It’s still surprising sometimes what surprises people. Two Sundays ago, a first-run episode of Family Guy featured a sequence in which two of the characters, Brian and Stewie, travel back in time to Nazi-occupied Poland and end up stealing a pair of Nazi uniforms, one of which happens to have a McCain-Palin pin on the lapel. If you know anything about Seth MacFarlane’s comedy, and his politics — and one presumes if you’re watching Family Guy, or have at least read the current issue of Fast Company, you do — this would hardly faze you. Far more shocking things happen in nearly every episode. Still, a mini-kerfuffle erupted as, for a day or two, pundits and bloggers, less than two weeks before the election, chewed over the monumentally important question of “Did Family Guy go too far?”
Now, Seth MacFarlane’s politics are quite apparent. He is a major Obama supporter who just a month ago stumped for the candidate at a rally in Ohio, using the voice of that bumbling oaf Peter Griffin to read the text of a Sarah Palin interview. His Fox network overlords are certainly well aware of this. Less well aware were their corporate brethren at Fox News, who broke the story and sparked the whole fight, thus drawing attention to something that would typically have been ignored. According to a New York Times story, the network had received no inquiries or complaints, in fact, until a Fox News reporter called for comment. For a day or two, both sides argued the matter online. Conservatives — gasp! — were outraged. Liberals — gasp! — were outraged at the outrage. Fox, well, the network stood by its man and the news channel quickly moved on to more relevant matters, mostly. And MacFarlane? The famously hard-working producer, his rep said, was on a two-week vacation.
The episode is illustrative of any number of things I found out while following MacFarlane. That he’s a lightning rod for controversy (which is good for ratings), that his shows are so jam-packed with jokes and gags that fans pay close attention, and are rewarded by things like a momentary sight gag (which is good for publicity, and also the continued interest of obsessive fans), and that his product is perfectly suited for the digital age (which is good for revenue, and also for keeping a weekly product in the daily conversation).
Lost in the kerfuffle (sorry, had to use that word again) was news that MacFarlane’s last big splash, the Cavalcade of Comedy, has done exactly what most people, this magazine included, suspected. It has succeeded. As of the end of September, only 6 of the 50 shorts had “aired” (or whatever it is you call something that premieres online) and already more than 14 million people had watched them on their various “channels.” MacFarlane’s YouTube channel was the #1 most viewed and was signing up subscribers at a record rate. And because this is really about making money, it should be noted that Burger King’s branded channel, attached to the shorts, is now the #2 most subscribed sponsor channel of all time. What that means, I’m not entirely sure — other than the company writing the checks is certainly happy, and that it, or anyone else looking to reach MacFarlane’s hordes of munchie-crazed minions, is probably already in line with the checkbook. That’ll pay for a lot of vacations in the future.