'Family Guy' Showrunners Preview Season 14 and Reveal the Secret to Their Success

"The line between something that's really funny and dumb vs. something that is just dumb is very, very thin," executive producer Rich Appel tells THR.
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In this day and age of "too much TV," it's considered an accomplishment for a show to make it past one season. But at the heart of Seth MacFarlane's ever-growing TV empire, Family Guy is now going into its 14th season, no small feat for a comedy.

MacFarlane's right-hand men, Family Guy executive producers Steve Callaghan and Rich Appel, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about making it this far, the secret to creating a successful animated family and what to expect from season 14 of the Fox show.

Fourteen seasons is an amazing achievement. How does it feel knowing that this show has gone on for longer than most other shows?

Rich Appel: It's an enormous advantage in writing a TV show because it's embarrassing in the way that the rich get richer in television. The longer a show is on the air, the longer staff gets to work together and the more familiar you are with one another, and the less subconscious you are about throwing out ideas. The line between something that's really funny and dumb vs. something that is just dumb is very, very thin. You don't want to feel reluctant to throw ideas out. So the longer a staff works together, the stronger a show becomes. Steve is the perfect example: he started here as a writer's assistant 15 years ago.

Steve Callaghan: I've worked with these people for most of my adult life. (Laughs.) So it's great but this also comes with a responsibility that we don't take lightly. We take each season very seriously and we do try to top what we did the season before and keep the quality the highest it's ever been. I feel like the episodes coming up are some of the best we've ever done.

Appel: And thank God we have Seth MacFarlane who will always play the majority of the characters on our show. We never have to worry about him aging or turning grey … which he's not, by the way! You just know you can rely on his talent and still get the same quality all these years later.

How do you think the show has changed both behind-the-scenes and on-screen over the past 14 seasons?

Callaghan: On-screen, I think the show has gotten fuller and deeper and richer. We've filled out the town of Quahog and developed a real community of people of supporting characters. Behind the scenes, some people have come, some people have gone, some people have gone and come back, and throughout it all it's the same carpet, the same chairs, the same computer monitors. (Laughs.) But Seth really laid down such a strong pilot that the day-to-day operation of what we do here hasn't changed. Sure, some of the technology has improved, but only for the better.

Appel: I say this as a relative newcomer, but it's a rare thing for a comedy to be on the air for as long as Family Guy has been. So some of the younger writers knew this show as a fan first and watched many seasons of it, and that brings a different vibe to the show. It's exciting for the older writers to see that it's more than just a fun job. It played a big part in their lives.

Ashton Kutcher and John Mellencamp are going to guest-star as themselves this season, while Modern Family's Ed O’Neill is playing a fictional character. How do you decide which guest stars should play themselves vs. which should play a new character?

Appel: Seth always says that it's dictated by the bit. For Ashton, we do a live-action thing with him that's a rare thing for Family Guy, and we needed a recognizable celebrity who could be a spokesperson and be handsome, and then of course someone who has a sense of humor about himself. So he was perfect for this, and we went to him and he agreed, and then we wrote it for him. The character Ed O'Neill plays is Joe Swanson's father. When we wrote the part, we thought, 'Well, who's out there?' And we came up with a very, very short list of names and landed on Ed. In my recollection, we've never written a part for a celebrity who says they want to do the show. We don't do stunt casting.

Callaghan: Another example of that in our upcoming season is Peter's sister, who he has a chilly relationship with [and] is a professional wrestler. So we wrote the part, and after the episode had been written, we thought, 'Well, who would be good for the part?' And the idea of Kate McKinnon came up. And we just loved that idea immediately. She hit it out of the park.

Appel: That was a happy coincidence that the perfect person for the part is a comedy actress who is on TV and is about to be a big movie star. (Laughs.)

Have there been any guest stars you always wanted on the show but haven't been able to get for any reason?

Callaghan: (Laughs.) Yes is the short answer. Mostly because schedules don’t work out, but sometimes we've had to go through back channels, after going getting told no by agents if someone is on tour or on set and unavailable, through some crazy coincidence we know someone who knows someone and next thing you know, we find out they're a huge Family Guy fan and would be willing to do it.

Appel: The moral of the story is that agents sometimes lie. (Laughs.) Because the pay scales — they're not going to meet their quota on Family Guy. (Laughs.) But Steve wrote this great episode next season that's a great example. Stewie is having nightmares and so Brian goes into Stewie's subconscious to try and figure out why. The two of them are inside Stewie's mind and one of his dreams involves Glenn Close. Steve scripted it with her playing herself and it was so funny. There's a line like, "Of all the women named Glenn, you are the handsomest." We went to her, and she embraced it. She loved playing herself, and was fantastic and hilarious, but who would have predicted that after Steve scripted it like that, with Glenn Close playing herself, she would actually do it.

Comedians and shows are having to apologize for what people see as offensive material more and more these days. Do you think comedy has gotten more difficult in this age with social media?

Appel: Yes. Oh yes.

Callaghan: Oh definitely. People's reactions are more immediate and amplified now.

Appel: Someone said it best and I don't remember who, like Chris Rock or someone, but they said a lot of comedy and standup is trying things out on the road and honing your act and pushing the envelope. You only know when you've pushed it too far and where to draw the line only when you've gone over it a few times. But it's one thing to go over it in a club with 125 people and another to have that recorded on a smart phone and seen by 10 million people and have that define who you are. People can make missteps in comedy and having that broadcast to as wide an audience as you'll ever get, that can be inhibiting.

Callaghan: The best comedy is not written in situations of constraint and concern about people's reactions.

How does Family Guy avoid that same issue?

Appel: We have very thoughtful conversations in our writers' room about what is the line between funny and edgy vs. offensive and shocking just for the sake of being shocking. We try to be funny while also not being blatantly offensive.

Callaghan: Right, you don't want to be provocative for provocative's sake. But provocative is not a dirty word and you still want to try to do new things.

The fans loved the crossovers you did last season with The Simpsons, so are you planning any more crossovers?

Appel: We're going to do a Suits crossover. (Laughs.) No!

Callaghan: I think that show is done! No, we don't have anything currently planned. That crossover naturally evolved over many, many years of the two shows co-existing. And not only that, but it seemed like the right moment to do it. We haven't ruled out more, though.

Appel: Honestly, as with the case of everything on this show, the best idea wins. I don't say that lightly. If you, right now — and I would give you neither credit nor money — but I would steal your idea if it was really, really good.

You both have helped Seth build his TV empire with all his animated family shows. With the new series Bordertown about to premiere, what do you think is the secret to creating a successful animated family comedy?

Callaghan: I've thought about this a lot, actually. It's a visual medium and you want to have a distinctive style. Seth has that, and [Simpsons creator] Matt Groening has that, and Mike Judge with King of the Hill had that. You immediately recognize the characters and the universe they're in. You can't underestimate how the characters are drawn and the colors used. And you have to differentiate yourself from all the other shows that are out there already. Know what came before, and offer something different.

Appel: And something that people really underestimate when it comes to an animated show, especially one like ours with so many cutaways and gags, you really need a central group of characters that you care about and feel an emotional connection to and who feel an emotional connection about each other. The sweet moments we do earn us the right to do the outrageous moments.

Family Guy season 14 premieres Sunday, Sept. 27 at 9 p.m. on Fox.

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