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ON THE TUBE

Eddie Murphy, Matt Groening, Seth MacFarlane.

Seth who?

The way network politics works, Fox surely would have tried to give the animated series created and produced by the first two TV legends the prized launching pad after Sunday's Super Bowl.

However, it's the 25-year-old MacFarlane's series, "Family Guy," that will premiere between 10 and 10:30 p.m. Sunday after the victory speech from either Denver quarterback John Elway or Atlanta coach Dan Reeves.

The Fox decision wasn't based entirely on quality. Murphy's foamation series "The PJs" was ready to go by its Jan. 10 premiere date, and Groening's animated "Futurama" won't be ready until March.

But the choice of "Family Guy" for the post-Super Bowl slot still is about as big an upset as Atlanta's defeat of Minnesota two weeks ago.

And those who will be exhausted by Fox's endless pre-game, game and post-game coverage will be rewarded with a smart -- and smart-aleck -- premiere that throws out jokes in rat-tat machine gun style.

The bespectacled title character, Peter Griffin, has a double chin and a knack for messing up things in his middle-class suburban family while trying to make everyone happy.

He gets fired from his job as a safety analyst at a toy company when he falls asleep on the job after an all-nighter at a stag party.

"As the man," Peter tells his wife, Lois, "I order you to give me permission to go to this party."

Of course, he goes, abuses alcohol and loses his job. His devilish side decides to lie to Lois, who is the family's emotional rock.

"It's OK to lie to her," says the devil, explaining his philosophy of women. "They're not people like us."

Besides the devil and an angel, the family dog also is around to offer Peter advice.

He has a lot to deal with. Teen-age daughter Meg longs for thicker lips; 13-year-old son Chris wants to carry around breast implants. The third child, Stewie, is a baby with a violent attitude. He speaks like an Englishman and is wise beyond his years. He uses pointed phrases like "wretched womb" and already practices mind control. And, oh yes, his head is shaped like a football.

Just your typical American family.

Peter ends up getting a welfare check for $150,000, a mistake that he falls to correct and rationalizes by wondering if he is getting a special reward as the department's 1 millionth customer.

The humor and language can be a little racy at times, which makes the late premiere start appropriate. However, Fox hasn't decided where this series will air when it returns in March with new episodes.

Nothing in MacFarlane's world is off-limits to humor. Sunday's pilot has politically incorrect humor, scatological humor and pop culture humor.

Among the wide array of targets and objects of satire, in no particular order, are Adolf Hitler, "The Brady Bunch," "Joanie Loves Chachi," Fox announcers John Madden and Pat Summerall, "Diff'rent Strokes," Jerry Seinfeld, accountants, the South and even the network promotional campaign, "Just One Fox."

It isn't rip-roaring funny, but its subversive, anything-goes style certainly will leave many people waiting anxiously for the March episodes. And wondering just who this guy MacFarlane -- who voices three of the characters -- is.

At a Fox party in Los Angeles, MacFarlane told me his resume is a little misleading. He is the son of ex-hippies who straightened out to become a teacher and admissions director at a private school. That's why MacFarlane attended the preppy, conservative Kent School in Connecticut.

"It was a free ride, basically," he explained. "I was pretty much a hermit there. I did cartoons for the school paper. I was pretty much at the drawing board a lot of the time. I didn't really get out as much as I did in college."

He then attended Rhode Island School of Design, which is why his series is set in that state. He wears very thick glasses, which makes you wonder how he can draw as well as he does.

"I can see things farther away," he explains. "But I really can't see ----."

He was given a budget of about $40,000 by Fox to make a presentation and promptly went over budget by $20,000 and used credit to get extra funding.

Fox bailed him out financially by picking up the series, but he isn't much better off yet than Peter Griffin.

"My credit still s----," said MacFarlane. "I applied for a Visa and they gave me a limit of $1,000. My student loans are basically paid off. It's very ironic."

Though his family in the pilot appears to have similar dynamics to "The Simpsons," MacFarlane says that differences between Lois and Marge will be much more obvious in future episodes.

"Lois has a spark to her that is pretty much her own," said MacFarlane.

He uses his own parents as a sounding board for his humor. The raciness might upset some mothers, he says, but not his.

"It's a very close family," said MacFarlane, who has a 22-year-old sister. "We're very loose and it's not a big deal.

"I think Stewie will teach kids some good new words," he said. "Words that kids will have to look up."

Some conservative parents may decide that "Family Guy" is guilty of some wretched excesses. But if future episodes can pack as many clever moments and jokes as there are in Sunday's premiere, MacFarlane's unique voice could be practicing mind control on the youth of America for years to come.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

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