Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Failed Pilot Project Case File #13: Family Guy

Some people use their time before a big break to evolve their craft. Not Seth McFarlane.

In 1995, when Seth McFarlane was still at the Rhode Island School of Design, he created a 10 minute pitch pilot as his thesis film, called The Life of Larry. His professor was so impressed with the film that he sent a copy to Hanna-Barbera, who as a result hired McFarlane to work for them. While working there, McFarlane created Larry & Steve, a film featuring two of the characters from The Life of Larry, but set either before the events of that short or in an entirely different universe. Both of these films where eventually viewed by the executives at FOX, and enamored with the films, they gave McFarlane $50,000 to create a 15 minute pilot for a show now called Family Guy. The film ended up being shelved for a little while in developmental hell (King of the Hill had premiered a year earlier, and FOX was hesitant about dealing with two new animated shows so close to one another), but eventually Family Guy would premiere after the 1999 Super Bowl.

As a show, Family Guy is very divisive among TV critics: one either thinks that it’s the savior to animated comedy, or it’s that it’s one the stupid and laziest shows of the past several decades. In the name of transparency, I would have to say that I fall into the latter camp.  When I was in high school I may have found it funny for a time – either that or I was just watching because all of my friends were – but eventually I grew to despise the show’s overreliance on gags and random, out of context pop culture references as a source of humor.

And while I am providing my opinion on the show for the sake of clarity and context, I didn’t come to bury or even discuss the show itself. Instead, I am here to tackle these two films and the pilot that McFarlane made, and what this process tells us about him as a creator and the TV business at large. None of what you will see here is likely to change your own opinion of McFarlane and the show, but it is enlightening to see his creative process – or rather, the lack thereof. To explain further, we’ll have to look at each film in turn.

The Life of Larry

Even without the filmed video segments, it would be nearly impossible not to recognize this film as a McFarlane production; it has gags aplenty and tons of entirely random humor. Yet there is something key in those video taped segments, something that would help to define Family Guy in far more subtle (relatively speaking) ways: bravado. Indeed FG is a show that wears it cocky attitude on its sleeves, often times annoyingly so, and while it’s easy to understand why such attitude would appeal to the show’s target demographic, such a bold display of bravado here seems like a risky move on McFarlane’s part as someone turning in a professional grade film. (Confidence is good in pilots and other introductory media, but if you have too much swagger, you risk alienating your audience and looking like a jackass in the process.)

What’s interesting is that despite McFarlane’s obvious bravado, it doesn’t translate as well to the animated portions of the film. The gags are about the same as they would appear in the series proper (and in fact all of them were reused for the first production season (13 episodes) of the show, and some were even reworked into the pitch pilot at well), but it’s the other stuff – the supposed heart of the show – that truly suffers. Somehow, those sections with Larry, Steve, and Lois lack the bite of the gags, almost as if McFarlane wasn’t quite sure what to do these characters. They come off here as hopelessly generic, and his attempts at comedy through them (i.e. one-liners) fails because of it.

Or maybe it was because he was too busy focusing on those beloved little gags of his. Of all of the complaints lodged against the show, the hardest for any of the fans to disprove is McFarlane’s overreliance of gag humor (and by extension, the sacrificing of plot), and this film serves as definite prove of those allegations. About halfway through the film, McFarlane gives up any pretense of plot or premise as the film quickly devolves into a series of gags, all of which are set up by the video segments. The focus on that gags becomes so extreme that they even break up the credits to do more gags, including TV Funhouse style mockery of Newt Gingrich. It’s perhaps telling that at one point the FOX executives had considered adapting Family Guy as animated segments for the sketch show MadTV; even they could see that this kind of format screamed for brevity.

Larry & Steve

Though it exists as the aberration of this trio – no gag humor, a straightforward plot, etc. – the existence of this film doesn’t surprise me from a creative standpoint. Larry and Steve make for a solid, if not particularly inspired, comedy duo, and I could see why McFarlane would want to explore their dynamic further. In fact, I would be tempted to say that this was his plan all along, if only the previous film didn’t speak volumes. Given how The Life of Larry, in which he had creative control, eventually just devolved into a series of gags, it’s hard to look at this film and not sense that McFarlane was toeing the Hanna-Barbera company line. The gag humor – which more than likely would have confused younger children – is completely gone, and instead the film focuses on giving us an old school slapstick set piece.

The surprising thing is that this film is actually pretty funny, giving me a higher laugh-per-minute ratio than any actual episode of Family Guy ever has. (McFarlane’s skills at creating neo-classic cartoons are far better than one would expect, and it also gives some slight hope for that Flintstones reboot he’s overseeing.) Part of this is no doubt due to the fact that Hanna-Barbera backed McFarlane into a corner creatively with their in house S&P, and the only thing he could rely on, apart from his love of old-style cartoons, was these two characters. By keeping the focus on Larry and Steve, this film is able to give a series of related jokes that build on another until the final crescendo, creating a film that feels like a uniform whole and not just a bunch of gags that McFarlane randomly stuck together.

Family Guy Pitch Pilot

I would like to get my hands on the minutes of the meeting between McFarlane and the FOX executives to figure out exactly what happened that caused Family Guy to turn out like it did. As supposed fans of both of the original shorts, it seems surprising to me that the FOX executives would pick up a pilot that was seemed to only take from the first film, and not the second. The Life of Larry and Larry & Steve together show MacFarlane’s apparent strengths – gag humor and character based exploits, respectively – and would seem to indicate that his ideal show would incorporate both elements equally. Yet the pilot falls more towards the gag-filled and plotless end of the spectrum, a move that apparently impressed those at FOX.

Now, I’m not so na├»ve as to think that network executives always put originality and creative quality as the foremost requirements for their pilots; they have certain demographics they have to reach in order to stay in business, and they usually know what shows will draw those bigger numbers. That’s just the way the industry works. But what I can’t figure out if why FOX would think that Family Guy would have been a hit in 1999. The show may have been ahead of its time, but I don’t mean that in any sort of complimentary fashion; it’s merely a factual statement that it took the masses a while to understand and embrace the kind of comedy that the show was spinning. Regardless of the end result, picking up Family Guy was the very definition of a risky move.

What I think McFarlane should have done instead was to make a show that pulled from both films equally, to the point where the show would have been solidly plotted, and had a few gags. Random humor can work given the right context, and I think if it’s presence was downplayed on the show, each individual gag would become surreal and humorous by comparison. Additionally, by having most of the humor be traditional, the show might not have scare away viewers like it did, and cause the show to be stuck in cancellation for a few years.

But that’s just one man’s opinion. Still, it seems sad that Seth McFarlane was so content to stay true to his original vision, and not try to expand him humor horizons and come up with something new in the process. Larry & Steve showed what could happen in McFarlane applied his creative talents, if he pushed himself to do something different than what helped him get through design school. But Family Guy was a eventually success, and that just cements laziness as the new standard for what passes for comedy these days.


The Failed Pilot Project will be taking a little break over the next few months, as grad school is starting up again. I hope to be back with some more articles over the Christmas break. 

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