But for a man who has built his career on flouting the standards of acceptable humor on TV, MacFarlane sees himself as a kind of traditionalist. The way he describes it, his new show “The Winner,” set to debut Sunday, March 4 on Fox, seems downright tame. He insists it has the right combination of heart and humor that made traditional sitcoms like “Cheers” such big hits—strange words from the man who lends his voice to maniacal baby Stewie and Brian, a talking dog with an alcohol problem, on “Family Guy.”
But whether “The Winner” will create the same comic magic as “Family Guy” remains to be seen. MacFarlane’s last offering, “American Dad!,” failed to spark the same kind of buzz as its animated older brother.
In many ways, “American Dad!” and “The Winner” are fairly similar shows. True to MacFarlane’s traditionalist claims, they both resemble family-style sitcoms, and both lack the eccentric flavor that characters like Stewie and Brian lend “Family Guy.”
But any fears that viewers will confuse “The Winner” with “Family Guy” can be laid to rest. For starters, it’s not animated, though it doesn’t seem to matter to MacFarlane.
“It wasn’t a conscious decision to go into live action. This was the first thing I wanted to jump on,” he says. “It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever read in my life.”
Gone too is the hapless patriarch typified by Peter Griffin. Instead, the show stars Robert Corddry (“The Daily Show”) as the unemployed, single Glen, who lives at home with his parents in Buffalo. “This is very autobiographical,” boasts show-creator Ricky Blitt, a veteran writer on “Family Guy” and good friend of MacFarlane.
Set in 1994, the show is an extended flashback narrated by Glen 13 years later. The pilot begins with Glen and his parents watching police cars chase O.J. Simpson on the news. But if it seems a little soon to be doing a nostalgic retrospective on 1994, MacFarlane says that’s exactly the point. “[It’s] a tongue-in-cheek thing,” he explains. “The O.J. Simpson chase is not the moon-landing.”
The first episode is set in motion when Alison, the only girl Glen has ever dated (in truth, they exchanged a single kiss in middle school), moves back to Buffalo. Inspired to change his life, Glen gets a job as a video-store clerk, befriends Alison’s 14-year-old son, and decides that one day he will marry her. The fun, of course, is discovering how this 32 year-old loser becomes the ultimate winner: narrator Glen asserts that by 2006 he will marry Alison and become the richest man in Buffalo.
Blitt has similarly transformed himself from borderline failure to commercial Hollywood success.
“When I would go out to dinner, I would just always have so much in common with the 14 year old,” he says. “I’d have to pretend to be an adult, like I shared their experience when I didn’t.”
With two shows on the air and a third on its way, MacFarlane is already drawing comparisons with such television sitcom legends as Norman Lear, the writer and producer behind classics like “All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son,” and “One Day at a Time” (see TV Land).
“If I could even come close [to Lear] I would be unbelievably proud,” says MacFarlane.
According to MacFarlane, today’s sitcoms are off-balance: either too crude or too boring. So often, he says, you “see something that’s so crass that there’s no sweetness, no warmness.” In “The Winner,” he aspires to create something different.
“In all of the scripts that Ricki has written, there’s a balance that hearkens back, which at the same time is edgy for this time period,” he says.
For a man who has become famous for breaking the taboos of television comedy, all of this preoccupation with the past might seem strange.
“I’m not exactly up to date,” MacFarlane says. Asked to predict last week’s Academy Awards, he answers, “Is ‘Cool Runnings’ up for anything this year?”
But “The Winner” may fade from memory sooner than that cinematic gem. The first six episodes are already on iTunes, weeks before they’ll ever air. The reviews have been decidedly mixed.