Several characters on the show have become stars—they’re on T-shirts and mugs, and can be bought in ringtone form. There’s Stewie Griffin, the one-year-old baby of the family, whose voice is modelled on Rex Harrison’s in “My Fair Lady”; he’s foppish and maniacal, and creepily pansexual, and he’s always plotting to kill his mother. Brian, the dog (an overfed Mr. Peabody), is the smartest member of the family, though he is a little too fond of Martinis. But describing cartoon characters is a losing business—so much depends on the voices. “Family Guy” is almost like a radio show, and that’s one of its pleasures. (As it happens, MacFarlane himself voices Peter, Stewie, and Brian. His real voice, low and resonant, sounds like Brian’s.)
MacFarlane and his writers deserve every penny they make—except maybe some of the pennies they pocket from their new series, “American Dad!,” a satirical take on the bland family shows of the fifties, when father knew best and mother stayed home, which premièred on Fox last year. Here the dad, Stan Smith, is a C.I.A. agent (and also not all that bright), emotionally vacant, unreflective, and cheerfully overbearing—the personification of America and its actions on the world stage. One problem with “American Dad!” is that it comes on right after “Family Guy,” and the effect is of both too much and not enough of a good thing. The two shows have a lot in common in terms of look and sound and sensibility, and yet “American Dad!,” six years younger than “Family Guy,” seems stale already. Watching a cartoon sendup of American values and establishment attitudes makes us restless now; the comedy is too broad. (The exclamation point in the title virtually announces that.) We want to know what the real lies and the real facts are, and for that we’ve got Jon Stewart.
“Family Guy” is laugh-out-loud, timelessly loopy—it’s a Dadaesque vaudeville turn, often literally. Peter will be talking about something, anything, and all of a sudden the show cuts to a song-and-dance team in straw boaters and red-and-white striped jackets capering in response. And then they’re gone. “Family Guy” takes so much from “The Simpsons” that it’s impossible to count all the ways, though it’s very easy to spot them—the dim-witted dad, the (mostly) sensible housewife, an obsession with TV and celebrity, preening local newscasters, musical production numbers, and on and on. The show’s signature is its constant cutaways to scenes packed with inspired non sequiturs and references to everything that was thought up by Hollywood and Madison Avenue in the past hundred years—from Fatty Arbuckle to the DuMont Network, Mister Rogers, “Laugh-In,” and the Hope-Crosby “Road” pictures. The show pokes fun at every race, color, creed, interest group, and nationality, and throws in physical disabilities, too. In an episode a couple of months ago, Brian got a job at The New Yorker. On his first day, he found out that there were no toilets in the bathrooms; the people who worked there, he was told, didn’t need them, because they didn’t have anuses. Later that day, Brian was fired when the editor discovered that he hadn’t graduated from college. We’re all terribly sorry that Brian had such a bad experience, and we’d like him to know that he can come back anytime. There will always be a toilet here for him. ♦