TV URBAN LEGEND: “Family Guy” was originally going to be part of “MADtv.”
The animated comedy “Family Guy” recently completed its 13th season, a particularly noteworthy milestone considering it was canceled twice: once briefly after Season 2, and then again following Season 3, remaining off the air for four years before making a triumphant return due to DVD sales and a strong performance by reruns on cable.
Interestingly enough, the development of “Family Guy” was even more complicated than its broadcast history. Initially, what became “Family Guy” wasn’t intended as its own show, but rather as part of Fox’s sketch-comedy series “MADtv”! Learn how it all went down …
The beginnings of “Family Guy” came in the form of Seth MacFarlane’s 1995 thesis film at the Rhode Island School of Design, “The Life of Larry,” about a middle-aged man and his intellectual dog Steve. One of MacFarlane’s professors submitted the film to Hanna-Barbera, which hired MacFarlane to work on such shows as “Johnny Bravo” and “Dexter’s Laboratory.” While at there, he developed the Larry character into a second short film, “Larry and Steve,” that aired in 1997 as part of Cartoon Network’s What a Cartoon!/World Premiere Toons, which served as a breeding ground for several original series, including “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “Johnny Bravo,” “Cow and Chicken” and “The Powerpuff Girls.” However, “Larry and Steve” was a bit more adult-oriented than those other series, and didn’t fit what Cartoon Network was looking for at the time. So instead MacFarlane pitched the project to Fox, one of the few places interested in adult-oriented animated series.
Interestingly enough, at the same time MacFarlane was pitching his show to Fox, Mike Judge was making his case for the adult-oriented “King of the Hill.” The eventual success of that series helped to make it easier for MacFarlane to get “Family Guy” on the air a couple of years later. But in 1997, Fox didn’t think MacFarlane’s concept was ready for primetime. Instead, executives proposed he do the concept as a series of short films on the “MADtv,” the network’s answer to “Saturday Night Live,” using the licensed name from “MAD Magazine” (but little else). The idea clearly was for “MADtv” to serve as the launching pad for “Family Guy” the same way “The Tracey Ullman Show” did for “The Simpsons.”
The problem was that “MADtv” DIDN’T have the budget to support a regular animated feature.
Because Fox had just purchased “King of the Hill,” it wasn’t prepared to buy another animated sitcom just yet, so MacFarlane’s project stalled for a while. But when “King of the Hill” premiered, it was easier for Fox to evision the show working (by then it was called “Family Guy,” as Larry and Steve had evolved into Peter Griffin and Brian the dog). However, while executives were interested, they weren’t that interested: They told MacFarlane that he could produce a 15-minute pilot, but only if he could do it for $50,000. Typically, a half-hour show takes about a $1 million to animate. MacFarlane, however, quickly agreed. He later recalled to IGN:
Once again, that was where RISD once again paid back the tuition money. I spent six months animating like crazy at home, and by the end of six months had a very, very simply, crudely animated film with just enough to get the tone of the show across; that I presented to them. They loved it. They held onto it for a couple weeks or so, and I didn’t know what was going to happen. One morning I got a call at about 7:00 A.M. from my mother, ironically, because she had read online in the trades that they had picked up 13 episodes of Family Guy. It’s funny, because Variety and The Hollywood Reporter always seem to have the story before anyone else.
An interesting side effect of the pilot going over so well is that due to time and financial constraints, MacFarlane himself did most of the voices. And because executives loved the pilot, when it came time to cast actors, they kept wanting what they first heard — so MacFarlane ended up voicing most of the major characters: Peter Griffin, Stewie Griffin, Brian, and Glenn Quagmire.
The “MADtv” connection to “Family Guy” went a bit further, however, as ‘MADtv” cast member Alex Borstein was cast as the voice of Lois Griffin; she later also became a writer and producer. “Family Guy” as also featured a number of other “MADtv” veterans, including Nicole Sullivan, Phil LaMarr, Will Sasso, Debra Wilson, Ike Barinholtz and Bobby Lee.
Also, MacFarlane amusingly parodied “Family Guy” on an episode of “MADtv:
The legend is …
Thanks to Seth MacFarlane and Ken P. for the information from that great IGN interview!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!
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