Most fans of Family Guy and American Dad recognize Seth MacFarlane as the series’ creator. But behind the scenes, each show is developed by a team of talented storytellers, one of whom is MacFarlane’s longtime producing partner Kara Vallow. The self-described workaholic has served, to varying degrees, as a producer forFamily Guy, American Dad and The Cleveland Show. However, Vallow’s latest venture is a departure from the wacky hijinks of a cartoon family, with Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey.
Set to premiere in March, Odyssey is the ambitious follow-up to Carl Sagan’s miniseries Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. The earlier show became a phenomenon when it premiered on PBS in 1980, as celebrated astronomer Sagan took viewers on a theoretical tour of the past, present and future of the universe. “We were sort of forced to watch it, when I was a kid – a lot of my generation was,” recalls Vallow. “It seemed to encourage a generation of viewers to contemplate the origins of the universe and their place in it, and made a television star out of an astronomer.” Seeing an absence of this type of programming in modern television, MacFarlane teamed with Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow, and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to bring Cosmos to a new generation.
In 2011, MacFarlane asked Vallow to develop a style of animation for the historical reenactments in Odyssey. Vallow accepted the task, studying examples of unique styles during late night viewings of independent and international animation. “I had to figure out a way for the animation to work within the context of a very complicated science show that has a lot of visual effects and live-action sequences,” she explains. “The animated segments needed to serve the narrative portions; they needed to tell a story.” The result was a digital style she describes as beautiful and sophisticated yet economical. “We have the responsibility of making viewers understand the modern theories of science through our animation,” says Vallow. “It’s been very tricky, but I think you’ll be surprised when you see it.”
If working on Odyssey was a challenge, Vallow’s experience had made her well-equipped to handle it. Desiring at a young age to work in animation, she attended The School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. “I started off as an animator, and I became a producer by virtue of not having a whole lot of talent and it being sort of an easier path,” she jokes. “But really, I just wanted to facilitate the medium and artists.” Interestingly, as her career ascended, so did the targeted age bracket for each of her shows, from Dino Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Men in Black: The Series. Producing Johnny Bravo for Cartoon Network, Vallow met a 20-something MacFarlane, one of the writers responsible for the show’s edgy humor. “We were both workaholics with no life who sort of bonded over just being at the office all the time,” recalls Vallow, “We’ve been friends ever since.”
When MacFarlane left to do Family Guy, Vallow was already hard at work on Dilbert, her big break into adult animated series. “After Dilbert, I wanted to continue producing prime time animated television as opposed to doing children’s shows,” says Vallow. Following the short-lived but well-reviewed MTV series 3 South, she joined MacFarlane for the third season of Family Guy.
More than a decade later, Vallow is now helping oversee Family Guy and American Dad during some of the most eventful times for both series: Last year saw the death – and eventual resurrection – of Family Guy dog Brian Griffin, as well as the announcement that American Dad will leave Fox’s Animation Domination lineup to move to TBS.
To say viewers were shocked and upset by Brian’s death in the episode “Life of Brian” would be an understatement. Fans rallied behind a petition to bring the Griffin’s beloved liberal pooch back from the grave, collecting more than 128,000 signatures. “My mother is not a big cartoon-watcher, but it was the first email I’d ever gotten from her concerning one of our storylines in the show,” recalls Vallow. “She was like, ‘How could they kill off Brian? He’s the best character!'” As for why Brian had to be the one to go, Vallow jokes, “It may not have caused that big of a stir if it was Meg.”
Fans were relieved when Brian returned in the episode “Christmas Guy.” Despite what headlines said, Vallow assures that was always the plan: “There was an article about how the fan outrage prompted the writers to bring Brian back three weeks later – but our episodes are written, recorded and animated well over a year in advance,” she explains. “[Brian’s return] didn’t have anything to do with fan outrage; it had more to do with us wanting a resurrection-type story at Christmas.”
Vallow remains surprised by the belief that Brian was gone permanently. “We’ve done scenes where Peter pulls his face off or blows his brains outside his head, yet people thought Brian could just get hit by a car and stay dead forever.” But, she adds, “I hope fans don’t feel cheated or played.”
While Brian returned to Animation Domination, the Smith family of American Dad will be leaving for good at the end of this season. Fortunately, the show is avoiding The Cleveland Show‘s fate by moving to TBS. “I’m not really sure what the thinking was there at Fox,” says Vallow, “but TBS has been incredibly enthusiastic and supportive about the show. Maybe we’ll finally get a toy made or something.” Fans wondering how American Dad will be affected by the move to cable should not worry: According to Vallow, the transition has been seamless. “From what I’ve seen so far, it is pretty much just business as usual. They have similar standards and practices, and nothing has changed in our process at all.”
Replacing American Dad in the Animation Domination lineup will be Bordertown, also executive produced by MacFarlane. Set in a fictitious town on the United States–Mexico border, the series focuses on the interactions between the families of Border Patrol agent Bud Backwald and immigrant Ernesto Gonzales. While the show may be new, its concept goes back to the mid-2000s, when Vallow helped develop its pilot presentation for Fox. Vallow is uninvolved with the series’ present incarnation, as Fox opted to do it at a different animation studio.
Instead, Vallow is working on an untitled series about “a barely functioning 21st century family, whose members have very conflicting political beliefs.” If the synopsis sounds reminiscent of vintage American Dad, Vallow explains the show is more in the vein of All in the Family. She adds, “American Dad started out as a more politically-minded show, but then it ended up wackier – people love it that way.”
Even with all of her projects, Vallow still has time for herself and her community. An avid horse rider, Vallow serves on the board of directors for Compton Jr Posse, an after-school and summer camp program that teaches kids in Compton, a suburb of L.A., how to ride and care for horses. “Through that,” she says, “the program teaches them leadership skills, communication skills and how to relate to people outside their comfort zone in their neighborhoods.”
Vallow also enjoys writing for her blogs, Teen Sleuth and The Haunted Library. In addition, she is penning a children’s book about a racetrack lead pony as well as a Gothic novel, though she jokes that readers probably shouldn’t anticipate the latter anytime soon. “I’ve done one chapter in three years – expect it by the year 2026.”
For now, Vallow is eagerly looking forward to Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey, hoping audiences are doing the same. Whether or not the series will have the same cultural impact as its predecessor remains to be seen. “It’s a strange time in this country right now, where there are factions of people who believe in science and also people who don’t believe in science. It will be interesting to see how many in each group tune in.”
Perhaps just as intriguing is the question of how Vallow juggles so many projects simultaneously. The secret, she says, is insomnia at its finest. “I have a weird condition where I don’t sleep that much, so I do get a lot done at night,” explains Vallow. “It’s not time management, because I’m terrible at that; it’s not being organized, because I’m not. You’d be surprised how much more you can accomplish when you only have to sleep five hours a night.”
Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey will premiere March 9, on both Fox and National Geographic Channel.