A Dog and a Baby Walk Into …
For 20 years, the wise guys behind Family Guy have been devising the outrageous world of the Griffins. At last, they reveal their favorite episodes.
When Family Guy debuted on Fox on January 31, 1999, its creator, Seth MacFarlane, was — at 24 — the youngest showrunner in television history, and the success of his edgy animated series was hardly assured.
The show about a Rhode Island family — tactless dad Peter, beleaguered mom Lois, angsty Meg, awkward Chris, genius baby Stewie and martini-swilling dog Brian — faced backlash from the Federal Communications Commission and the Parents Television Council for what was posited as crude material.
It spent three seasons on the bubble and was canceled not once, but twice. Thanks to a loyal fan base that drove impressive DVD sales and high ratings in reruns on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, Family Guy was resurrected for good in 2005. As the series rose in the ratings, that edgy humor became a source of celebration, like the show's many pop-culture sendups.
This year — its 20th — Family Guy stands as one of the longest- running animated shows in primetime. And with an 18th-season renewal confirmed, lucrative merchandising deals and more than 300 episodes prime for syndication, it's no wonder Family Guy was considered prized property in Disney's acquisition of the entertainment assets of 21st Century Fox.
For their anniversary observations, emmy's Sarah Hirsch chatted via email with MacFarlane (a four-time Emmy winner for the show) and by phone with executive producers and coshowrunners Rich Appel and Alec Sulkin, as well as executive producer Steve Callaghan. They offered thoughts on how Family Guy has changed over the years, when they've crossed the line and their all-time favorite episodes of the past two decades.
(Also exec-producing are Danny Smith, Kara Vallow, Mark Hentemann, Tom Devanney, Patrick Meighan and Cherry Chevapravatdumrong.)
What stands out to you about the progression of Family Guy — from the style of animation to the development of the characters?
Callaghan: The artistic bar has been raised.
Appel: As the show has been on the air, the template has been established. It's the same thing with the writing — the more time the writers have to get to know each other, the freer we are in the writers' room. And a lot of qualities that defined the characters in the first few seasons — like Stewie trying to kill Lois — recede.
Sulkin: We have the luxury of them being frozen in time. It's limiting in a way, because you can't have someone going to college, but it does allow us to dive as deep as we can into these characters as they are.
MacFarlane: I think as we repeat the same stories two, three or even four times, we're really getting better at telling them.
How does the current reception of Family Guy compare to its early days?
MacFarlane: Everyone was mad in 2005 when we made fun of Kevin Spacey, then it turns out we were right. If you don't like what we're saying about someone, wait a decade and we will surely be vindicated.
Appel: We hope that we're still making people laugh with smart stories, but it's harder to shock now.
What's your relationship like now with the FCC?
Appel: My issue with the FCC is that they have the vaguest guidelines that have never really been tested explicitly in the Supreme Court. It's like that old story of one of the Supreme Court justices who said of pornography, "I'll know it when I see it."
Sulkin: To me, the PTC and the FCC feel like outdated mythology that's occasionally brought up by our standards department to scare us.
What's the most ridiculous note you've received from a censor?
Sulkin: When we bleep the f -word, standards makes us come up with an alternative swear [word] that will be bleeped anyway.
Was there ever a moment when you thought you were crossing the line?
Sulkin: Multiple times per episode, I would say.
MacFarlane: It'd be a lot quicker to list the times we didn't cross the line.
Appel: The line between edgy and original and edgy and offensive is very thin. Sometimes in a screening we'll see something and exchange a look and say, "Ugh. That missed the mark." But you've got to miss the mark a few times to hit it.
Are there any guest performers you've been especially impressed with for lending their voices and allowing themselves to be made fun of?
Callaghan: Several seasons ago we wrote a gag in the show where Peter wrote a "fan" letter to Cary Elwes, but the way the letter was written it was just one slam after another.
Appel: With one of the points in the letter being, "Are you still a celebrity or not?"
Callaghan: The day after the show aired, Cary Elwes himself showed up at our offices, with a response letter to Peter answering his questions point by point. He read it to our whole staff, and it endeared him to us so much. In the intervening years he has become a true friend of the show and a recurring cast member.
Appel: And Glenn Close. She could not have been more game and charming, and interested in the whole process. We took her to meet [director] Joe Vaux, who showed her caricature to her. And I said, "Do you have any notes?" And she said, "Look, I know my chin and my nose is what I give you, but maybe dial it back just 10 percent."
And Joe was laughing because he really had pushed it, and he said, "What if I made your chest larger?" And she said, "I'll take that! Add that there and remove it from my chin."
Seth, you said in a 2011 interview, just after the 10th season had premiered, that you were ready for the show to end. What are your feelings now about the show ending someday?
Appel: Obviously he can speak for himself, but I think when Seth gave that interview he couldn't imagine doing what he was then doing for the show for another decade.
He's 65 percent of the voices in every show, and for the first seven or eight years he also had a full-time writer's job, he did everything in post, every music spot, every edit session, every mix…. At that point you think, "[Another] decade and I'm going to lose my mind."
MacFarlane: Here's the thing — I have a lot of business in the [San Fernando] Valley and on [L.A.'s] west side. The Family Guy offices are centrally located, and I have a private emergency bathroom. That's the only reason I keep the show on the air. Hope that was a fun peek behind the curtain!
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2019
For more photos and memories, pick up a copy of emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2019
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