smith. Stan is a Central Intelligence Agency employee, right-wing Republican, and fully formed conspiracy theorist. Some of the political humor had its origins in MacFarlane's near-death experience: in September of 2001, he gave a speech at his alma mater, and was scheduled to fly back to Los Angeles out of nearby Logan Airport in Boston. He missed his plane, and that American Airlines flight was the plane that hit the north tower of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11.
American Dad is firmly rooted in the "zany-family" sitcom tradition, with the intensely patriotic Stan presiding over a brood that includes his dimwitted wife Francine, liberal teenage daughter Hayley, nerdy son Steve, and Roger, an alien that Stan has rescued from the mythic Area 51, where conspiracy theorists believe the U.S. government has secreted evidence of extraterrestrial landings. The resident alien is clearly a violation of Stan's workplace security protocols, as is the family's other "pet, " a German-speaking goldfish named Klaus. Klaus is a failed Central Intelligence Agency experiment, and is desperately in love with Francine. MacFarlane's sister, Rachael, provides the voice for Hayley, and MacFarlane does the voices for Stan and Roger.
Besides having his first series cancelled, though later renewed, the only other setback in MacFarlane's career was an odd boycott campaign that rolled out in mid-1999 during the first season of Family Guy. The campaign was instigated by his former headmaster at the Kent School, Father Richardson Schell, who urged advertisers to boycott the show because of its racy and often politically incorrect humor. The crusade died out when the media linked Schell's discontent to the fact that the fictional family name, Griffin, was also the last name of the longtime school secretary, though MacFarlane assured everyone that the coincidence was purely accidental.
Roberts, who interviewed MacFarlane for Ross Reports Television & Film, asked him if he ever anticipated that his career would turn out so well, when so many animators toil in obscurity for years. "I did, " he admitted somewhat candidly, "but it was only out of naïveté. It wasn't like I had an over-blown idea of self-worth, it was more that I didn't realize how difficult it was. I saw what happened with The Simpsons and thought, 'Gosh, how hard can that be?' Obviously, very hard. They made it look very easy, but it was very difficult. But it's been worth all the time it's taken."
Broadcasting & Cable, June 21, 2004, p. 12.
Daily Variety, February 4, 2005, p. 10.
Entertainment Weekly, January 8, 1999, p. 39; April 9, 1999, p. 52; April 22, 2005, pp. 36-39.
Newsweek, April 12, 1999, p. 73; April 4, 2005, p. 50.
New York Observer, June 19, 2000, p. 22.
New York Times, September 3, 2000, p. 59.
Ross Reports Television & Film, November 2004, p. 5.
Variety, August 21, 2000, p. 12.