It has been nearly two decades since a dysfunctional Rhode Island cartoon family with a sophisticated talking dog and dastardly but charming baby initially hell-bent on taking over the world premiered on Fox.
Saved from cancellation in 2005 thanks to strong DVD sales and Adult Swim reruns, Family Guy is now a Fox staple rivaled only by The Simpsons.
The Emmy-winning series has made numerous headlines over the years for its controversial content, even being the target of sharp criticism from Sarah Palin, who said the show went too far with a joke about her family.
Most recently, Family Guy has been praised in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal when it was noted that the show called out multiple now-accused sex predators over the years at times when their alleged wrongdoings were only industry rumor.
With the iconic series hitting its 300th episode Jan. 14, showrunners Rich Appel, Alec Sulkin, creator Seth MacFarlane (who has built an empire on the back of the animated hit) and more granted The Hollywood Reporter interviews to discuss a range of topics from the show’s legacy to beloved castmembers who passed away to what the future might hold when Peter Griffin and company become the property of another, less salty, animated figure — Mickey Mouse.
Did you ever think Family Guy would reach 300?
Seth MacFarlane, creator: It was the first show I had ever pitched, so I didn’t know what to expect. At one time I did think it was possible, then I realized it wasn’t. And then I later realized it was.
Alec Sulkin, executive producer, writer: I did feel that [it could go the distance] ever since the show came back [from cancellation] in 2005. Seth really likes doing the show, and it felt like these cartoon characters never age. The Simpsons is going well beyond what anyone thought a show could go, and we feel like we can hopefully do something like that. In TV, 300 is a rare number, so we knew it was special. And we gave the script to one of our strongest writers, Cherry Chevapravatdumrong. I think this is her best ever.
Rich Appel, executive producer: Cherry did a great job, but Alec is being modest because I remember the idea for this whole script came from an idea of his, which was Brian and Stewie have a friendship-ending fight; not something over a trivial matter, but something real.
Cherry Chevapravatdumrong, 300th-episode writer: It came together like a normal story. The milestone part came later. We broke it like a typical episode. I wrote the whole thing and tabled it. So at the time, it was just a nice, normal pressure kind of thing. I am psyched.
Appel: When we saw the first rough cut of this episode, it was very funny, but it was also very touching and we thought right away, OK, let’s shuffle this one around. It very much focuses on a lot of the heart of the show.
Family Guy pokes fun at The Simpsons for being past its prime. Will your show have that issue?
MacFarlane: Every show has its prime, and every show moves past that prime. Can you adapt to changing times? Can you adapt to changing tastes? It’s not something that worries me. When the show is ready to end, it will end. No show is at its creative peak past season seven. It really becomes a comfort issue. The characters become people you feel comfortable having in your home each week, and it becomes tradition. And to be honest, I don’t know if anyone would say Family Guy or Simpsons has its best years ahead of it. It changes into something else. There was a point maybe about 12 years ago where I thought we should end while we were still a fairly young show. I went off to do [the 2012 film] Ted, and that is when I disengaged from the writers room. This show can exist on its own without me and exist very well. New showrunning blood is one of the best things for a series at that stage.
What do you think the Fox-Disney deal means for Family Guy? The show is made by 20th Century Fox TV, part of the merger, and airs on Fox, which is not.
MacFarlane: The Disney buyout doesn’t alarm me. I only wished they’d bought Fox News. Disney has its brand, and Fox has its brand. I don’t know what their plans are. If I had to make a guess, I’d say it wouldn’t really try to turn 20th Century Fox into Disney. I think it would kind of be like a Touchstone [the film studio Disney established in the ‘80s for non-family fare] situation, where they’re all under the same umbrella but both brands maintain their identity. You’re not going to acquire a company that’s not profitable. And one of the things that contributes to the profitability of the company is Family Guy, so there would be no logistical reason to change it.
Appel: You hope that with shows that are as defined as Simpsons and Family Guy, they would just continue to churn along. We don’t put too many things in the episodes that are really timely unless it seems like they will become defining pop cultural truths. Part of the reason for that is that most people who watch this show watch it on Hulu or Netflix. And you hope they’ll watch it for years. So whether the first airing is on Hulu, or whatever Disney has down the road, I am not sure that will change how a vast majority of our viewers consume the show. There are fewer issues for standards and practices for streaming and cable. The irony would be, because of the Disney acquisition, we wouldn’t have to bleep bad words.
Family Guy called out some high-profile Hollywood sex predators before the Harvey Weinstein scandal and subsequent fallout. Was that done on purpose?
Sulkin: Obviously, it’s a terrible thing to say, how we’ve had a lot of good luck predicting sexual predators, but I do think a lot of people — like Kevin Spacey — there have always been rumors out there about him. So we will just kind of say those things. We write things that we hear about and then a year and a half later, they’re on TV and then 10 years later they happen.
MacFarlane: The Weinstein thing [done in 2013 while onstage with Emma Stone during the Oscar nominations telecast], I had a very good friend who had a very troubling run-in, and I despised the guy for direct reasons. As far as the others, there was a couple that I hadn’t necessarily heard. The Kevin Spacey thing is something I had not heard when it was pitched. The Family Guy writers have always had very open ears. And I think a lot of these things were things that were talked about and whispered about in Hollywood, but nobody had any direct anecdotal information about what was really going on, so all you had to work with was rumor. The idea that we had some inside knowledge — I wish we were that Kreskin-like that we could predict the future, but we were hearing the same rumors as everyone else in town.
Appel: There is a kind of boring path that some of these things take to the air because the episodes are vetted by the legal standards department. And either there has to be some basis for a joke or it has to be so insane and unbelievable, that no one would take it seriously. And honestly, in some of these instances, both were true.
We lost two beloved castmembers in Carrie Fisher and, not long after, Adam West. Can you talk about their time on the show?
Appel: Adam and Carrie were both incredibly collaborative and kind presences. And both characters, Mayor Adam West and Angela, were being pushed and pulled in different directions. And especially in Adam’s case, taking advantage of that quirky personality that he had. And he was always so good at deadpan craziness and calm craziness and always with a wink and a nod. He was very self-aware how he was using his persona.
Nina Tooley, Adam West’s daughter: One of the first things that comes to mind is how much respect my dad had for Seth. They had a really great working relationship. My dad really loved him and really enjoyed doing Family Guy, so he looked forward to every time he had to go into the studio. Family Guy played a very pivotal role in his career and it’s responsible for creating an entirely new fan base for him of younger people who did not grow up with Batman. And he was very well aware of that. In terms of his legacy and what it meant to the family, we saw him — it was almost like a renaissance in his career and an entirely new phase. It meant a lot to him creatively as an actor. And I know he just loved the Mayor Adam West character.
Chevapravatdumrong: They were always so great. It was just fun [to write for them], especially Adam. He just elevated every single thing.
Appel: One of the things I will always remember about Carrie, a few years ago, a casting director for the recording booth put out a dozen old [film] magazines of the ‘50s and ‘60s. And I’ll never forget, while she was waiting to record, Carrie was reading one and came upon a big spread of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, and there were pictures of Carrie as a little girl. And for the next 20 minutes, she would read the article out loud, look up and annotate it as if you were watching one of her stage shows. And I said, “Do you want to keep that magazine?” And she said, “I don’t need it, I lived it.”
Is there anything that’s too edgy anymore?
MacFarlane: None of it makes any fucking sense. The ethical boundaries are strange. You have a company whose news network is actually propping up Donald Trump — to which many of us who work there is an unethical thing that a lot of us have moral quandaries about. Yet at the same time, you have these attempts to do the right thing by discouraging smoking. You can’t show a character smoking on television. The line of what we’re promoting and not promoting and what’s too edgy is always a little fuzzy to me on a corporate level.
Is there a rule on Donald Trump jokes? Too few or too many?
MacFarlane Every modern-day primetime show that exists in this era owes its existence to The Simpsons. And that’s a show that never shied away from politics. I think Family Guy has cut a little deeper, willing to go after politicians in a little more cutthroat way. That’s what an animated show like this should do. If you stop doing that, then you become irrelevant. The problem with Trump is there is nothing comedic you can do that he hasn’t already done himself.
Can you be stretched too thin, Seth, fill your plate too much?
MacFarlane: I am not someone who has ever been any good at or ever desired the position of executive, so I am usually focusing my effort on one project at a time. For a long time, it was Family Guy. When Ted came about, that was the first time I ever left the show. I left completely. I wasn’t going to juggle my time between a movie and television show and expect either one to show any kind of passion onscreen. I am either all in, or I delegate 100 percent.
Do you have a favorite episode?
Sulkin: Yes, it was written by Gary Janetti. Brian and Stewie are stuck in the bank vault [“Brian & Stewie,” season eight], and I think it set a record for [us] not touching one word. It was so perfect.
Appel: I pick the 300th. I am a softy and I get choked up at the end. There’s this gag in the episode about ranking the Fast & Furious films. Among the many cultural obsessions of Cherry’s, that series is one. That is her sincere ranking of the movies. And the [depiction] of Paul Walker as a spiritual presence at the end was done lovingly and respectfully.
Chevapravatdumrong: I am a huge giant fan of that franchise and that is my personal order of those movies. I really, really like this episode.
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.