The little kid with the big hair in "Allen Gregory" is the brainchild… (Fox )
Jonah Hill's latest role is a flat character — literally. But turning to cartoons is not that surprising for a guy who grew up idolizing "The Simpsons."
A comic actor best known for his roles as chubby, not-quite-mature heroes in such films as "Superbad" and "Get Him to the Greek," the 27-year-old Hill is a co-creator, writer, executive producer and star of "Allen Gregory," which this fall joins Fox's Sunday night animation lineup.
Hill and two writer friends developed the "Allen Gregory" concept after a feature they were planning failed to materialize He provides the voice of the title character, a precocious 7-year-old forced to adapt to life in a public school after his rich, flamboyantly gay father (French Stewart) suffers a reversal of fortune. On-screen, Allen Gregory is stylized like a 1960s magazine cartoon, with a huge mop of red hair, outsize tortoise-shell glasses and tiny, eraser-shaped feet.
"He's a manipulator, and he can't fathom doing something for someone else if it won't serve him greatly," Hill said of his character last spring after he and fellow cast members had just finished an hour-long table read in a conference room on the Fox lot (animated series record the vocal tracks first and then typically are animated and tweaked through a painstaking process that can take six months or longer). "He's been told by everyone he's the best because he's been in this bubble. Now he's going out into the real world, and he's absolutely terrified."
For someone about to take a high-profile project out into the real world, Hill seems remarkably relaxed; in fact, it's sometimes hard to get him to answer a question without Hill making a joke. But the actor — who, by the way, has lost a considerable amount of weight since his "Superbad" days — knows he has a high standard to live up to.
"I'm a complete product of 'The Simpsons,'" Hill said. "I wouldn't be in entertainment without 'The Simpsons.' So I'd always wanted to create my own animated show one day."
The big question now, though, is this: Is there another "Simpsons" out there?
A lot's riding on the answer.
King of animation hill
Fox has a bullishness on prime-time cartoons that no other broadcast network has ever come close to matching. In fact, after "Allen Gregory" finishes its initial run of seven episodes in the winter will come an animated version of "Napoleon Dynamite," the 2004 absurdist comedy about an oddball teenager in Idaho that developed a cult following. Both shows will air at 8:30 p.m. Sundays, in the plum slot between "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy," creator Seth MacFarlane's irreverent, manic, often nonsensical take on a nuclear family, which has become a sort of Avis to "The Simpsons'" Hertz. Also on the schedule are recent additions such as "The Cleveland Show" — a spin-off of "Family Guy" — and "Bob's Burgers," renewed for a second season after posting decent numbers last year. Other networks have made only scattered attempts to introduce animated series to prime time. NBC tried "God, the Devil and Bob" in 2000 and "Father of the Pride" in 2004; neither made it for a full season.
"Fox just has faith in the form," said Mike Scully, a former "Simpsons" executive producer who's now helping oversee "Napoleon Dynamite." "They really believe in it; they know how to nurture and launch the shows."
The network has been richly rewarded for its persistence. With "The Simpsons," "Family Guy" and the now-defunct "King of the Hill," the Sunday animation lineup became one of the most enduring and successful programming blocks in TV history, ultimately throwing off billions of dollars in revenue for the Fox studio. As the longest-running prime-time entertainment series in American history, longer than "Gunsmoke" or "Law & Order," "The Simpsons" has probably done more than any other program to make the Fox network what it is today — more than even "American Idol," which delivers several times as many viewers. (For the 2010-11 season, "The Simpsons" ranked only 68th in total viewers, averaging 7.3 million per week, but made the top 30 among adults ages 18 to 49, the demographic favored by most advertisers.)
When "The Simpsons" premiered in 1989, the Fox network was barely 3 years old and still struggling for traction. Within a few years, Homer Simpson — nuclear power-plant worker, bumbling patriarch and nightmare neighbor — had become the network's most recognizable star as well as an enduring symbol of American culture. Early on, educators worried about the cultural impact of Bart, Homer's smart-alecky, perpetually misbehaving son. "The Simpsons" has tagged Fox as a slightly naughty place, more subversive than the other guys and hence especially appealing to teenagers and twentysomething men. Those are the kind of hard-to-reach people advertisers will pay a premium to reach.