Animated sitcoms on network television are a pretty rare occurrence. After The Simpsons became the biggest thing on the planet, every network tried to copy the formula but few succeeded (remember Duckman? Fish Police?). Fox has that market cornered today with The Simpsons still on the air after more than 30 years, as well as Family Guy, Bob’s Burgers, and so on, but what remains notable about these examples is that they’re all 2D. Even as American animation moves into CGI as its default mode on the big screen, network TV sticks to 2D, at least in style, even if hand-drawn work has been all but retired.
There was a brief moment where they tried CGI sitcoms, and Father of the Pride was one example of that. Created by Jeffrey Katzenberg of Dreamworks Animation, the series was inspired by the famous Siegfried and Roy animal show in Las Vegas, and imagined a family sitcom style life for the trainers’ lions. National treasure John Goodman played the patriarch Larry, the schlubby Bronx Zoo native who becomes the star of Siegfried and Roy’s show. Cheryl Hines voiced his wife/mate Kate, while Carl Reiner was the grandfather. Andy Richter was a depressed giant panda. John DiMaggio voiced a pair of steroid abusing warthogs. Siegfried and Roy did not play themselves. Instead, they were voiced by Sophie Dahl’s dad and Scruffy from Futurama.
The set-up was typical cheesy American family sitcom stuff, with plots focusing on insecurities at work, pleasing the PTA, setting up your friends for dates, and trying to understand your kids’ interests. The twist, aside from the animal focus, would be in this world’s intersection with the gaudy celebrity of Las Vegas. In one episode, Kelsey Grammer turns up to voice himself, with Siegfried and Roy thinking that Grammer is a real psychologist like Frasier Crane.
It’s easy to forget just how big a deal Siegfried and Roy actually were. The German magical duo were the undisputed kings of Las Vegas entertainment, performing some 30,000 shows for millions of fans over three decades. At one point, their show, a combination of magic, theater, and animal spectacle, was said to be the most expensive stage show on the planet. In 2001, the pair signed a lifetime contract with the Mirage hotel and casin, which called for eight shows a week, 44 weeks a year until the duo decided to retire. It was reported that said contract was worth over $50 million a year. They had the kind of pull that only A-List mega-musicians have in Vegas these days.
On October 3rd, 2003, during one of their performances, a seven-year-old white tiger named Montecore attacked Roy, at one point biting into his neck and dragging him off-stage.The attack severed his spine, led to a stroke, and resulted in permanent injuries to Roy’s motor and verbal abilities. The show was cancelled. While both Siegfried and Roy would insist that the attack was an unavoidable accident. animal trainer Chris Lawrence later alleged that it was Roy’s mishandling of the tiger that led to the violence. Lawrence later said he believed that the duo and the Mirage covered up the real reason for the attack in order to protect their image.
Following Roy’s attack, it seemed near-impossible to imagine the pair as they had once been. Their show had been iconic but one couldn’t imagine how they could revive that nostalgic glow for new content. So, it seemed kind of odd, to say the least, when Father of the Pride premiered on NBC in August 2004, a year after the attack. Jeffrey Katzenberg said that both Siegfried and Roy had encouraged Dreamworks to press forward with the show.
The series’ marketing sold it as a family friendly show despite it being more aimed at ‘an 18- to 49-year-old’ crowd, according to Katzenberg. The racy nature of the show led to the advertiser-backed Family Friendly Programming Forum withdrawing its funding from the show. Dreamworks had initially shown snippets of the show to potential advertisers and most of them seemed to be under the impression that the series was aimed at families. That changed when NBC began their aggressive marketing campaign during the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, with TV sports showing cartoon pandas and lions in that oft-imitated Dreamworks style making naughty references to sex. Various references that the Family Friendly Programming Forum had problems with include a moment where a panda refers to her ‘slutty sister’ a scene where an orang-utan calls his wife ‘a bitch’, and one where the show’s lead says, ‘Big Daddy’s home and he’s ready for lovin’. It may be 9 o’clock in New York, but right here it’s mountin’ time.’ The FFPF withdrew the $50k they offered to help underwrite the show.
Critical responses ranged from cautiously optimistic to straight-up negative. SFGate wrote, ‘Who knows how Father of the Pride will turn out, but this much is evident: Money can’t buy funny.’ Variety wrote, in what is otherwise a pretty hopeful review, “”Pride” surely looks different than any other comedy premiering this fall, but if these cats are going to wind up being more than just a memory, it’s going to require every one of their nine lives to make that happen.’
Initially, Father of the Pride did well in its slot. Its debut episode, which was presented ad-free by Toyota Motor Sales’s USA division, was the highest-rated show on the evening of August 31st, with 12.3 million viewers, a 7.7 rating, and a 12 share in American households. That didn’t last very long. The show was pulled during November sweeps and the remaining episodes were burned off from December to May. The initial pull was not billed as a cancellation by NBC but the writing was on the wall. The show was preempted a number of times for election coverage and their reality show The Biggest Loser always pulled it bigger numbers in those slots anyway.
The failure of the series hit NBC far harder than it did Dreamworks, due to an unusual deal the network made wherein they agreed to pay all upfront costs, which Variety put at around $2 million per episode for 13 episodes, plus unknown costs for backup scripts. This would go a long way to explaining why the show was pulled during sweeps and cancelled as quickly as it was. Viewership numbers had fallen hard but they weren’t terrible. NBC has certainly dealt with much worse. But at least their lower-rated comedies over the years tend to have die-hard fan bases and some level of critical satisfaction. Father of the Pride just seemed out of touch, even without the elephant in the room that is Roy’s injury.
For what it’s worth, both Siegfried and Roy loved the show, according to Katzenberg, but for a lot of viewers, there was something immensely uncomfortable about turning a story like this into an old-school family sitcom. At least Archie Bunker never ripped a man to shreds. It all felt like promotion for a show you could no longer go and see in Vegas, one that you probably wouldn’t have wanted to go to anymore even if it had been open. Roy died of COVID at the age of 75 in May 2020. Siegfried passed from terminal pancreatic cancer in January 2021 at the age of 81.
One of the biggest problems Father of the Pride suffered was that it just looked cheap. The CGI animation seemed unfinished at times, lacking in the deftness and textures that made the medium so enticing to animators in the first place. Dreamworks executive Richard Chuang claimed that the show’s animation “brought a level of richness and acting that’s more akin to feature animation. There are subtleties in the facial expressions and the performance that’s more in line with features.” In my opinion, I just don’t see it. The voice acting is what lifts up the show, not the animation. The ambition is certainly there for more, although Chuang admitted that, as with any animated show on this scale, “We need to reuse as much as we can, even though we have over 100 characters by now.” But that visual style, whatever the intentions, also hampered the show beyond mere aesthetics: Regardless of how much it was sold as a show for adults, it still looks like one for kids. Can you blame parents for getting confused?
Another problem that stuck in the throat of critics and audiences alike was the show’s status as a platform for endless corporate cross-promotion. In the second episode, Matt Lauer, voicing himself, makes an appearance. In another episode, titled ‘Donkey’, a certain famous Dreamworks character turns up to film a TV ad in Vegas. For those who were unsure, the show’s Wikipedia page informs us that ‘of course, this isn’t canon to the Shrek franchise.’ And yes, they actually got Eddie Murphy to reprise his role. Product placement and cross-platform synergy is the norm in the age of media monopolies, but there’s something about seeing it in animated form that only highlights how awkward and forced the practice can be.
American TV animation has been in something of a golden age lately, from BoJack Horseman to Tuca and Bertie, from Rick and Morty to Steven Universe. DreamWorks Animation still produces television but mostly sticks to kids’ stuff and content for streaming services. A lot of it is actually really good, such as the revamp of She-Ra created by Noelle Stevenson, and the animation is varied, sophisticated, and leaps and bounds ahead of what we saw with Father of the Pride. That show will forever remain a minor curiosity remembered only by Jeffrey Katzenberg and nerds like me. Then again, Apple is now doing a podcast focusing on Siegfried and Roy’s life and cultural impact, so maybe that’ll change. I doubt it.
Header Image Source: YouTube // DreamWorks Animation