How Seth MacFarlane and His ‘Family Guy’ Showrunners Learned to Push the Envelope Successfully

The comedian, along with Rich Appel and Alec Sulkin, discuss how they’ve gotten away with it for 400 episodes: "People’s quote-unquote outrage is in a different world when they’re animated characters."

Seth MacFarlane was a 24-year-old Hanna-Barbera animator when Fox bet big on his pitch for Family Guy. Nearly a quarter-century — and one reversed cancellation (thanks to brisk DVD sales) — later, the uproarious and utterly inappropriate Griffins reach 400 episodes in 21 seasons with the Nov. 20 installment, “Get Stewie.” MacFarlane and co-showrunners Rich Appel and Alec Sulkin sat down with THR to commemorate a major Family Guy milestone for the 20th Television Animation mainstay.

The climate has changed so much regarding this kind of humor, and yet you haven’t dulled your edge. How do you get away with it?

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ALEC SULKIN A lot of the credit goes to our writers, who come up with funny, edgy stuff all the time. And a lot of credit goes to Rich, who, with his legal background, is uniquely qualified to fight network standard notes.

RICH APPEL I think if you look at South Park and The Simpsons and our show, it’s not a coincidence that they’re all animated. And I think people’s quote-unquote outrage and willingness to take offense at anything is in a different world when they’re animated characters. To me, it’s proof that people don’t take such offense.

SETH MACFARLANE I think that’s 100 percent correct. Peter Griffin and Brian Griffin and Lois Griffin are not actual people that you can find on social media because they don’t exist. But Rich brings up a good point. The supposed outrage — I don’t find a lot of it in the real world. I read a lot about it on Twitter, which is, as much as we lend credence to it, statistically very fringe. Most people aren’t on Twitter. But in terms of comedy, I don’t think I’ve ever talked to a single person in the real world — outside social media and outside think pieces — who is really upset about the state of edgy comedy. If anything, I hear about the opposite. People want to laugh.

Has there been a big difference in network notes since Fox became a Disney company?

APPEL Here’s the honest difference, and I say this without fear. Well, I say it with fear and no favor: The difference is, Disney owns so many properties that I will find myself making legal arguments that I know are winners about parody and why we can get away with certain things. And then the question becomes, “Well that may be, Rich, but Marvel doesn’t want to see its character portrayed in this light.” And I’ve sometimes said, “Well, what if we just air it and see what happens?” “No, that’s not how we work.”

Has the show changed at all over 400 episodes? Does it serve a different function in 2022, say, than it did in 1999?

APPEL I’ll defer to Seth, but I know that what Seth has told me over the years is that story comes first. Yes, the DNA of the show that Seth built features the cutaways, the TV gags and certain tonal things that make it a Family Guy episode. But I don’t think if we didn’t have good stories the show would be where it is after 20 seasons.

MACFARLANE I don’t know that it has evolved much over the years. I mean, you guys don’t deal with current events that much, do you?

APPEL Our show’s production cycle is 12 to 14 months. It’s not a monologue on The Tonight Show, you know? We have to think about something that entered a zeitgeist [and hope that] in a year, not only will it still be relevant, but we’ll have [what feels like] a fresh take on it.

MACFARLANE It’s actually an advantage to the show, and its sustainability, that we don’t have a fast production cycle. I always use All in the Family as an example. That’s a show that still holds up in so many ways comedically because while the topics are of the time, they’re generalized in a way that isn’t specific to the week.

What are some of your all-time favorite Family Guy episodes?

MACFARLANE The Agatha Christie episode [season nine’s “And Then There Were Fewer”] is one that sticks out in my mind. That was certainly fun to make.

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APPEL We all liked the “Three Directors” [an episode in season 16] where we [mimicked the style of] Michael Bay and Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson.

And of course there are the Star Wars episodes, beginning with season six’s “Blue Harvest.”

SULKIN That was the peak moment of my career. Seth was nice enough to entrust me with writing that Star Wars episode. I got to go to Lucasfilm and Lucas Ranch with Seth and a few people from production, and we got to watch it with George Lucas. He laughed the whole time, to his credit. It was just awesome. Just fantastic.

Did any great ideas get away?

SULKIN We had a number of funny lyrics to songs for something we were going to call “Prince Andrew the Musical.” Then it came down the pipe that some guy in England was doing Prince Andrew the Musical.

Dana Walden, chairman of Disney General Entertainment Content, has been with Family Guy since its inception, working hand-in-hand with MacFarlane for over two decades. Most recently she brought the show to Hulu for day-after broadcast air. Walden answered a few questions about the series in honor of its 400th episode.

Tell me about the original cancellation of Family Guy. It must have been devastating to everyone involved.

WALDEN It was devastating. There was a lot of love for the show at the studio and frankly, a lot of people at the network believed in it too. It was wildly original. Since “The Simpsons,” we hadn’t really seen an animated show that played on so many different levels — it was smart, had topical humor and was very broad skewing — but comedies, and animation in general, take a while to build, and we all felt a little frustrated that it wasn’t going to be given that opportunity. 

What is your personal favorite episode of Family Guy?

WALDEN I’m guess I’m partial to the episode I was in — “Inside Family Guy” from season 15.

Did you and Seth ever disagree on a joke?

WALDEN There were times I reached out to him to ask if he would consider an alternative joke, or if there was someone we were working with that I felt might be offended. Seth won almost every time — it’s not even fair to say we compromised. And at the end of the day, I back him. No one has a better sense than he does of where the line is in terms of taking something too far. And upon occasion, Family Guy will step over that line, but you can’t know where that line is unless you’re sometimes stepping over it, and I understand that. 

Why do you think the show has lasted for so long and stayed so relevant and popular?

WALDEN Seth has remained an incredibly curious person — he really thinks about the different dynamics that exist in culture — so together with Rich and Alec, they’re continuing to tap into what’s going on in the world today. And because the characters don’t age, you’re always able to explore issues and situations through extremely well-defined points of view. Aside from The Simpsons, there are very few shows that can maintain that degree of comedic storytelling for so long. It’s just timeless storytelling. 

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.