They’re the modern Stoned Age family
In one clip, viewed 14 million times on YouTube, family members stage a “puke-a-thon” to see who can hold off vomiting after guzzling ipecac. In another, the same brood performs a spirited song-and-dance routine about the joys of smoking marijuana.
Welcome to the world of Stewie, the diabolical toddler at the center of “Family Guy,” who’s supplanted Bart Simpson as TV’s enfant terrible and who’s just pushed the often-staid Emmys into new territory.
With its first major nomination Thursday, Fox’s cartoon series pulled off something even the longer-running “Simpsons” couldn’t, becoming the first animated show in the Emmy comedy category since “The Flintstones” back in 1961.
And the raunchy “Family Guy” -- a rare case of a onetime underground show rising to claim its first major nod a decade after its network premiere -- is about as far away from Fred and Barney’s traditional homes in Bedrock as the Emmys have ever ventured in such a prominent category.
Focused around the Griffin clan of Quahog, R.I., and their talking, martini-sipping dog, Brian, the show swims in a sea of jokes about celebrity, politics, religion and bodily functions.
The triumph of quirky shows like “Family Guy,” Showtime’s “Weeds” and HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords” -- two other first-time comedy nominees -- offers as compelling a sign as any of the near-total retreat of the more conventional sitcoms like “Seinfeld” and “Friends” that not so long ago dominated network lineups.
“Family Guy” -- which has inspired a spinoff with “The Cleveland Show” this fall -- averaged 7.6 million total viewers last season, according to Nielsen Media Research. That’s moderate by today’s network standards but far larger than the fewer than 1 million that HBO’s “Conchords” draws.
This year, for the first time, none of the seven nominees in the newly expanded comedy category is in the conventional sitcom style pioneered nearly 60 years ago by “I Love Lucy” -- shot with multiple cameras on a soundstage, often with a laugh track to underscore what the creators hoped were the funny parts.
“The playing field is different now,” said “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane, a former Hanna-Barbera animator whose recent $100-million deal with Fox reportedly made him the highest-paid writer in television.
But the larger meaning of “Family Guy’s” breakthrough can’t be summed up with a few stats in the record books. It was twice canceled by Fox, only to return after strong DVD sales and high ratings for cable reruns persuaded network executives to take another chance five years ago. “Family Guy” thus provides a viable model for other niche series chasing critical and commercial success in a highly fragmented media market.
“It was a show ahead of its time, and its audience caught up with it,” said John Rash, an analyst for ad firm Campbell Mithun, who notes that DVDs and the Internet have helped once-taboo forms of comedy thrive, in stark contrast to previous decades when networks chose family comedies that tried to please everyone. “The expanded media landscape allows for more focused, if not more individualized, expressions of humor.”
Indeed, tastes are changing across the board. Through the 1990s, multi-camera sitcoms had a virtual lock on the Emmys. “Frasier,” the “Cheers” spinoff that starred Kelsey Grammer as a neurotic radio call-in host struggling with his equally needy family, scored five straight wins in the comedy category through 1998 and was the most honored show in Emmy history. Filmed in front of a live audience on the Paramount lot in Hollywood with elegant sets and highly polished scripts, “Frasier” represented perhaps the creative apex of the traditional sitcom format, which is much like a live stage performance captured on film.
But over the last decade, so-called single-camera comedies, which feel more like movies than typical sitcoms, have won over TV viewers. And Emmy voters have slowly come around. NBC’s “The Office” and “30 Rock,” workplace shows that conspicuously avoid laugh tracks and other theatrical touches common to conventional TV comedies, have taken top honors the last several years. Both are recognized again this year, with Tina Fey’s “30 Rock” landing 22 nominations, the most for a comedy.
The nomination of “Family Guy,” whose first-run episodes air at 9 p.m., broadens the horizons further still. Although animated series have long been a prime-time staple -- Fox has more or less devoted its entire Sunday night lineup to them for years -- Emmy voters have proved skittish about considering cartoons outside of the separate category for animated productions. Both “The Simpsons” and “King of the Hill” campaigned in the past for consideration in the comedy category, to no avail.
“It’s been somewhat frustrating seeing how prominent a force animated series have become and [that] there’s been unwillingness to accept that” among voters, said MacFarlane, who also garnered an Emmy nomination for his voice-over work as the family patriarch.
“Family Guy” is lucky to have survived long enough to win over the holdouts. The series, which grew out of short films MacFarlane made for Cartoon Network, struggled in the ratings after its January 1999 launch. Fox axed it the following year. In an unusual move, executives brought it back for a third season and then yanked it again, seemingly for good.
But repeats of “Family Guy” soon turned into a big late-night hit for Cartoon Network, where it sometimes beat NBC’s No. 1-rated “The Tonight Show” among young men, a highly coveted target for advertisers. Meanwhile, the show topped DVD sales in 2003, with a reported 2.2 million units sold. Fox, whose sister studio produced the show, decided to try another prime-time run.
The show has grown so profitable for Fox that last year it paid tens of millions of dollars to keep MacFarlane on board through at least 2012.
“Seth is incredibly well paid because he’s created a remarkable asset,” said Dana Walden, chairman of 20th Century Fox Television.
Not everyone agrees. “Family Guy” has nearly as many detractors as fans. The show is gleeful in its bad taste: In one episode, patriarch Peter frets that his personal anatomy doesn’t measure up to his son’s; in another, the family sups with Jesus, who at Peter’s request gamely makes his wife’s breasts balloon in size. That has made it a frequent target of the nonprofit advocacy group Parents Television Council, which has pointed out that the animation and title can be confusing to families trying to monitor their kids’ viewing habits.
Meanwhile, critics have complained that “Family Guy” blatantly rips off “The Simpsons.” The creators of “South Park” have done two episodes attacking the show, which they say relies too heavily on arbitrary gags and “cutaways” that are unconnected to the story.
But the studio felt “Family Guy” had become accepted enough to merit Emmy consideration. It sent out mailers to Academy of Television Arts & Sciences voters this year with a typically irreverent message from the producers: “We peaked three years ago, so by your logic, we should get an Emmy now.”
The strategy appears to have worked, even if few insiders expect “Family Guy” to actually win come September.
Actor Tracy Morgan, whose show “30 Rock” will compete alongside “Family Guy,” counts himself a fan. But he also predicted that no matter how cutting-edge “Family Guy” might be, certain entrenched attitudes will be hard to overcome.
“It’s going to be tough for them,” he said, “because they’re a cartoon.”
Times staff writer Yvonne Villarreal contributed to this report.
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‘Family Guy’ characters
The Irish American Griffin clan resides in Quahog, a suburb of Providence, R.I.
Traits: Overweight, dumb, a blowhard.
Traits: High-pitched voice. Reasonable, except when she’s trying to kill Stewie.
the family dog
Traits: Die-hard liberal, aspiring writer still working on his novel, walks on two legs.
the toddler with a British accent
Traits: Diabolically clever, funny and evil.
the teenage son
Traits: Fat and dumb like his dear old dad.
the teenage daughter
Traits: Insecure, unattractive and unpopular.
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1996: Seth MacFarlane makes short film “Larry & Steve.”
1999: “Family Guy” debuts on Fox.
2000: Canceled for the first time.
2001: Fox brings show back.
2002: Canceled again.
2003: DVD is released; goes on to sell more than 2 million copies.
2004: Returns for production.
2007: Marks 100th episode.
2008: Deal struck to continue show until at least 2012.
Sources: Fox studio, Times staff