FAMILY REUNION

On the night that Fox's animated sitcom "Family Guy" premiered in 1999, its creator, Seth MacFarlane, was one of the network's guests of honor at the Super Bowl. MacFarlane's show had been given the most coveted launch position a TV network could offer: the half-hour slot just after the big game. And "Family Guy" delivered. Twenty-one million people watched the show's premiere, turning MacFarlane, a 25-year-old comic wunderkind, into an overnight star.

Very briefly. After a strong six-episode run in early 1999, during which "Family Guy" cemented its reputation for cold-blooded humor and glorious insensitivity, Fox made a brutal decision: it moved the show to Thursdays at 8 p.m., hoping it could make a dent in "Friends." It got crushed. Only 5 million people watched the fall premiere. Says producer David Goodman: "Even our families weren't watching." Fox ran just one more episode in September, another in December, then shelved the series until March. Its mercy killing was delayed only because Fox president Gail Berman was a fan. By the time the final episode aired on Feb. 14, 2002, most of the staff, including MacFarlane, had already sent out resumes.

On May 1, however, "Family Guy" will return from the dead. Thanks to astonishing DVD sales and killer ratings for its basic-cable reruns, "Family Guy" will become the first show ever to be resurrected on prime-time TV by the very network that canceled it--all because of popular demand. "I've tried to hunt down other cases of this," says MacFarlane, "and the only analogy I could find is 'Star Trek'." ("Trek" was saved by fans for its third season and then canceled.) Fox will air at least 13 new episodes--more, if the ratings justify it. "One of my most difficult decisions was canceling 'Family Guy'," says Berman, now reportedly leaving Fox for Paramount. "And one of my happiest decisions was bringing it back."

"Family Guy" is a traditional domestic sitcom soaked in battery acid. It stars the galactically moronic Peter Griffin, a Quahog, R.I., toy-factory worker, and his blue-collar brood: wife Lois; teenagers Meg and Chris; and the two smartest Griffins, talking dog Brian, a martini-sipping bon vivant, and baby Stewie, a diabolical genius fixed on world domination when he's not teething. (Peter, Brian and Stewie are all voiced by MacFarlane.) On "Family Guy," storytelling runs a distant second to the quest for the perfect gag, preferably a non sequitur. Their peak moment: a courtroom scene in the pilot episode when the Kool-Aid Man bursts through a wall, and shouts his signature "Oh, YEAH!" Then, sensing his faux pas, he sheepishly backs out. If this isn't hilarious to you, this might not be your show.

Such a hit-or-miss style is great for building a cult following--and lousy for building a network audience. But DVDs and the ever-expanding universe of cable TV have radically changed the industry in just a few years, creating lucrative revenue streams out of thin air. "Family Guy," which has sold more than 3 million DVDs, is the crowning example of TV's new math.

In early 2003, Gary Newman, president of 20th Century Fox television production, tried to sell "Family Guy" reruns to cable, hoping to drum up interest for the show's upcoming DVD. He got no takers. "We ended giving them to the Cartoon Network basically for free," says Newman. "It was a Hail Mary." The nightly reruns, though, quickly began outdrawing Leno and Letterman among young men. Then the DVD came out and exploded. "But I'll be honest," says Newman, "it still wasn't on our radar for a good year." Until... "Actually," says MacFarlane, "it was when NEWSWEEK did an article about it. You have no idea how much that helped." ("Herman's Head" --you're next, baby!) In April 2004, two years after "Family Guy" was canceled, Newman invited MacFarlane to his office and asked him to relaunch the show. MacFarlane was stunned. "It was like when you ask out a girl and she says yes and you try not to look too excited," he says. "I'm sitting there, trying to seem professional, and all I'm thinking is, My God, how did this happen?"

On a perfect afternoon this March, the "Family Guy" crew is working on new episode No. 27 at their Los Angeles offices. Though a dry-erase board outside MacFarlane's corner office claims he is out "bra shopping," he is in fact slumped on his couch. "We calculated the other day that we've done 1,500 pages of comedy since last April," he says. "It's kinda kicking our ass at the moment." Because of the long process required for animation, the new season's first episode is only just now wrapping up. It is vintage "Family Guy," with ruthless gags about Mel Gibson, an unbelievably dirty joke about Pinocchio--and, right at the top of the episode, a hilarious swipe at Fox for canceling the show. MacFarlane, now 31, is otherwise magnanimous about his bosses, though. "They kept the show on longer than they really should've. Canceling it was absolutely the right decision," he says. "And it was the right decision to bring us back." This time, they better stick around a while.

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