Family Guy Flash!

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Over at Cold Hard Flash, I tipped Aaron Simpson off to an interview Howard Stern had with Seth MacFarlane and who both agree Flash is synonymous with bad animation.

I’m a big fan of Family Guy. But I don’t think of Seth MacFarlane as a cartoonist or animator. I instead admire him as an absolutely brilliant comedy writer. In particular the very thing most people, like Southpark’s Matt Stone and Trey Parker, criticize him for; his use and over use of the “cut away” gag.

“The Cut-Away” makes Family Guy scripts modular, where any gag could be placed anywhere in any script. That comes in handy for script by committee, which is how animation is done in the big leagues. I imagine a scenario where an executive suit at FOX says something aggravatingly vague like, “Page 18 is not funny enough. Punch it up.” Seth pulls out a note book chocked full of non sequiturs like “Peter fights a chicken for 5 minutes” or “Hitler with an Oprah-like talk show”. Then he picks one gag, changes the script to something like, “Peter comments on the action and says, ‘Hey, that’s strange… almost as strange as that TV show I saw last night'” and we cut away to the Hitler talk show. BAM! Instant fix! Less work!

This story writing fix is like playing tennis without a net. The rules of writing go out the window! Forget writing gags that have something to do with the story or character! But before you give Seth an “F” in writing, remember it’s the incongruity that makes it funny! The longer the Peter verses chicken fight drags out, the funnier it becomes! I’m one who find this to be both brilliant and economical as well.

But to writers like Matt Stone and Trey Paker, this guy Seth is screwing everything up! I also am a big fan of Matt and Trey’s South Park. Again, I do not think of these guys as cartoonists or animators, I admire them as brilliant writers, but even more so than Seth. First, if you take a look at South Park credits, these two guys write EVERY episode. Is that even humanly possible? I imagine these guys to have mushrooms growing under their eyes from never stepping outside in 10 years. And South Park has been consistently funny for over a decade! For a season you could say it was luck. But by now, these guys are proven geniuses! I have no idea how they’ve written so much so well for so long, but they have.

As far as the art is concerned, while Seth cheated writing scripts, Matt and Trey cheated visually, making “breaking the rules” a style instead of an error. If your animation style is so difficult that only a few guys can do it, you’re pretty much stuck hiring them, even if they’re assholes. But Matt and Trey are able to hire who they want rather than who they need. Plus they can keep the whole production local rather than ship jobs overseas where the pay is lower. (Check the ending credits of Family Guy. NO ANIMATION is done in the US!) Plus, if an executive calls for last minute, ridiculous fixes, (a complete impossibility, I know, but let’s try to imagine it) these guys can make the fix in a couple of hours. Impossible to do otherwise without filing chapter 11 by the end of the month. Matt Stone and Trey Parker are  brilliant!

One guy not mentioned in this, but I’m going to mention for contrast, is John Kricfalusi. This guy is perhaps the best living cartoonist, who can draw that silly style better than anybody! Certainly a real deal extraordinary cartoonist and animator. I imagine his productions having difficulty though. First, John draws his scripts. Seth, Trey and Matt have one up on him already, since you can write faster than draw. If John draws “100 hippos dance” and they write “100 hippos dance” they’ll submit the idea to the executives, who’ll make gratuitous changes like “Make the hippos, cats”, they could make the changes three times over before John even finishes the first round of rough drawings!

Second, since Kricfalusi is slopping over with God-given talent… is there anybody on earth who can do what he does? And do it faster?! I’d imagine John to spend lots of time “teaching” his crew and even saying, “Oh.. screw it… just give this to me.. I’ll do it.” And the deadline and budget is blown or Mr. K becomes frustrated, I’m not sure what’d be worse. In contrast, Matt and Trey have a style so simple that anybody with a pulse can do the work. In fact, even two guys who are genius writers with no cartooning ability what-so-ever can push the animator aside to “show them how it’s done.” (Matt and Trey both admitted in previous interviews that they preferred their style to be so basic so as to keep creative control in their hands.)

Seth’s style may be more complex than South Park, which is not saying much, but it’s simple enough that 100% of the animation can be shipped to Asia, where labor is so cheap the executives can afford to give each other big bonuses. That may be a crappy thing to say to American animators, but seriously, every animator dreams of becoming Seth, not working for him. While it’s not what the Democrats want you to say, the Republican outsourcing trick is what makes that dream possible. The other scenario is to cut Seth’s recent 100 million dollar deal to 100 thousand dollars so you can afford American labor. Still yet another scenario is the one Kricfalusi faces; get it done half-ass and on time or do it right and file bankruptcy. John Kricfalusi’s other worldly talent must be both a blessing and a curse.

And lastly as far as Howard Stern, this is another guy I’m a big fan of! Not involved with animation, he’s a classic real life underdog who worked his way up to success, millions and a hot wife! He kept his loyalty to his fans and the other underdogs who worked with him along the way. (I think that’s something more of an achievement than his phenomenal success.) But I do have to defend my friend Mark Marek who did Stern’s pilot. Mark is the least “Flash” guy I know. So I’m bewildered by MacFarlene’s compliment to Stern on his “good eye” for recognizing bad animation as Flash animation. Mark’s work was not bad animation. If it was, Flash had nothing to do with it. Anyone’s “eye” could see that.

In the end, the way I see it, the only comedy writing rule is to be funny, tennis net or not. If you want to make lots of money on your cartoon, keep your animation over head low. If you want to keep the animation work in the United States keep your overhead even lower. Flash offers a solution to do both, but you need to be a cartoonist or animator to understand how.  Other options include outsourcing your work the Republican way or to become an executive /  creator willing to take a significant pay cut and “spread the wealth”.

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2 Responses to “Family Guy Flash!”

  1. Jenny Says:

    Interesting read, Dave! I never saw that Howard Stern bit that Mark did before, but it’s cute. I enjoyed reading the comments on the article you linked to on Cold Hard Flash too. What did you think of the Cleveland Show? Haha!

    • familypants Says:

      Didn’t catch the Cleveland show, but I’m sure it was funny. All of MacFarlane’s stuff is funny. That modular writing style is good for executives and easy for creatives! Why I admire him. But it’s also insulting to strict writers, who’d say it’s like playing tennis without a net. Eh. Now if MacFarlane could spend some of his 100 million/year salary and hire some American artists instead of outsourcing… BTW he did recently and nearly blew his budget! Does a cartoonist even need 100 million? Brother, can he spare a dime? He’s got to be the biggest rip roaring Republican out there, hating Obama entirely. If he’s not… man, he’s a hypocrite! HA! (FYI here’s my political angle.)

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