'American Dad' and 'Cleveland Show' producer shared familiar stories at the Paley Festival
's been in the news a bit recently, mostly due to his minor spat with Sarah Palin (who gets involved in minor spats with media personalities like an 18-year-old college freshman who's only in college because her parents insist she go switches majors), so you'd be forgiven for thinking that the Paley evening featuring him and his close friends and show business pals might produce something of even the mildest of interest. Instead, it was mostly an evening designed to let the man's fans get to see him up close, to hear him do the voices of the many characters he voices. Now, I think that pretty much anything having to do with the Palin/MacFarlane feud is stupid and not worth reporting on, but by the end of the session, I was begging for someone to bring it up, just because something interesting might happen. The evening wasn't awful, but if you've read an article about MacFarlane or an interview with him at any time in the last five years, you've likely heard all the factoids he shared.
For example, MacFarlane reiterated once again that the voice of Stewie was based on his impression of Rex Harrison. He also continued to assert his love of a big, live orchestra scoring his show. And he talked once again and at length about the cancellation of "Family Guy" and its triumphant return. It's hard to begrudge the guy this, since the evening was specifically billed as a celebration of who he is and what he does and the stage was filled with people who clearly think the world of him. But for an evening that was also explicitly billed as a chance to suss out the many moods and thoughts of MacFarlane, it was a little disappointing that so much of it boiled down to the same old stories about "Family Guy."
"Family Guy," of course, is MacFarlane's bread and butter. It's what's made him a billionaire and one of Hollywood's most eligible bachelors. (Some of the more interesting moments in the evening involved MacFarlane's self-deprecation about just how dorky he was pre-"Family Guy.") And it's almost certainly what everyone there was there to hear more about. In the clip reel that played before the event, featuring clips from all three of MacFarlane's ongoing series - "The Cleveland Show" and "American Dad" being the other two - the "Family Guy" jokes were the ones that got the big laughter, and people in the audience would verbalize their excitement when they saw the beginning of, say, Peter performing "Surfin' Bird" to the irritation of his family.
So it's hard to begrudge the evening, which MacFarlane seemed to be thoroughly enjoying and which the audience also loved. But as a news event? It's hard to come up with much to write about that's not the same old, same old. Far be it from me to keep you from reading my golden prose, but if you're not a MacFarlane diehard, you can probably bail now, especially if you've read an interview with the guy at any time in the last five years. For all of you who are still with me, here's a pretty quick summation of the events of the evening.
The best thing about the whole thing was the way it took on the air of a collection of comics sitting up on stage and shooting the breeze at a 1950s supper club. The panel was mostly stocked with producers of MacFarlane's shows, but "Family Guy" voice actors Seth Green and Alex Borstein showed up, and comedian and TV host Bill Maher - apparently a huge "Family Guy" fan - hosted the panel with a loose sense of playfulness. With this crew, everything was ready to take a slightly ribald turn. (Indeed, at one point, Borstein singled out a young child in the audience to tell him to look up what a "dirty Sanchez" was on the Internet and tell all of his classmates.) It was a funny, affectionate sort of ribald, though, and that made it all feel safe for Paley, which can often feel a little too sanitized and stripped of interesting content, anyway.
For the most part, though, MacFarlane held court. When others interrupted to talk, it was either to bust his chops in a friendly fashion or to talk about how great he was. And while a lot of the information MacFarlane shared was old hat to those who have paid attention to him and his media presence in the last few years, he had a few interesting nuggets to drop.
In particular, MacFarlane's take on the fact that the FOX censors are the most understanding of what the show is going for and the most willing to help it make its way to TV with humor intact but without freaking out America out of anyone at the network. The censors, MacFarlane said, have a very good sense of what's going to raise America's hackles, and every time they say something will irritate a certain segment of the population, that segment almost inevitably gets irritated. At the same time, "Family Guy" can get away with more because people are mostly aware of it and what it is.
"It's become such a defined brand that there's a sense parents and audiences know what it is," said Rich Appel, veteran of all three of MacFarlane's Sunday shows.
Maher praised the show's deft ability to change just about anything in its conception to get a laugh, saying the show will sacrifice continuity if it will be funny. MacFarlane admitted that's the case but said that this hearkens back to the classic cartoons of the '40s that he grew up with, referencing how Wile E. Coyote would be chasing road runners in one cartoon and trying to steal sheep in the next. He was also willing to talk about episodes that haven't worked.
"We've done episodes that are so out there that they just don't land," he said, citing an episode where Stewie wore a robot suit as an example. On the other hand, he said, the episode where Meg fell in love with Brian the dog could have been done on a live-action sitcom with as few characters and sets as it used and was one of the show's best, most heartfelt episodes in his opinion.
MacFarlane also discussed just how the show has changed since its beginning. In particular, he said, all of the characters' voices have gotten higher, most notably Peter's, which started out as a much straighter take on a New England accent. ("That New England, Massachusetts, Rhode Island accent is the most hideous thing on the planet," he said of the voice's origin.) In addition, the characters' looks have all evolved to be better and more expressively drawn.
"It's like the first Garfield book, as opposed to the 15th Garfield book," MacFarlane said, though reality sadly did not immediately cut to the old Garfield meeting the cuter, less fat, newer Garfield.
Were there plans to give the gang a new friend after Cleveland left the show? At one time, MacFarlane had hoped to bring on Mr. T as the new pal, apropos of nothing, but "He's a born again Christian, so it didn't really work out."
Perhaps the least likely story to be shared was the tale of how Green came up with the voice of Chris Griffin, which stemmed from, of all things, an impression he and former child star Charlie Korsmo had worked up of Buffalo Bill from the movie "Silence of the Lambs."
"So the voice of Chris is based on the sex-offending murderer," MacFarlane said.
So, yeah, it was mostly an evening of old stories, told well. And that was more than enough for the crowd, which seemed thrilled to just be in the same room as these people. The moment that got the biggest reaction? Hearing MacFarlane ping pong back and forth between the voices of Stewie and Brian. I've seen MacFarlane do this a few times now, but it's still impressive to see the man's sense of timing. I just wish he had some new stories.
Some other thoughts:
*** Another weird tidbit: While working at Hanna Barbera, MacFarlane was apparently part of a proposed spinoff from "Johnny Bravo" to star Adam West. (Also? The longtime children's animation company was the initial one to pitch "Family Guy" to the FOX network.)
*** I think I was the only person there who wanted to hear more about "American Dad." And, indeed, the clip reel garnered bigger laughs for "The Cleveland Show." The indignity!
*** The event started awfully late, largely because a lengthy line of Paley newbies stretched from the will-call window far down the block. But the center didn't extend the event by a half hour after the delay, which was too bad.
*** If nothing else, the choice of clip before the show -- featuring Ann Marg-rock on "The Flintstones" -- proved that TV animation has come a long way from endlessly recycled stock animation.
*** "Family Guy" will make the leap to letterboxed format next season.
*** MacFarlane claims to have been drawing fairly accurate cartoon characters since the age of two. The Mozart of ribald, adult animation, apparently.
*** Another sign these were Paley newbs: They didn't even know to cheer for their favorite shows in the opening clips montage! What got responses? Well, Seth MacFarlane, of course, but "Dexter" and "Glee" did all right. Weirdly, the biggest response was given to the announcement that one of the show's media partners is LA rock station KROQ. OK.
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