Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.
TV URBAN LEGEND: “Family Guy” was originally going to be part of “MadTV”
“Family Guy” recently began its fourteenth season on the air. The show is particularly famous for reaching that significant milestone despite being canceled twice.
Once temporarily after Season 2 before getting a third season and then after Season 3, where it actually stayed off the air for four years before triumphantly returning for a fourth season after high DVD sales and strong performances of reruns of the show on cable suggested that the show might still have a chance to make it. The show returned more popular than ever and has remained a hit ever since. Interestingly enough, the development process of “Family Guy” was even more complicated than its history since it went on the air. Initially, the show that became “Family Guy” wasn’t even going to start as its own series, but as part of another show on Fox, “MadTV”! Learn how it all went down…
The genesis of “Family Guy” came in the form of Seth McFarlane’s 1995 thesis film at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Dubbed “The Life of Larry,” it was about a middle age man named Larry and his intellectual dog named Steve. One of McFarlane’s professors submitted the film to Hanna-Barbera and McFarlane was hired to work at the animation company. He worked on shows like “Johnny Bravo” and “Dexter’s Laboratory.” While at Hanna-Barbera, 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 series, which served as a breeding ground for a whole pile of original series, including “Dexter’s Laboratory”, “Johnny Bravo”, “Cow and Chicken”, “The Powerpuff Girls”, “Courage the Cowardly Dog”, “Codename: Kids Next Door” and a bunch of other shows.
“Larry and Steve,” though, was a bit more of an adult-oriented series than the other shows mentioned, so it really did not seem to fit in to the type of shows that Cartoon Network was looking for, so instead McFarlane went to Fox to pitch the show, as Fox was one of the very, very few places that was interested in doing adult-oriented animated series.
Interestingly enough, at the same time McFarlane was pitching his show to Fox, so, too, was Mike Judge pitching his adult-oriented animated series, “King of the Hill.” The eventual success of “King of the Hill” helped to make things easier for McFarlane to get “Family Guy” on the air a couple of years later. But in 1997, Fox did not think that McFarlane’s concept was ready for prime time yet. Instead, they proposed that he do the concept as a series of short films on the Fox sketch show, MadTV. MadTV was Fox’s answer to Saturday Night Live, using the licensed name Mad, from Mad Magazine (but not using much else from the magazine besides Spy vs. Spy and occasional Alfred E. Neuman promotional material.
The idea clearly was to use MadTV the same way that The Simpsons used The Tracey Ullman Show to establish themselves before getting their own series. The problem was that MadTV ultimately did not have the budget to support a regular animated feature.
Since Fox had just purchased “King of the Hill,” they were not prepared to buy another animated sitcom just yet, so things sort of stalled for a while but when “King of the Hill” came out, as I noted earlier, it made things a bit easier for Fox to imagine the show (by now called “Family Guy,” as Larry and Steve had now evolved into Peter Griffin and Brian the dog) working. However, while they were interested, they weren’t that interested. They told McFarlane that he could do a 15-minute pilot for them, but only if he could get it done for $50,000. Typically, a half hour show takes about a $1 million to animate. McFarlane, though, 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, McFarlane himself did most of the voices and since the executives loved the pilot, when it came time to cast actors, they kept wanting what they first heard, so McFarlane ended up doing the voices of most of the major characters on the show, Peter Griffin, Stewie Griffin, Brian and Glenn Quagmire.
The MadTV connection to Family Guy went a bit further, though, as MadTV cast member Alex Borstein became the voice of Lois Griffin and Borstein has become a writer and producer for “Family Guy” as the series has gone on. A number of other former “MadTV” cast members have done voices on “Family Guy,” like Nicole Sullivan, Phil LaMarr, Will Sasso, Debra Wilson, Ike Barinholtz and Bobby Lee.
Also, McFarlane amusingly did a parody of “Family Guy” on an episode of “MadTv”…
The legend is…
Thanks to Seth McFarlane 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.