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Seth Green

Seth Green - William S. Paley TV Fest: Family Guy

Eric Goldman

Friday 17 March 2006, by Webmaster

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Alex Borstein and Seth Green

Seth MacFarlane, Seth Green, Mila Kunis and the creators discuss the animated sensation.

March 16, 2006 - One of the highlights of this year’s Museum of Television and Radio’s William S. Paley Television Festival was certainly the night honoring FOX’s Family Guy. The show began in 1999, but has had quite the wild ride to becoming the hit show it is today. Not an immediate break out success, Family Guy was eventually cancelled by the powers that be. However, the show was an unexpectedly huge sensation on DVD, causing FOX to make the incredible move of putting the show back into production, where it is now a staple of their lineup.

Present for the event was one of the largest gatherings of any panel this year for the Festival, including the entire voice cast and many integral members of the production staff. The participants were Alex Borstein (Writer/"Lois Griffin"), Steve Callaghan (Writer/Co-Executive Producer), David A. Goodman (Executive Producer/Show Runner), Seth Green ("Chris Griffin"), Mike Henry (Writer-Producer/"Cleveland Brown"), Mark Hentemann (Consulting Producer), Mila Kunis ("Meg Griffin"), Dan Povenmire (Director), Chris Sheridan (Executive Producer), Danny Smith (Co-Executive Producer), Kara Vallow (Producer) and series creator Seth MacFarlane. They proved to be as clever and funny as one might expect from the creators of Family Guy, with jokes often flying back and forth across the stage.

MacFarlane talked about how he got his start noting that, "At the time Simpsons was revolutionizing what prime time animation can be and they were kind of rewriting the book, both writing wise and animation wise with regard to what you can do and what constitutes an adult animated show." One of the episodes the audience watched that night, "The Courtship of Stewie’s Father" had taken place at Walt Disney World and featured some brutal jokes at Disney’s expense, so it was particularly amusing to hear MacFarlane say, "Believe it or not, when I started in college, I was hell bent on working for Disney. But really it was a boom for animation and everything was changing. I think prior to that, aside from things like Capitol Critters and Fish Police and other earlier attempts, The Flintstones was the last one. So I was studying animation at a time when a whole lot of new doors were open."

MacFarlane explained that he got his start at Hanna Barbara, where he worked with Vallow. "I said, ’By God, if I’m ever making a show, I want her in charge!’ And she used to bust my ass about getting there late. It was a great place to learn the medium. It’s the studio that invented the television animation process, so it was the perfect place to study it. I wrote for Johnny Bravo for the majority of time I was there and did a little bit of work for Cow and Chicken and Dexter’s Laboratory. And I was working on Family Guy while I was there, off and on." After making an 11 minute pilot presentation for Fox, MacFarlane found out the show was going to happen in an unusual manner. "I found out the show had been picked up because my mother called me. She’d read it online and called me at 7:30 in the morning and said, ’They picked up your show!’"

"For the first couple of months we didn’t have offices and we were crammed in one room that was sort of being borrowed from King of the Hill," recalled Callaghan. "It was like we were caged animals in there because we would spend ten, twelve hours a day in this one room." Commenting on the unusual episode titles the show had early on MacFarlane said, "I’m a huge fan of old radio dramas and I came up with this idea, when the show was still trying to find itself at the beginning, that the title of each episode would be a very ominous title borrowed from an old 40’s suspense drama. And thus we had titles like "Death Has a Shadow" and "Mind Over Murder" that had nothing to do with the show. We realized that that kind of stopped being funny after four episodes. It’s two in the morning and we’re trying to come up with these things. So we kind of grew out of that and moved on to more traditional titles."

Asked how she came to work on Family Guy, Borstein first apologized for having a bit of laryngitis. When Green offered her a bottle of water, she suggestively quipped, "There’s only one thing that will help, Seth Green!" Green quickly replied with, "I’ll meet you backstage as soon as you finish answering this question." After the audience’s laughter subsided, Borstein recalled being cast as Lois on the pilot, but that after the show was picked up, "The network wanted to get rid of me. So I had to fight to keep my job. I had to re-audition for it, along with every female that ever stepped off a bus in Hollywood. And I got very lucky and I got to keep it and I was thrilled, because it was some of the funniest stuff that I had ever read. In every script that I’d get, there would be something that I’d laugh out loud at when I saw it." As for how she eventually also joined the writing staff, Borstein said, "At some of the recordings I started adding a little here and adlibbing and Chris Sheridan was like, ’You know, you’ve got a really nice rack!’ And at first I was offended! No, he said, ’If you ever think about writing for it, you could consult,’ and that’s what ultimately led to me writing."

"I got the script and it was kind of the same thing, where it was one of the funniest things that I had read," agreed Green. "I was like man, I want to get this job so bad." Green has given Chris a distinctive mush mouthed voice, and the actor explained the genesis of that. "A friend had been staying with me and we’d just been joking about Silence of the Lambs, because that actor Ted Levine that plays Buffalo Bill is the creepiest character ever. And my friend and I were just kind of imagining him in every sort of job, because of his voice. Every drive through we went through, we’d go, [Green adopts a Buffalo Bill voice] "Do you want the combo meal?" And it just made us laugh all day. And when I went in to audition, I was like, ’What am I gonna do for this?’ I don’t wanna be like, [Surfer Voice] ’What’s up dude?!’ So I think I tried that first; the ’What’s up dude?!’ character. And then I said, ’Can I try something really silly?’ And I did and MacFarlane liked it and I got the job." Noting the Chris character’s long hair and baseball hat, MacFarlane said, "Every actor who would come in and audition for that part would look at the Chris design and do a surfer dude voice. Which looking at Chris now and what Seth does with it, is like the furthest thing from that character." Green laughed, adding, "I was the only jerk that walked in and said, ’Put the lotion in the basket!’"

Kunis pointed out she was not the first actress cast as Meg, causing MacFarlane to respond, "Oh my god, that’s right. Lacey Chabert was the original Meg. And there was some kind of Jesus thing that went on there," though sadly he left us pondering what role religion took in Chabert stepping aside. Following up Green, Kunis remarked, "My story is so not near as exciting. You know, there was an audition. Then they said, ’You have to come back... but you have to speak slower.’ And then I came back and I thought I was speaking slower, and I wasn’t. And then they said, ’You have to come back again... and now enunciate.’" Kunis turned to MacFarlane, jokingly asking, "Do you remember this? You had me go through the ringer for this! I was like, ’I’m over it! I don’t even know what you want me to do!’ And he’s like, ’Alright, fine, you’re hired!’" MacFarlane explained, "Initially we had a tough time figuring out what to do with Meg. Mila came in, and suddenly this character had some bite to her. Everyone was always sort of sh***ing all over Meg, and she was kind of able to fight back. We’d noticed on That 70’s Show that Mila would walk on stage and sort of naturally kind of take over a scene. And that evolved into Meg becoming this kind of very resentful, Jan Brady character, who’s just struggling to find her identity and constantly getting kicked around by the rest of the family, and is now starting to fight back a lot."

MacFarlane had much praise for Povenmire, observing that with other animated series, "Some are very primarily writer driven, others are very artist driven. This is a show in which if one side doesn’t cut it, then the whole thing dies. And you know Dan is a great example of someone we lean on so heavily." MacFarlane noted that Povenmire particularly makes the shows frequent musical numbers his own, adding many sight gags and details. "There were a lot of sequences were it used to be that we had to write these things out," MacFarlane continued. "And now we’ll just hand them to Dan, who is an extremely gifted animation writer in his own right, and he’ll just make it sing on screen. We joke about how we’ll put in scripts, ’Dan shows something funny here.’" Povenmire remarked that, "It was frustrating at the end of the second season and the third season when we were sort of struggling for an audience. It felt like we were just entertaining ourselves! Which is a fine job, but I felt like I’d worked on a lot of shows that had become very successful and this was funnier then all of them and I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t finding an audience. So it was very gratifying when we did."

The other episode shown that night was "PTV," a scathing parody of the FCC and their extreme reaction following the infamous Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident. Remarking on where they get story ideas, MacFarlane said, "In the case of ’PTV’ it came out of rage. Rage over all the crap we have to deal with since Janet Jackson showed her 67 year old boob. The stories come from any number of different places. One of the writers will come in and pitch, ’Hey wouldn’t this be an interesting idea?’ Or it comes out of a discussion from the group or something in the news at the time. It can come from anywhere. There’s no single process that we use to come up with story ideas." As for how they know if a joke is working, Goodman noted, "Unlike most traditional shows, there’s a real performance ethic among the writers. A lot of the writers have performance backgrounds. As a result, when we’re writing a script, we’ll send a small group of them off to try to come up with a gag and they’ll come back to perform it. And it’ll get a big laugh... and Seth will say he doesn’t like it. And then they’ll come back and Seth will laugh and it will go in. It really is laughs among the writers; it’s a tough crowd. And then we see screenings of these things with the production staff and if we hear their laughs, we keep it in. If they don’t laugh, we replace it."

As for dealing with the FCC themselves and having to fight for content, MacFarlane said, "There’s a lot of stuff now, where we hear the phrase, ’In this new environment.’ Which means post-Janet Jackson. We hear that frankly more then ’Post 9/11’ at our office. There’s a lot of things that we just used to be able to do that we cant do. So with the success of the DVDs, it’s getting so we’re making two cuts of the show. One for television, then one for DVD release. And so you’re seeing more and more extended versions of these episodes on DVD." Agreeing how much tougher things have gotten in terms of what they can air, Povenmire brought up a sequence on "PTV" in which there was a montage of bawdy moments from throughout the series. "I just found those off the DVD and digitized them and edited them in. Basically because I didn’t want to draw all those things! I found the most disgusting images from the first three seasons. And we actually got network notes on two of them saying, ’You’re gonna have to cut that!’ And I went, ’This has been on the air! And I’m only showing 8 frames of it!’ And it turns out we cut them now when they’re on the air. So apropos for the FCC episode."

Asked to explain how the show made its miraculous return, MacFarlane said, "They literally called me out of nowhere. The head of 20th called me to come into his office for a meeting and I didn’t know what it was about. And he just kind of threw it on the table. ’We’re thinking about putting this thing back into production.’ And I just about fell out of my chair. I thought that maybe we’d get a chance to do a special or a direct to DVD movie of some kind. But as far as new episodes, there was no precedent, it had never happened. Mainly because it requires a network to say, ’Okay... we screwed up.’ And Fox deserves some credit for saying, ’You know we canceled it, but now we see that it’s making some money so we want that money.’ But you know, there was nothing that I would have rather have been doing. And I said, ’Yes, absolutely. Whatever it takes, we’ll do more!’ As Smith joked, "It was like E.T. when he was in that refrigerator and he was dead. And the kid is crying; we’re all crying. And then that f***ing fridge opened up and he came back!" Commenting on how much everyone loved working on Family Guy, Sheridan pointed out that, "A few of us were on other shows then. We had jobs on other shows, and as soon as we found out the show was actually coming back we just ran screaming from the building."

The show is a pop culture fanatic’s dream, with gags about everything and anybody, with plenty of obscure old cartoon references thrown in. Asked why the creators go to the trouble of finding the original voice actors to do a quick appearance as their old character, MacFarlane got a big laugh when he explained, "Because who else but the actual voice of Roadblock could say, ’Those rockets on top of those hamburger stands are real!’" Povenmire remembered guest performer George Wendt asking, "’Why didn’t you guys just pull this from Cheers, because it’s exactly lines from the show,’ He’s like, ’I’m happy to make the pay check,’ but he came in for literally one line!" Green observed, "It makes you react differently as an audience when you hear the real voice. It just triggers something in you. You get Flint from G.I. Joe talking to you about safety or racial tolerance and it has a little more gravitas!"

Regarding any legal issues with the extremely frequent Star Wars jokes Family Guy is known for, McFarlane explained, "Lucasfilm has actually gotten on board. It’s getting to the point where we’ll send these Star Wars jokes of the week to Lucasfilm. We do have a lot of companies who are very very unhelpful about their copyrights. For the episode ’Blind Ambition,’ the Star Wars ending was submitted to Lucasfilm. And they said, ’You can do this, as long as they look exactly like they’re supposed to.’ Which is music to our ears, because we always get, ’Oh, just change it a little bit so that we don’t get sued.’ And they have become a real supporter of the show. If only everyone could be that way!" Borstein remarked that, "Most of the writers grew up kind of very lonely nerds and all they had was Star Wars and comic books, so everyone kind of shares that in common; the ability to quote Star Wars at the drop of a hat." To which Green responded, "Any one of your teachers who says you’ll never make money doing that crap... They’re a liar!"