Recently American Dad began the second half of its 19th season. That means the adult animated series, which first premiered in 2005, is still going strong. Co-created by Seth MacFarlane, the show has often been compared to his first and most famous series Family Guy. Although I’ve been in the camp of people who view American Dad as the better show in the past, it has become the type of show I think many others love to put on as an unexpected form of comfort. Here’s why.
As mentioned before, the show first premiered back in 2005 following the Super Bowl XXXIX. And almost immediately comparisons were drawn between it and Family Guy. These comparisons were expected, but not entirely spot-on. Granted, the first episode does feel a lot like an episode of Family Guy complete with cutaway gags, references to (then) President George W. Bush, as well as Hillary Duff.
The idea for the show originally came from MacFarlane and co-creator Matt Weitzman. After being frustrated by the Bush administration, MacFarlane wanted to “channel that anger into something creative and hopefully profitable.” So naturally, in the beginning, much of the humor was fairly basic – even by MacFarlane’s standards. The show centers on a family whose patriarch, Stan Smith, is an ultra-conservative. He has a rebellious liberal daughter named Hayley, a geeky son named Steve, and a kind but not-so-bright wife Francine. His household also consists of a talking fish named Klaus and an alien from Area 51 named Roger.
Despite such quirky characters, the creators quickly realized that there just wasn’t enough material to mine. Even by 2005 there really weren’t any more jokes you could make about Bush that hadn’t already been made. Shortly after work on the show began, Family Guy had been brought back from cancellation and MacFarlane turned most of his creative attention towards that. He stayed on American Dad mainly as a voice actor, giving writing duties to Weitzman and Mike Barker. Together those two quickly decided to move away from the original setup of the show. It wasn’t a complete reboot. Stan remained a Republican, and Hayley still bickered with him over their differing beliefs. But it wasn’t all at the forefront of the show anymore. Instead, the writers decided to flesh out the characters more and not rely so much on gags but rather the comedy that comes naturally from the character’s personalities and relationships with one another.
At first, Stan was a typical far right extremist. He loved George Bush and Ronald Reagan, he was homophobic, sexist, xenophobic, etc. But as time went on, he actually started to show growth as a person. His homophobic beliefs began to change first, after finding out his gay neighbor Greg was also a fellow Republican. In a later episode, Greg and his partner Terry even ask Francine to be a surrogate for them. Stan (after making many many terrible decisions before getting to this point) realizes how wrong his views are on same-sex couples. He gets punched in the face at the end of that episode (rightfully), but still. Stan begins to drop some of his other extreme views over time too. And he becomes someone who truly does care for his family and is capable of changing for the better.
When it comes to the rest of the family, while none had as extreme of a change in personality, they still began to stand out more as the show progressed. Francine was originally just a housewife who seemed to be the voice of reason. She later becomes more…”intense” for lack of a better word. Between the weird casual remarks about crimes she’s committed in the past and the violent tendencies she reveals, she ends up becoming one of the primary sources of the show’s dark humor.
Steve, while still being a geek, also reveals his more romantic – and overly emotional – side. I believe that one of the best decisions the creators made was to let Steve ‘s voice actor, Scott Grimes, use his natural voice to sing. Some of the show’s funniest moments come from Steve’s singing, with my personal favorite being his R.Kelly parody “Trapped in the Locker.” And Hayley is still much more progressive in her views than the rest of her family, but she’s also been shown to have her own flaws too. One of her biggest and most consistent struggles is proving how responsible and how much of an independent person she is to her parents.
The two characters who improved the most as the time went on were Klaus and Roger. At first, the humor written around Klaus concerned his random German accent and being in love with Francine. He was basically just a copy of Brian from Family Guy in fish form. But eventually the series moved away from that, with Klaus becoming probably the most sympathetic character on the show. He’s shown to be pretty intelligent but is often just used as the lightning rod of the family, constantly being abused both physically and verbally for no reason at all. The family eventually realizes that Klaus is actually the glue that keeps their dysfunctional family from completely falling apart.
Then there’s Roger. He really is one of the best characters ever made for television. It’s hard to believe that Roger was originally supposed to be a sort of ALF-type character. The plot device the writers conceived of him having to disguise himself to hide being an alien all the time might go down as one of the most genius decisions ever made for the show. Roger’s constant disguises not only make for the best jokes in the series, but they also give audiences a look into the character’s psyche. At one point, Roger develops split personalities from some of them and questions whether he has actually an identity of his own. The fact that MacFarlane also voices the character continues to solidify how talented he is. In my opinion Roger is not only one of MacFarlane’s best creations but also his best performance too.
With all of those character changes, the evolution to a comfort show seemed natural, especially to me. When I was younger, I was obsessed with Family Guy (I watched a lot of things that I shouldn’t have been watching when I was younger) and I didn’t really pay much attention to American Dad, viewing it as just a lesser version of it. But as I’ve gotten older, I really fell in love with the show and developed a deep appreciation for it. Family Guy’s humor mostly comes from making cutaway jokes about current events. While they are often funny in the moment, they eventually make the episodes feel dated. This was something American Dad realized early on and rightfully stopped doing. I can watch an episode from the show’s first two seasons and tell that they’re probably from 2005 or 2006 just from jokes about Bush and other current events from that time. The show feels much more timeless now.
You would think that, given its title, a show like this would’ve gone nuts with jokes about Trump over the last few years. However, there have actually been very little jokes made about him. It’s nothing like Family Guy anymore. I mean the show had a whole episode with Trump at the forefront complete with Peter Griffin getting into a fight with him. No shade to Family Guy, but in 15 years will that episode really hold up?
Another major difference between the two shows is that the humor in Family Guy is much more cynical. There’s dark humor in American Dad for sure, but at the end of the day the characters still feel oddly relatable – as exaggerated and as crazy as they are. There’s one episode where the family is caught in a hurricane. Francine wants to evacuate, but Stan insists on staying saying they’ll be fine. Even when things get significantly worse, he keeps making terrible decisions and downplaying the seriousness of the situation. Having literally just gone through a hurricane with my own parents I can tell you that happens. Humans don’t always make the right decisions, even in the face of certain danger. And because of the way the show humorously addresses our human flaws, that’s an episode I can watch years from now – and still laugh at. It’s something I’ll always connect with.
Family Guy has become a show where the jokes take priority over the characters. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, but at a certain point it kind of became hard to continue watching it because the characters just started to become extremely unlikable and downright annoying. With the Smith family, however, you can’t help but still like and root for them – even with all of their faults and even when they do constantly make stupid decisions.
Even with the most ridiculous plot-lines and scenarios, they’re just a dysfunctional family who still love each other and manage to work things out…usually. American or not, I think that makes it easier for people everywhere to relate.