Showrunners 2012: 'American Dad's' Seth MacFarlane & Matt Weitzman, 'Family Guy's' Mark Hentemann & Steve Callaghan, 'Cleveland Show's' Rich Appel
From their obsessive rituals (Peppermint Patties! Oatmeal! Bruce Springsteen!) to the parts of their jobs they hate most (killing characters off, dealing with agents), TV's most influential writer-producers featured on The Hollywood Reporter's annual list of the Top 50 Showrunners come clean about the people, things and quirky habits that keep them -- and their shows -- alive.
Seth MacFarlane, Matt Weitzman (American Dad), Mark Hentemann (Family Guy), Steve Callaghan (Family Guy), Rich Appel (Cleveland Show)
The show that inspired me to write:
MacFarlane: All In The Family.
Weitzman: The Simpsons. The way they could go from being so brilliantly funny to so stupidly funny in five seconds was inspiring. Plus, being a cartoon actually allowed me to more easily buy into their reality.
Appel: Writers hate clichés, and yet whenever I’m asked why I wanted to become a comedy writer, I fall back on just about the biggest one: The Dick Van Dyke Show. So many of my friends offer the same answer. I started watching reruns of that show when I was 9 on WGN in Chicago. Rob Petrie had everything I wanted: a job writing sketches for a TV show; funny co-workers; and Mary Tyler Moore. He also had a kid, but at the time I didn’t really want a kid my age. I could have done without the job, too. And the co-workers. Basically I wanted Mary Tyler Moore.
Callaghan: As a kid, I was very inspired by the brilliance of M*A*S*H and am not afraid to admit that I cried during the last moments of the series finale. To this day, I still cannot bring myself to ride on buses where Korean women are suffocating chickens or babies.
My big break:
MacFarlane: Johnny Bravo.
Weitzman: Daddy Dearest. A short-lived sitcom on Fox with Richard Lewis and Don Rickles. It was basically Frasier, but our nervous breakdowns happened most often on set.
Hentemann: Late Show With David Letterman.
Appel: I went to law school and then was working as a prosecutor in Manhattan when I finally manned up and realized I at least had to try what I had wanted to do from the time I was 14. So I wrote a bunch of material, got an agent and then, amazingly, a job as a staff writer at The Simpsons, then in its fourth season. That was the headline; the rest of the story? It was a 10-week job, followed by an option for another 10 weeks. I didn’t sleep for 20 weeks. I don’t think I said a word for six.
Callaghan: I'm not sure if I would call it "major," but my first writing job was faxing in wordplay-style categories for the MTV dating game show, Singled Out. I recall two things about that gig: I was paid $5 for each accepted submission, and during my entire tenure I earned about $15.
My TV mentor:
MacFarlane: Norman Lear.
Weitzman: Well, my father has been a literary agent for 40 years. And whenever I say to him I don't know if I'll ever work again, he reminds me that that's what his clients have always said. That's been a comfort. But now he's getting a bit older and none of his clients are working. So, I'm looking for a new mentor.
Hentemann: Seth MacFarlane, Larry David.
My proudest accomplishment this year:
MacFarlane: I had a phone conversation with Ari Emanuel that exceeded eight seconds.
Weitzman: Being there when the Kings won the Stanley Cup. Oh, and my son's birth... put that first.
Hentemann: Writing the 200th episode of Family Guy. But, collectively, it's any time, after this many episodes, that we come up withsomething that feels fresh and original, and works.
Appel: You’re going to notice a theme to my answers, but my proudest accomplishment in the last year, as it’s been the three before it, was having lunch with Carl Reiner and George Shapiro at The Grill from time to time. Carl -- cliché alert! -- is my hero, and he’s become a recurring character on The Cleveland Show. He plays 5-year-old Rallo’s best friend, Murray. When Carl showed up at his first table read for us, an interviewer wondered how we’d come to ask him to play the part. I said, “Well, the role is that of an old Jew, and so we thought, ‘Let’s give Carl Reiner a challenge.’” To which Carl immediately responded, “But I had an unfair advantage. You see, my father was an old Jew.” Best of all, Carl joined our writer's room for two days and pitched us a great story for an episode. I’m not sure we ever paid him.
My toughest scene to write this year:
Hentemann: Convincing Meg Griffin that the next best thing to having sex with the guy she's infatuated with, is to get her brother have sex with him, then describe it to her.
Callaghan: A scene where Stewie and Brian are genuinely contemplating a joint suicide. And, yes, a funny version of that.
The most absurd note I’ve ever gotten:
Weitzman: Not really a note, but I always find it super funny when a studio or network exec asks if Seth is going to be at the table read.
Hentemann: Broadcast standards told us to change the nonsense word we made up, "clemen", because it was too offensive.
Appel: An executive once called to tell me that my show was cancelled. That was hilarious.
The one aspect of my job as showrunner that I’d rather delegate:
Weitzman: I'd like to delegate to someone else telling Mike Barker, my co-showrunner, when he is wrong.
Hentemann: Reading through the list of things in each script that are rejected for legal or standards reasons.
Appel: Meetings about how to foster seamless viewing patterns and capitalize on the “churn” at the :30 mark through the creation of original content so that – I’m sorry, what was the question?
My preferred method for breakingthrough writers' block:
MacFarlane: A stroll on the patio as I enjoy the rich, full flavor and cool mildness of that perfect blend of choice tobaccos that you only get from a Camel.
Weitzman: Coming up with something horrible and having my staff fix it.
Hentemann: Double espresso from Pete's coffee.
Appel: A walk around the block. Or a long run. I don’t like running with other people, and when I force myself to be alone for a long time with no distractions (goodbye internet and iPhone!) I usually come home with nine terrible ideas and two mediocre ones, which is more than I had when I left.
Callaghan: Realizing that there is a deadline and simply no time for writers' block. Writers' block is a luxury reserved for people who don't own calendars.
If I could add any one writer to my staff, it would be:
MacFarlane: Rob Petrie
Weitzman: Anyone who wrote for I Love Lucy. What did they have, like, three writers total?! And no internet? That's just humbling.
The show I’m embarrassed to admit I watch:
MacFarlane: NBC Nightly News
Weitzman: Breaking Bad. It's embarrassingly good.
Hentemann: Big Time Rush
Appel: I know I’m supposed to be embarrassed to admit I watch Big Brother, but I’m not. My son and I don’t miss an episode; we love it. It’s a spectacularly clever game and example of casting. Of course we realize that some of the players are self-consciously trying to be memorable characters and not necessarily themselves. Yet the huge prize keeps bringing them back to the job at hand: ingenious strategizing and back-stabbing. Oh, and The American Experience on PBS. Which I don’t actually watch. But how cool would it be if I watched such smart shows that The American Experience on PBS was the one I was most embarrassed by?
Callaghan: A cheaply-produced show that airs locally on Saturday afternoons called, On the Spot. It's basically trivia questions set to a series of stock photo images that I'm sure cost nothing, but I can't get enough of it. I think it appeals to my nerdy side as well as my side that appreciates things that stay under budget.
The three things I need in order to write:
Weitzman: A chair. A computer. A deadline.
Hentemann: Laptop, coffee, oatmeal.
If I could scrub one credit from my resume, it would be:
MacFarlane: The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show.
Weitzman: None. From all the shows I've worked on, I've either learned what to do or what not to do. They've all helped. Maybe PJs.
Hentemann: Human bowling pin passing out coupons in Central Park.
Appel: Anchoring The CBS Evening News.