Queen of the cartoon world

Alex Borstein was amazed at the reaction. “I’m a 5-foot-tall middle-class Jew, and people are freaking out when they meet me,” she told The New York Times. Borstein was referring to a fan’s reaction when she and the rest of the cast of “Family Guy” made a live appearance in the Big Apple about earlier this year.

But she shouldn’t have been surprised at all. Borstein is a co-producer and writer and gives voice to many characters on the animated hit, one of the hottest shows on television. It recently rose phoenix-like from the ashes of reruns on the Cartoon Network because fans refused to let the show die.

“Family Guy” ran on Fox from 1999 to 2002 before being put out to pasture. But great cable ratings and superb DVD sales — over 3.5 million sold — prompted Fox to order 35 new episodes of the show, which airs 9:30 p.m., Sunday.

If you haven’t heard of “Family Guy,” you may be in the wrong demographic. The show skews to youths, mostly male and mostly that subset with a subversive sense of humor. It’s the story of the dysfunctional Griffin family: Peter, the father (voiced by the series creator Seth MacFarlane), his wife Lois (Borstein), and a clan that includes a dog named Brian with a drinking problem and an infant son, Stewie, who has the vocabulary of a Ph.D. and the desire to take over the world.

OK, it loses something in translation. Borstein, who attended San Francisco State University, explained in a recent telephone interview that the central theme of the show is to offend everyone. “We cover our bases completely. No punches are pulled and we are kind of an equal opportunity offender.”

It is, however, not a mean-spirited offense. It’s just plain funny (based of course, on a viewer’s sense of humor) with numerous pop culture references. On a recent episode, one of the targets was Mel Gibson and his new film “Passion of the Christ II: Crucify This.”

Then there was the episode the network refused to air, though it made the DVD collection: “Wishing on a Weinstein.” Peter is having money problems and notices that his friends with Jewish financial advisers are doing well. Told that not every Jewish guy is good with money, Peter says: “Of course not the retarded ones.”

To assure the success of his oldest and dimmest son Chris, Peter decides Chris must become a bar mitzvah. When they go to temple, who do they see? Bill Nye, the science guy, and half of Lenny Kravitz.

MacFarlane is not Jewish, Borstein says — as though there was a question — but “he grew up a huge Woody Allen fan. He has that kind of sensibility.”

She adds: “In a weird way, people can’t wait for him to go after them. They can’t wait for something egregious about their religion, their faith. In the post 9/11 climate today, people are ready to laugh and not take themselves too seriously.”

Borstein, 34, was raised mostly in Deerfield, Ill. Her father was raised Orthodox and sent Alex and her two brothers to private Jewish day schools. “We all speak and read Hebrew,” she says. One brother is a Hollywood dealmaker who decided to go back to law school. “My parents are kvelling.” The other built and then sold a sizable pharmaceutical company.

“You never know how different your upbringing was,” she reflects. “It really was different. That sense of family, the consistency. If you’re not celebrating Passover, it’s Purim. It’s always something.”

She understood just how different life could be when her family moved to Southern California around the time she entered high school. By her own choice she attended a public high school.

“I went from being surrounded by Jewish people to all of a sudden seeing people of color. I’m one of two people missing school for Passover.”

It was there that she first experienced anti-Semitism. Some neo-Nazis came on campus and papered the lockers with hate fliers. “In response, my mom spearheaded a tolerance day. She brought my grandmother — a Holocaust survivor from Hungary — to speak.”

Life wasn’t much easier when she attended S.F. State, where the campus was very pro-Palestinian. “I’m not necessarily black and white on the subject of Israel; the issues are muddy. But in the atmosphere there, it was hard to discuss your position, let alone defend it. But it probably made me smarter. I had to read more newspapers.”

Her first break in show business came when she landed a regular spot on “Mad TV.” Her most famous character was Miss Swann, based on her grandmother, a “woman who chooses where and when she understands English.”

That was followed by “Family Guy,” which is in many ways an ideal job. She works pretty regular hours, has a nice regular paycheck and has the option of taking on occasional outside work. Borstein just finished a featured role in the new George Clooney film, “Good Night and Good Luck,” about Edward R. Morrow and Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Curt Schleier
Curt Schleier

Curt Schleier is a freelance writer and author who covers business and the arts for a variety of publications. Follow him on Twitter at @tvsoundoff.