A Conversation with Alex Borstein

“That’s what’s great about comedy, it’s a leveller, it’s an equal opportunity offender.”

Love it or hate it, the animated sitcom Family Guy has achieved a rare level of success having burrowed its way into the global zeitgeist where it has proceeded to lay a multitude of eggs in the cerebral cortex of modern pop-culture. And while much of the shows success is rightfully attributed to its creator Seth MacFarlane, its continuing popularity is arguably an ensemble effort driven by a capable group of voice actors who deliver each line with conviction and timing, albeit fuelled by a certain moral ambiguity and questionable taste.

At the head of MacFarlane’s team of hired guns, which includes Mila Kunis, Seth Green, Patrick Warburton and Adam West, is Alex Borstein whose portrayal of Lois Griffin has redefined the traditional role of the onscreen matriarch, taking the poor little rich girl come domestic housewife to brave new heights… or lows depending on your view point.

With the imminent release of the shows eighth season on DVD, Alex was gracious enough to fight her flu and sit down for a discussion of all thing Family Guy, and then some.

Fletcher: You certainly look better than you sound. I appreciate you taking the time to chat.

Alex Borstein: I’m a little bit under the weather so I might sound a little funny.

It’s actually gorgeous today, it’s just me that’s the problem.

F: From what I understand you originally began working in television as a writer on the animations Pinky and the Brian and Casper?

AB: Oh yeah. I wrote for those shows. I didn’t do any voices but I wrote for them.

F: So can you give us a little background on the how and why you started working in television?

AB: Well I was working with a comedy group in Los Angeles and we were working at a festival where I was scouted by the people casting for a television show called MAD TV.

But prior to that I was with this comedy group and working with a writing partner where we got that gig writing for Casper and Pinky & the Brain. But this audition I did for MAD TV was the first thing I did that was on camera. And that was my big break. Through the people at MAD TV I meet the people who were developing Family Guy and then the rest is history.’

F: Was it Seth MacFarlane that you initially meet with on your casting for Family Guy or did meeting happen later in the process?

AB: One of the women who was involved in the initial development of MAD TV was then involved in the development of Family Guy for Fox. They were trying to get the pilot made and she turned around and asked ‘I know you do voices, would be willing to help us out on this pilot presentation?’ And of course I was willing to do anything so I was like ‘hell Yes’. And then I read it and I thought ‘holy crap this is funny’.

Then I meet Seth. We’d never met before and I kind of tried out a couple of voices in the recording studio; I threw something at him that was kind of based on a cousin of mine from New York and he liked it and so we did it. And that’s the end of the beginning and it was the beginning of the end.  

F: So ten years down the track, are you surprised at the shows longevity? Taking into account its turbulent history with the network.

AB: I never in a million years expect it to be this. And I know everyone says that of any project in LA. Everything you do, you feel like it’s not going to happen or it’s never going to air. I mean there are so many things that never make it to broadcast, so even making it on the air was huge. And then we played off the back of the Superbowl with this huge launch; then we were cancelled; then it was bought back and now it’s unbelievable. It’s like a cockroach, it will not go away. Ever. I hope.

F: You seem to have had a pretty good grasp of Hollywood politics. Was that initial cancellation a disappoint or could you tell the that the show was on thin ice with the network?

AB: Yeah, I think growing up with these Jewish parents I always expect doom and gloom and the worse possible case scenarios. So I just assumed that every good thing will end and that this was its time. But then I started hearing inklings that it might come back. Seth called and said ‘You know, it may be coming back to life and it may be coming back as a movie, I’m not sure which but would you be interested?

To which I told him ‘Shut up. Unless something’s actually real don’t bother playing with me.’ I just didn’t believe it. You know I’ll believe something when there’s a contract in front of me, and sure enough, a month later there we were; April 2004 getting back in the offices and starting to write new episodes.

F: Speaking of which, you’ve written for Family Guy in past but haven’t done so for a few seasons. Do you have any interest in picking up the writers cap again?

AB: I did write for the show for four or five years. I wrote four in the first go round doing some consulting. Then I wrote when we came back in 2004. But I’m developing my own show now as well as writing for another one on Showtime, so I’m only doing the voices of Family Guy.

F: Family Guy has always attracted controversy, not to mention numerous lawsuits and protests from activist groups. What’s your opinion toward these conservatives who take aim against the show?

AB: You know its so funny. Working in this business, especially comedy, for so long I have such a warped sense of what is Okay and what is crossing the line and what is offensive. I mean I have absolutely no idea anymore, so to me it all seems ridiculous.

Anyone taking issue with anything could easily just turn off or prevent their children from watching if they don’t want them to. I don’t understand why they just don’t do that. Anything that upsets me or offends me I just don’t watch and I don’t buy their merchandise and that’s it.

F: Has there ever been a script come past your desk that you felt has pushed the boundaries?

AB: Never. The only thing I ever take issue with is if something isn’t funny. If it’s funny and we happen to be making fun of the holocaust, then it’s still funny; if it’s funny and we’re making fun of autism, or cancer or AIDS or whatever, if it’s funny, it’s funny. I know not everyone feels that way, but that’s what’s great about comedy, it’s a leveller, it’s an equal opportunity offender. No one is safe, nor should they be.

F: Having said that, are you surprised at the amount of big name guest stars that the show attracts?

AB: You know we are so lucky that Family Guy is so far reaching at this point, a lot of the time the writers room is able to just come up with an idea and go for it, full steam ahead, and nine times out of ten the person in question will say ‘Whoa that’s hilarious, I’ll do it’. They’ll get it, they’ll have a great sense of humour and will want to make fun of themselves.

But many times we’ve had the opposite happen where we air something; for example I played Marly Matlin whose a death actress and afterwards she contacted the show and was pissed that we didn’t ask her to play herself.

Every once in a while someone will say ‘No way’, and they’re upset and so we change it altogether, if Paris Hilton doesn’t want to do that then we’ll do Fergie. We just change out the celebrity sometimes.

F: And have you heard of any celebrities asking to be on the show? Is there anyone you haven’t managed to have on yet?

AB: People always want to do it. One of the things we try to do is have people on who just play random characters, not actually themselves. For example we have had a lot of great fortune with Drew Barrymore who’s always been so gracious and such a fan of the show. And she has played some hilarious characters like Jillian, Brian’s girlfriend over numerous episodes. She is such a great sport.

F: And how about yourself and the regular cast members, any signs of fatigue after a decade of episodes?

AB: We are so lucky that we don’t work together every day for fourteen hours a day like other single camera drama shows, so when we all see each other and hang out its a party. It’s like a little reunion. I wish I had some dirt to tell you but everyone really gets along. Mila Kunis great, Seth Green is great and knock on wood it’s the greatest job on the planet.

F: Speaking of dirt, do you have to dish on any particular guest star that didn’t sync with the Family Guy vibe?

AB: Well I know Paris Hilton was someone who really wanted to be on the show, and so we wrote something for her, but there was some gag that she didn’t like so she didn’t do it.

F: Apart from the content and script, have you found a lot of the celebrity guests struggling with mechanics of voicing acting on an animated series?

AB: The truth is, and I’m not trying to puff up what we do, but it is very difficult because you don’t have your body, you don’t have your face, so everything has to be inflected through your voice. It’s very different, so some people do take a lot more time than others.

Seth MacFarlane directs everyone, and he has to really get in there and get them to let go of what they know about working on camera and rethink things performance wise. You might think you’re doing something, you think your hitting it but when you play it back and listen to it your like ‘Oh my god that wasn’t my intention at all’.

F: With animation, there’s an obvious time lag between reading and physically animating. Is there a level of frustration felt by the production team that you can’t tap into current affairs or trends as readily as you’d like?

AB: Believe it or not it takes about nine months to do an episode. It’s like birthing a baby; it’s a very long slow process. In some ways it’s a blessing and in some ways a curse. We have the ability to revisit something or fix it when we have an epiphany of what would work better, where most live action show that shoot in a week can’t.

But because we have animation coming back from Korea, and we see one version at three months and another a six months we can take notes and change things. It’s kind of nice just having that ability to do a do-over, a mulligan as they say. But in other ways it’s a handicap. It’s hard to be current; you can’t do a lot of news worthy things, for example today Lindsay Lohan got jail time and we won’t be able to comment on that. We can only mention it much more loosely and vaguely at a later time.

F: One of the more popular aspects of the show has been the fantastic reunions you’ve facilitated including the cast of Star Trek: TNG, Spies Like Us and How I met Your Mother. Do have any personal dream reunions or castings you’d like to see feature on the show?

AB: Oh god. We all have our own weird wish lists. I’d Love to have Pat Benetar play and episode as Lois’s old friend from school. Or I’d want Steve Martin to come on with Dan Akryod and be wild and crazy guys.

F: Family Guy has never shied away from biting the Fox that feeds it. Have you ever been handed any corporate warnings for crossing the party line?

AB: You know the greatest thing about Fox, and Rupert Murdoch is that wether right, left or centre, politically the one thing that everyone agrees on is Green, by which I mean money. And they get that Family Guy makes them a lot of money, and they get that people like it. And I think they understand the necessity of a protagonist and an antagonist. And if they need to be the antagonist sometime then that’s ok.

F: Having said that, was there any political motivations in Fox not allowing the ‘Partial Terms of Endearment’ go to broadcast?

AB: They did not allow it to air. They said ‘We won’t air this as it is, but you can have it on the DVD’, which I think the fans actually liked. They like having something that’s too risqué to air and having it on the DVD.

F: Family Guy has undoubtedly put more risqué episode to air. What was it about this one that had them hit pause?

AB: The episode is about abortion. And so it was just about them being too afraid to touch on that issue because it’s such a political and religious mine field here. It’s just one of those themes they’re not ready to talk or joke about yet.

F: I understand that you and Seth MacFarlane performed a live table-read of the episode in front of a audience, what was that experience like?

AB: It’s always a bit unreal to go to those things and hear the audience’s reaction and realise how much these people are loving the show. It’s like a religion to a lot of people.

F: And what’s the future for Family Guy? Have you officially been renewed for another season?

AB: Yeah, I think we will continue to be renewed as long as Seth is willing to get up every day and make the show. I know Seth wants to spread his wings into movies and that he really likes to do on-camera stuff and wants to do more directing. I think what he needs is more hours in the day, but with that being impossible, hopefully he will just get better and better at using the hours he has and will be able to do everything. And we’ll all be able to have Family Guy forever and ever.

F: And do you watch Family Guy on television yourself?

AB: You know what, my husband and I usually like to wait for the DVD sets and watch them all in a row. We do that with all the shows we like.

F: For example?

AB: You know most of the things my husband and I watch are one-hour dramas. We were huge fans of The Wire and Deadwood, and we’ve gotten into Madmen like crazy. I think a lot of those shows are being made so well and getting better and better.

But as for half hour comedies, I don’t really watch many of them. I really don’t like that medium as much. I don’t know if it’s just me or my age, or if they are making them different.

F: Binge watching DVD and Blu-rays has become the new normal, as have expectations for bonuc content. Do you filming and featuring in the behind-the-scenes extras produced for the DVD releases?

AB: The commentaries are really fun, I really enjoy doing those. It’s usually a few of the writers, some of the actors and we’ll often have a few drinks; it’s like a little party where we hang out and watch the show together. It’s always different watching the show together like that and some of the episodes we may not have seen before. As far as the cameras capturing some of the stuff, sometimes it feels a tiny bit intrusive because you’re just not use to it in that regard. I mean if you’re doing a movie or something you know is going to be on camera your ready for it. You’ve done hair and make-up so you’re ready for it. But a lot of time Family Guy you show up in your old overalls or pyjamas.

F: Any favourite episodes or moments that stick out for you personally?

AB: One of my favourite things was when we did the DVD movie Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story. And because we did it for DVD we did a bunch of extra material going in and out where we could be really filthy and do whatever we wanted. There was this red carpet stuff where Louise showed up totally shit-faced drunk; she was cussing and screaming and throwing up… and, I don’t know why, but that still makes me laugh really hard.

F: And finally, what is it that keeps you excited about the show?

AB: You know my thing is that every time a script shows up there is always at least one, but usually more than one thing in there, that makes me laugh so hard out loud. And that is such a gift. If we can keep that up man, then we should just go forever.

    J. Fletcher

    Based in Sydney, Australia. Entertainment Journalist. Critic. Photographer. Coffee Snob. Not necessarily in that order.

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