By: Ryan Salvaggio
For a show that prides itself on random cutaway gags, and jokes poking fun at pretty much every race, sexual orientation, pop culture event, you name it, one would wonder how a show like Family Guy has been able to stay on the air for 20 years. Now, that’s not to say there haven’t been attempts in the past to do away with the show, as Family Guy has seen two separate cancellations, numerous time slot changes, and even a lawsuit from comedian Carol Burnett since its debut in 1999 after Super Bowl XXXIII. However, a dedicated fan base, a willingness to adapt with the changing times, and a continuous pushing of the boundaries of comedy have seen Family Guy flourish time and time again.
To say the show had a dream start would be an understatement. Thanks to a weak viewership of Super Bowl XXXIII, Family Guy only saw a disappointing 12.6 million viewers when it first aired on Fox on January 31, 1999. After some success ratings wise with its next few episodes, the carousel of time slot changes began, first on Sept. 23, 1999 at 9 p.m. on Thursdays when the show returned for its second season, and then again on March 7, 2000 at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesdays when the show returned from a three-month hiatus (seen as the show’s first cancellation). After being renewed for 13 episodes by Fox on July 24, 2000, Family Guy’s third season premiered on Nov. 8, 2001 facing yet another time change, this time at 8 p.m. back again on Thursdays and going up against the likes of a little known NBC show called Friends. Safe to say, viewership on the part of Family Guy was not great and with Fox seeing this, decided to finally pull the plug on the show on May 15, 2002, rather than attempting yet another time slot change.
On April 15, 2003, Family Guy seemingly caught its first break as Fox decided to release the first 28 episodes on DVD, leading to nearly 400,000 copies being sold within the month and the show gaining quite a cult following. Just five days later, Cartoon Network’s late night Adult Swim block started airing reruns of Family Guy, boosting the shows viewership by 239 percent. Upon seeing the success that the DVD sales and reruns had brought the show, Fox decided to once again bring back Family Guy for a fourth season on May 20, 2004, where it has been a main staple of Fox’s Sunday night lineup to this day.
Having an extremely loyal fanbase is great and all, but there have been plenty of shows that have had just as loyal of fans as Family Guy does that have been cancelled, and stayed cancelled, so what makes Family Guy different than all the rest? As mentioned previously, Family Guy has been notorious for pushing the boundaries of comedy, specifically what should and shouldn’t be joked about. While some shows may shy away from touchy subjects like sexual identity, stereotyping certain races, political views, etc. Family Guy comes out swinging with every joke it makes and stands by them, no matter how crude or offensive they might be which is what fans love to see. The show also isn’t afraid to take chances and even changes things up once in a while in an attempt to keep viewers invested.
Some of the episodes in particular that standout are the “Road to the…” episodes that usually always focus solely on the adventures that Stewie and Brian go on, “Then There Were Fewer” (Season 9, Episode 1) which is a Clue style murder mystery episode that brings together a lot of the more well-known Family Guy cast of characters, and even the Star Wars trilogy specials (“Blue Harvest,” “Something, Something, Something, Dark Side,” and “It’s a Trap”) that saw the original movies get their own Family Guy spin put on them. While all of these episodes may not be pushing any sort of boundaries, or making any show altering changes, they are a nice change of pace from the usual ‘main storyline with a subplot mixed in’ style that most Family Guy episodes tend to follow. What’s interesting to look at is even though these episodes are a change from the usual style, they are still loved by fans and critics, as these episodes are ranked on numerous lists as some of the best Family Guy episodes ever made.
Other episodes that really stand out when it comes to taking chances are “Quagmire’s Dad” (Season 8, Episode 18) and “Life of Brian” (Season 12, Episode 6). “Quagmire’s Dad” is the episode that sees Family Guy tackle the topic of transgender and sex change where Glenn Quagmire’s dad, Dan Quagmire (who becomes Ida by episode’s end) decides he wants to have a sex change after coming to terms with the fact he feels more like a woman than the macho war hero everyone knows him as. The episode sees (Glenn) Quagmire trying to cope and finally support his dad on his tough, life changing decision. As for “Life of Brian,” this is the episode where the writers decided to do the unthinkable and (temporarily) killed off fan favorite Brian Griffin in what executive producer Steve Callaghan called a “fun way to shake things up.” While neither of these episodes were praised by fans or critics, what they did do was open a lot of people’s eyes to the fact that Family Guy wasn’t, and still isn’t afraid to take chances once in a while and to push the envelope on certain topics that other shows might shy away from.
Now, while some may make the argument that the newer episodes and seasons of Family Guy haven’t been as good as the old ones, there’s no denying the show deserves credit where credit is due. It’s ability to not only bounce back from multiple setbacks early on, coupled with the willingness to adapt with the times, makes changes where the writers and producers see fit and to step out of its comfort zone every once in a while is what has helped Family Guy thrive and withstand the test of time for over two decades.