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The Epochal Success - and Inexhaustible Creativity - of ‘American Dad!’

Creator and showrunner Matt Weitzman converses about the long-running 20th Television Animation comedy series, whose 18th subversively fun season is now airing on TBS.

More than 15 years after it first debuted on Fox in February, 2005, American Dad! Is still going strong. The brainchild of Seth MacFarlane, Mike Barker, and Matt Weitzman, American Dad! chronicles the misadventures of super-patriotic CIA agent Stan Smith (MacFarlane) and his unconventional family in Langley Falls, VA. With its 18th (!) season just beginning its run airing on TBS, the Emmy and Annie Award-nominated animated comedy remains as inventive and outrageous as ever, which is no mean accomplishment.

In addition to MacFarlane, the stellar cast includes Wendy Schaal as Stan’s blissfully unaware wife, Francine; Rachael MacFarlane as his left-wing activist daughter, Hayley; and Scott Grimes as his geeky, high-school-aged son, Steve. There are also the two less conventional members of the clan: Roger, a sarcastic space alien (MacFarlane), and Klaus, a goldfish with the brain of a German Olympic skier (Dee Bradley Baker). Special guests Pete Davidson, Anjelica Huston, Jason Alexander, Jaleel White, Chris Sullivan, Ann Dowd, Amy Sedaris, Alan Tudyk, Alyson Hannigan, and Simon Helberg also contribute to the new season’s subversive fun.

For those wondering exactly what form that subversive fun takes, a reliable source has revealed that the stories include two great seasonal episodes for Halloween and Christmas, episodes involving Klaus’s new girlfriend, an intrabody Fantastic Voyage episode, and, of course, a multiverse episode. To find out more details, we virtually sat down with the reliable source, creator/writer/executive producer Weitzman, who talked about the new season, his multiple creative hats, and what he believes accounts for the show’s era-spanning success.

But first, check out our exclusive clip from the show’s upcoming April 17 episode, “The Pleasanting at Smith House,” before diving into the interview.

AWN: To start off, congrats on 18 seasons. Based on a quick IMDb search, you've been involved with 348 episodes, which, to use the technical term, is just nuts. That's amazing longevity. What do you think is the secret of the show's enduring success?

Matt Weitzman: I like to quote P. T. Barnum and say, "No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public." But, seriously, I will never be able to explain the success of this show. However, I think that, while we always try to be just a little bit weirder than the time before, In the end, it's because a lot of these characters, while crazy, do care about each other. And we, as writers, and even the artists, care about these characters. And if you care about the characters, people are naturally inclined to like them. And if you like them, you want to keep on checking out what they're doing. Oftentimes, our stories start in real grounded places, but end up in very bizarre places where people aren't expecting to go, but they like to go on that ride, and I want to take him on that ride.

AWN: How did it all begin for this show? Where did the idea come from and how did it get its legs?

MW: The show originally came from Seth [MacFarlane]. Family Guy had just been canceled for the second time, and Seth came to Mike Barker and me and asked us, "Are you guys interested in doing this other show?" We had this idea of an updated All in the Family, where it was going to be a right-wing father and left-wing daughter, and there was a lot of goings-on with the state of the world. So it was going to have that political slant, but we learned pretty early on that that was not going to be sustainable, even though it was certainly fun and the dynamic between Stan and Hailey was great. But we felt that doing lots of jokes about Ruth Bader Ginsburg was not going to hold our audience.

So we decided to just make it about a family and their dynamics. Seth also had the idea of bringing in [the sociopathic alien character] Roger, which was obviously a stroke of genius. So we worked on it and then, right after we got picked up, Family Guy got picked up again. And Seth was like, "It’s your show now... Have at it." So we tried to figure out what we were going to do, because we had never run a show before. Also, at that time, in 2004, the whole world thought that comedy was dead. The whole media landscape looked like it was just going to be dramas and reality programming.

Fortunately, we had a lot of high-quality writers on staff to select from. We picked well and these people bought into what we were doing and we were lucky. It took a little time, but it allowed us to figure out what we wanted the show to be. We were also fortunate that we were following the success of Family Guy, and Fox kept on saying, "You guys are holding on to enough of that audience. Just keep on going." So we figured out what we were doing, and luckily everybody was enjoying it and enjoying the process, and here we are, 18 years later.

AWN: When I talk to other creators and showrunners of some of the longest-running shows, all of them say, "You know what? Every year we think this is our last." Is that accurate in your case as well?

MW: Yeah. That's constantly how I feel. We've been lucky for the last 10 years or so to get two-season pickups from TBS, so there's a little bit less of that. But I've never counted on there being another season. We were constantly told, "This is probably your last season." And so we were saying, "Okay, if this is it, then this is it and we're going to go out doing the best we can." You don't have really any power over that.

AWN: What highlights can we expect to see in the coming episodes, and what do you have planned for Season 19? Anything you can share with us?

MW: It always weird to talk about because how we broadcast is different than how we are producing in terms of seasons. But, this coming year, we have two great seasonal episodes. We have a fantastic Halloween episode, where the family dresses up in Scooby-Doo outfits and ends up discovering that Stan is missing. And so, as the Scooby-Doo gang, they try to find him. Klaus is Scooby and Jeff is Shaggy and Steve is Velma. They look so good and we did wonderful music that sounds so much like the Scooby-Doo score. We recorded it in mono. It's really going to be fun for the audience.

We have a Christmas episode that deals with Santa and his being the enemy of the Smiths, and we play with that. We go into the metaverse and we have this 3D moment with the family – it's very different from what we've done before. We also have a number of episodes that involve Klaus getting a new girlfriend, and we do a Fantastic Voyage episode, where Francine goes into Stan to save a fellow CIA agent.

What else are we doing? There’s a multiverse episode where we see multiple versions of the story. It's a Steve and Hayley episode, in which Steve runs into the multiverse and Hayley goes in search of him. It’s a wild tale that was so much fun to make – I can't wait to find out how people react to it. We have a story about Steve and Snot going on a quest together to find a Four Loko beer to get into a party.

The good thing is that we’re exploring different character combinations. We all love Stan and Roger, but we all also want to see different aspects of different characters and what comes of that. After so many years, you want to see what happens when Steve and Principal Lewis get together,  or when Hayley and Klaus get together. The more that we can play with things, the more I think that the audience will be into it. We still have to surprise ourselves, which will surprise the audience.

AWN: As far as your personal involvement in the show, do you oversee the writing? Are you supervising the animation production? Are you involved in the voice recording?

MW: The answer to all those questions is yes. The writers will come to me and I'll maybe suggest areas of interest, but mostly they pitch me stories. And I'll say, "Yes, I love this." Or, “Can we angle it? Can we zero in on this element?” Or, "Let's be careful of this element because it sounds like another story that we did." I'll give notes and then, when the scripts come in, I'll give more notes. Meanwhile, I'm directing actors, I'm editing everything from animatics to the colors. I'm involved in virtually every record that happens. I do final audio, music.

It's fun for me. I'm lucky to be able to do it, and I care about it, and people seem to like it. I do my best to make sure that people are still enjoying the show. I don't want people to get bored. So I spend a lot of time doing it, sometimes too much so, but I feel like in the end it's worth it. The artists and actors and writers and everybody on our crew is fantastic and I like them. So there's no reason for me not to be in as many elements as I can, and do my best to inspire and encourage, and do what I can to make it a fun process and fun for the audience to watch.

AWN: Speaking of actors, what's it been like directing Seth MacFarlane?

MW: Seth is the one person who I don't really direct. I give notes. His schedule is so crazy, it became simpler for me to just give him notes with the scripts. He has an uncanny ability to be able to just look at the material, say it one time, and nail the intent. It is a supernatural ability of his and I'm blessed to be able to use that. And the 2% that he doesn’t nail, either we get it in another record, or I grab something from a previous record and put it in the current episode.

AWN: How much has the production process changed over the years? Has new technology made the process any easier or faster?

MW: I wish I could say that my hours are less, but they're not. But there have been a lot of changes, especially in the last three years with the pandemic. I never ever thought that you could make a TV show from home, but we've been doing it. In the beginning, all the artists were drawing on paper, and that evolved to them drawing on their computers. And I used to have to go through these storyboards, where each act is 300–500 pages, and add little Post-it Notes. Now I go through them using my iPad and I write directly onto the storyboard and then ship it out. So it's easier on my back that I don't have to carry these things around. As far as recording actors online, I don't love it as much – there's something about being able to see them and work with them. We've been able to make it work, but I miss being with these actors and playing with them. But it is what it is, and you roll with it.

As far as the writing process, now our writers are in pods. I have 15–17 writers, depending on the year, and they’re grouped into several pods, whose jobs change – breaking a story, rewriting an episode,  doing a joke room for another episode. Their jobs are always changing. It used to be that you walked in at the beginning of the day, and you figured out where you were going. Now it's a little bit more set and structured, and it's a little bit of a revolving door. We're slowly moving back to where the writers are sometimes in the office, but people have adapted to working at home and being able to go and pick up their kids from school or whatever, so it's become a hybrid.

AWN: What do you still hope to achieve? Are there stories, or ways of telling stories, that you hope to get to? Where do you want to go that you haven't gone?

MW: I think there's stuff from the past that’s still interesting that we haven't mined yet. I always wonder what happened to that baby alien that Steve and Roger had in our first season. My goal is just to constantly be surprised, and I hope my writers can keep surprising me with new stories. I've been starting to get pitches for next season, and there's one about Trish and Suze as the Morning Mimosa Team. They host this morning talk show where they get drunk all the time and we discover things about their past. When I was pitched that story, I was like, "I love this. It's new. It's our characters, but you're discovering stuff and it's done in a really fun way." I just want people to be surprised and I want to be surprised, and when I'm given that, it just gives me a thrill.

Jon Hofferman's picture
Jon Hofferman is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles. He is also the creator of the Classical Composers Poster, an educational and decorative music timeline chart that makes a wonderful gift.