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'Family Guy' breaks the funny bone barrier with Emmy nod

In a move that tells the story of TV comedy's seismic shift, it's the first animated show to be nominated in the Emmy comedy category since the 'Flintstones' days.

July 17, 2009|Scott Collins

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.

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