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"Family Guy" Values

State of the Arts


Published April 13, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

Only one thing's better than a fresh episode of "Family Guy." Face time with the "Family Guy" guy. Expect the cult cartoon's creator Seth MacFarlane to be, well, animated in an appearance next Friday, April 22, at the University of Vermont -- a gift to the university community from the senior class. It's a light-hearted offering. "Family Guy" regularly rises above adolescent dick-and-fart jokes to pillory sacred subjects such as disabled athletes, kids with cancer and Native American casino chiefs.

Nothing's too insensitive for the Griffin family -- middle-class, "r"-dropping residents of Quahog, Rhode Island. Patriarch Peter, affectionately known as "Peetah," is a 21st-century Archie Bunker. His wife Lois loves him despite her blue-blood background. They have three kids: pudgy Chris, unpopular Meg and baby Stewie, who is forever plotting against his mother and the world in English-accented soliloquies. Brian the dog is a liberal voice of reason, but he also has a hot intraspecies crush on Lois. And, quite possibly, a drinking problem. Flashbacks fill in the narrative, and the pop-culture references come fast and furious.

A Rhode Island School of Design grad, 31-year-old MacFarlane is an astute and irreverent anthropologist. He also does the voices for Peter, Brian and Stewie. Newsweek described the show as "a traditional domestic sitcom soaked in battery acid." Indeed, the Emmy-nominated series exhibits a political incorrectness virtually unimaginable before "South Park." Fox actually refused to air one episode -- MacFarlane has promised to talk about it in his Patrick Gymnasium talk.

He'll also likely retell the story of the show's remarkable resurrection. Fox launched "Family Guy" in 1999, then canceled it. But the show didn't die: The old episodes went to DVD and sold millions. Meanwhile, "Family Guy" reruns developed a huge following weeknights at 11 on the Cartoon Channel. Fox saw the light and decided to give the show a second chance. It re-premieres May 1. MacFarlane told Newsweek, "I'm sitting there, trying to seem professional, and all I'm thinking is, 'My God, how did this happen?'" It's all in the "Family Guy."

Call it an arts anomaly. Students now account for a whopping 25 percent of the University of Vermont's classical music audience. The George Bishop Lane Series was conceived -- and endowed -- to serve the university community, but its season subscribers are typically way post-grad. Despite being discounted, the student tickets never sold too briskly. Until three years ago, when the Lane Series began coordinating concerts with the honors program. Artistic Director Jane Ambrose now teaches a "Music and Live Performance" class that requires students to attend five concerts per semester.

But that doesn't fully account for the demographic shift. General Manager Natalie Neuert attributes it to positive student word-of-mouth, intercampus communications and having a twentysomething rep on the Lane Series Advisory Board. "It's good. It's our mission. It's why we're here," she confirms. There's a small problem, though: Letting tickets go at $6 a pop generates less money than selling them at $25. The difference to the balance sheet can be dramatic. But Neuert and Ambrose are hatching a plan to pay for it. Neuert recommends, "I just think arts organizations really need to think creatively about how to tier their pricing structure so they're accessible for everyone and they can make their bottom line..."

The Vermont Mozart Festival sure could use more warm bodies. Not so much in the summer: Organizers are fully committed to continuing the four-week fest. The "winter series" is more worrisome. Executive Director Rebecca Stone recently announced it's being downsized from five shows to two. "The Mozart Festival is regrouping," she says. Audience diversity is definitely part of the challenge. While a wide array of tourists, picnickers and outdoor types flock to the al fresco summer festival, the winter series relies on hardcore, mostly elderly classical-music aficionados who live in the immediate area. Stone notes, "A number of people don't care to travel even from Stowe to Burlington."

Vermont theater lost a key player last week when Robert Ringer passed away in a Berlin nursing home. In the 1980s, he founded the Burlington-area Vermont Repertory Theater -- one of the state's first professional rep companies. There, in an abandoned church at Fort Ethan Allen, he produced some of the best local drama Vermonters have ever seen, including the Green Mountain premiere and tour of David Budbill's Judevine. In the process of casting Sam Shepard's Buried Child, Ringer discovered then-24-year-old Rusty DeWees. The Logger recalls, "On the way home, I thought to myself, This is the start of something big... He's the reason I'm doing what I'm doing." DeWees is delivering the eulogy at Ringer's memorial service Wednesday, April 13, at Montpelier's Unitarian Church.