To be perfectly honest, I think this interview is the highlight of running the website. I really enjoyed Family Guy when it was on the air, and my desire for having the show on DVD is one of the reasons I launched this site. To be able to speak with the creator of the show, and to find out that he's a super nice guy....it was just awesome.
Seth was very open during the interview and he shared a lot of information about Family Guy, his near-death experience on 9/11, and what we can expect from the upcoming second volume of the show on DVD. Please keep in mind that specs for the DVD have not been announced as of yet, and what is discussed here may not be what's on the set.
I worship your show, I mean uhh...
<Laughs> Ah, we need more of you.
Yeah, well...it's a little too late huh?
Well, you know the beauty of animation is no one ages so you never know, but it's probably true.
How did you go from working at Hanna-Barbara to having your own show?
I did a pilot script while I was working at Hanna-Barbara for a prime-time animated series called Family Guy, and I was introduced to the people at Fox by the development head at Hanna-Barbara who was trying to get them back into the prime-time business. It never really materialized, but I stayed in touch with Fox, and when King of the Hill became a success about a year later they were suddenly looking for new animation. I had this Family Guy script and I brought it back to them, and they said, 'If you can do a pilot presentation for $50,000' (which believe it or not is extremely small as far as a production fee), they said, 'We'll give you a shot at a show.' I spent about 6 months putting this thing together, and when they saw the final product they liked it enough to take a gamble on me and buy 13 episodes.
How long was your pilot presentation?
About 15 minutes.
And that still exists somewhere?
It does, yeah. It's a little cruder looking than the actual series.
Well, for $50,000, you know... What was the Budget of 1 episode of Family Guy?
It was roughly $1,000,000.
So, it should be really crude then.
Yeah, it was all hand-drawn at my kitchen table over a period of half a year.
Wow, that's impressive. You were really young when all this happened, right?
Yeah, when it started I think I was 23 or 24.
So it was a real trip then?
Yeah, it was and it wasn't. It wasn't in that I had nothing to compare it to so I thought 'oh, I guess this is how it's supposed to happen. You pitch something and they buy it.
You didn't have the failures behind you.
What were your roles on the show? It seems like you did almost everything.
Yeah, I like to be pretty heavily involved with every aspect. There was a lot of drawing, a lot of writing, and the voice acting. There were no two days that the same. It was a lot of jumping from task to task, day to day.
How many hours would you work in a day?
Oh boy. The first and second season it was not unusual to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.
So how did that take a toll on you?
The show was my entire life for those two years. When we hit the third season a lot of the production process had been streamlined and we made some improvements and it was a little easier and we were actually keeping reasonable hours, but for those first two years it was pretty rough. I enjoyed it and it was very rewarding but it was also extremely exhausting.
You must be a TV geek and pop culture freak because there are so many references to old shows. Has that been an interest of yours?
When I was a kid, like most people my age, you just couldn't avoid any of that stuff. You had Diff'rent Strokes and Charles in Charge jammed down your throat so you couldn't really avoid it. We tried to reference things that were a little more obscure. We tried to avoid doing things like a Titanic Parody when it was a huge movie.
Or a Matrix parody. Everyone was doing it and there was nothing surprising about it. So we would try and hit shows or movies that withstood the test of time a least a little more. Like a Diff'rent Strokes reference will be just as funny in ten years as it is now. It's already dated so it doesn't matter.
My favorite cut-aways were the Star Trek spoofs.
There were so many characters in the show, did you model the characters after someone you knew, or were they each a creation?
They came from different places. Peter was a melting pot of about a dozen fat, loud-mouthed guys that I knew growing up in New England. Stewie is essentially Rex Harrison, you know, Henry Higgins. Some of the other characters like Lois, her personality came largely because of Alex Borstein who did the voice and was also a writer on the show. The same thing with Chris and Meg. Seth Green really had a lot to do with where that character went. Some of them like Peter, Brian, Stewie were sort of defined maybe a little more, for me at least, a little more fully probably because I was voicing them. They all evolved as we went along, but certainly in the case of Chris and Meg it had a lot to do with the actors and we wrote to what they were doing in the recording booth.
What about the crazy monkey? Where did that come from??
Evil Monkey. We had this idea one day in the writers room that since Chris has such a child-like mind, even though he's a teenager, it would be funny to give him a childhood fear that there was a monster in his closet or under his bed, but the joke was the thing was actually in there. Evil Monkey...I don't know why we came up with a monkey but there was a writer on the show, Mike Barker, and he just started making that expression that the monkey does, where he points and bares his teeth. That was something that Mike started doing in the writers room and it was just this unbelievably intense enraged face and it had us laughing our asses off. I tried to get that down on paper as best I could in the form of this monkey. That kind of thing just comes out of a bunch of writers in a room just being goofy and stuff.
Too much coffee?
I always enjoyed the cut-aways. It's like you guys would just cut to something completely irrelevant, or a flashback, and the viewer is just sitting there going "What?! What are these guys doing?" and of course it's funny.
The tricky thing with that is, and I think we got better at it as the show went along, those things get laughs and are funny but we always have to walk that line between not doing so many of them that you can't follow the story. I think we found a good balance towards the end. Those are fun and that's one of the reasons we had such long hours, that the show needed such a large staff, somebody had to write those things and there are 17 or 18 guys working on this day in and day out. We would send a group of writers off to do a cut-away or a gag and they would come back with 4 or 5 options and then we would go with the one that made the rest of us laugh. Hopefully somebody saved the script pages, because there are a lot of cut-aways and gags, possibly hundreds, maybe even thousands, that we threw out.
I sense DVD material there.
Yeah, in the second release, I think it comes out in early September, there will be some deleted scenes.
Can all the characters hear Stewie when he talks?
The single most asked question about the show. They can, they can hear him and understand him, its just that he's a baby and for that reason they just don't take what he says with any seriousness.
So it's just funny that he wants to kill Lois?
Yeah, the best analogy I can come up with....there was an incident where my cousin's 4 year old son was leaving our house and he turned to my mother and said, "I'll see you in Hell." No one really knew where he picked that up, but everyone was laughing their asses off because here was this 4 year old telling my mother he would see her in hell.
He probably got it from TV!
He probably did. So basically, if you look at it like that, let's say hypothetically the kid was deadly serious, which Stewie was, people would still say, "Oh, isn't that cute." So they can understand him, they just didn't take it seriously.
What was the downfall of the show? Was it the content, all the schedule changes; you were going up against Survivor...
At one point we were up against Survivor and Friends and we were still pulling in about an 8 share, and we felt pretty good about that given the competition that we had. There are shows now that are doing as well as we did that aren't up against that kind of competition. One might say the only thing that caused the show's downfall was all the schedule changes. Most of the network, the executives that I have spoken to, have really conceded that. The show creatively, I think everyone felt it was working well and by the third season we had really hit our stride, we were just on every night of the week. We moved from Sundays to Thursdays to Wednesdays to Tuesdays and then they would run a special Family Guy on Saturday. It was just all over the place and no one could find it, even hardcore fans of the show complained because they couldn't find it. There was one episode that aired at 8:00 when the show had been airing at 8:30. I think that's when we were on Wednesdays, and it just wasn't promoted so people missed it. They tuned in at 8:30 and the show was over. It's unfortunate, but that really was the single thing that defeated the show.
It was even cancelled and brought back, wasn't it?
Right, that was because of a massive fan push. It worked; 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. It was a pretty intense push, intense enough that it worked. That was really what got us our third season. Gail Berman, the president of Fox, had just joined the company and she noticed all the fan mail and became aware of the size of the push and gave us our third season. It was all worth it, all the letter writing and the phone calls.
What was your fondest memory of the show?
You know, it's funny...I used to love, in lieu of having any time off, I used to love going over to the Fox lot when we would do our scoring sessions and I'd listen to the orchestra play. It was usually about a 35 piece orchestra and they would record on the sound stage where the music for Star Wars and The Sound of Music was recorded, this cavernous music hall. That was, arguably for me, the most fun part of it.
And you guys were nominated for an Emmy for the music, right?
We did...we actually won for a song we wrote this past year.
The episode is on this set, isn't it?
We were nominated for one that's on the first set, but the song that we won for will be on the second set.
What did you think of the DVD set? I'm assuming that you've seen it.
I thought they did a fantastic job. I actually didn't have a whole lot to do with the packaging, I didn't have anything to do with that. We went in and did commentary.
How was that?
That was fun, it was just pure enjoyment.
You guys didn't talk enough!
Well, they actually cut a lot of stuff out.
Yeah, we were pretty much yakking from start to finish and there was a lot edited for content, which I don't really understand on a DVD release because it's strictly for the fans. That would be my only complaint about how the release was handled, but otherwise the transfers were incredibly crisp, the colors look great, the sound is great and the way they packaged it, I think they did a really terriffic job.
I really like those slimline cases they've started to use.
I do too! I bought the Star Trek: The Next Generation set and you open it up and you can unfold it forever. The thing folds out on either side and it drives me crazy. It's a cool way to do it; they broke it up into 4 separate cases.
I noticed "Road to Rhode Island"...there's some footage missing; an Osama bin Laden joke was cut.
There was some debate over that. I kinda stayed out of that debate because I didn't really have a strong opinion one way or the other. There are arguments for keeping it in and arguments for taking it out. The argument to keep it in is that's how the show aired and it was broadcast this way and it aired two years before September 11, and so there's a bit of entertainment historical value there. And obviously the argument for taking it out was that because it was one of the biggest tragedies, there was some thought that it might bring down the rest of the episode when that comes up. There was some thought at one point of putting it on separately at the end, and that was really...I guess it was a legal decision that Fox made to leave it out. It's unfortunate in that it's a part of the episode that was produced and was aired and is sort of gone forever, but it's a small loss in the grand scheme of things.
Now, you were almost involved in that whole tragedy...
Yeah, that came up at one point. I said, "Look, I'm probably as close to that incident as anybody at Fox." There was one point where I was arguing to keep that scene in. Yeah, I was booked on that flight and I was drinking the night before and hung over and I missed the plane by about 10 minutes. It was a very close call for me.
How has that affected you?
The only reason it hasn't really affected me as it maybe could have is I didn't really know that I was in any danger until after it was over, so I never had that panic moment. After the fact it was sobering but people have a lot of close calls; you're crossing the street and you almost get hit by a car....this one just happened to be related to something massive. I really can't let it affect me because I'm a comedy writer. I have to put that in the back of my head.
Well, I'm glad you got drunk the night before.
Yeah, alcohol is our friend. I think that's the moral of that story.
Yeah, drinking can save your life.
Do you know anything that's in store for set 2? More commentary tracks, I'm going to assume.
More commentary tracks, there's a behind-the-scenes series of interviews that are more current. I think the ones on set 1 are from our first season. There will be a bunch of deleted animatic scenes. The animatics are the rough, very crude early stages of animation that we do to see if scenes are working or not. We always have to cut things out for time so I think there are about 15 minutes of deleted material on the second set.
Now what about the Weinstein episode?
That's the other thing...that will also be on the second set. That's never been aired.
It was leaked to the internet.
Yeah, I kinda figured it was probably out there.
You didn't do it?
<Laughs> No, I didn't do it but I was not upset. We didn't know if they were going to release this thing on DVD or not at the time and we were all thinking, "God, this episode is so good, someone's gonna see it."
Now why was it cut?
Umm....it was deemed too controversial or potentially offensive for network TV.
Stepped over the fine line, huh?
Yeah, there were a lot of politics involved. It was one of those things where the network had sort of taken their stance that they weren't going to air it no matter what we did. We sent it to a couple of Rabbis and got two letters of approval saying it was a little out there, but Peter learns a lesson at the end, but no matter what we did it...it's like when a politician makes a statement like "I am against this," it's the same thing with an executive, they tend not to back down from that kind of thing.
It's just another reason to buy the next set.
Yeah, in the long run it's great. It's a great thing to have on the set.
Any chance we'll see the pilot presentation on there?
It was discussed, but the problem is there's only so much room. If you jam too much stuff on those DVDs it starts to affect the quality of the episodes themselves. It was either that, or the deleted scenes and since the presentation is essentially everything that you see in the pilot itself, there isn't really any new material, just more crude designs. We figured the fans would rather see the characters as they know them in scenes they were able to see on TV. It was an either, or and we chose to put the deleted scenes on.
So what are you working on now? I bet you're not sitting around doing nothing.
No, I'm not. I'm working on a couple of feature projects that I'm not at liberty to discuss, but they are animated. They will be as irreverent as Family Guy.
But not the Family Guy characters?
Not the same characters. There's always talk of Family Guy making a reappearance, whether it'd be on cable or wherever, but that's something that's sort of a sidebar thing at the moment, I'm sorta focusing on the new stuff.
So how could the fans show support for Family Guy reappearing?
The best thing they can do is buy the DVD set. Those are the hardest, more accurate numbers. It'll be a hell of a lot more revealing than Nielson ratings.
They can buy two!
Yeah, they can buy two, or three or four. If this thing sells through the roof it'll open a lot of doors.
Well, the second set was announced before the first set was even released. It shows that Fox is standing behind the show.
Yeah, the home video department has really gotten behind this thing. They're a terrific bunch and everybody involved with the series was really thrilled with what they've done; they've really backed this. The reviews that we've been getting for the DVD, it's funny, but they're uniformly better than the television reviews.
Did you read my review of the set?
No, I haven't. I'm online at my office and not at my house and I'm only down there periodically, but I will check it out.
The online sales at Amazon.com have been great. They've been consistently hovering just under Harry Potter as number 2 on their bestseller list, which has been pretty exciting.
I think it's a very vocal fan base for the show.
It really is. They are really supportive; they are the reason there was a third season. They are not to be underestimated.
To be honest, getting Family Guy on DVD was one of the reasons I started my site. Of course I didn't play any role in that, but it was one of the reasons.
Cool, it all adds up though.
Thank you so much Seth. It's been great talking to you, I never thought I'd have this opportunity.
Hey, I'm just as neurotic and insecure as the rest of them.
What a great guy. Thanks to Seth MacFarlane and the fine folks at 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment for making this happen. You guys are the best.