It’s been almost a decade since Family Guy started an Emmy campaign tradition with its tongue-and-cheek mailers that urge TV Academy members to vote for the animated comedy series via some not-so-subtle messages. Over the years, Family Guy‘s designated Emmy pitchman, Peter Griffin, as well as Stewie have channeled anyone from Barack Obama and Donald Trump to Kellyanne Conway, Gov. Chris Christie and the girl from Precious in the 2010 mailer that declared “Vote For Us Or You’re Racist.”
This year, the mailer took on the Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey scandals, referring to a scene on the show about Spacey and a comment made by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane about Weinsetin — both years before the sexual harassment scandals involving the Hollywood heavyweights hit last fall. “We predicted Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weisntein. Open DVD to see who’s next,” Peter says on the cover of the mailer which has a mirror inside.
While Family Guy had been a staple in the animated Emmy categories between 2000 and 2008 with a slew of nominations, including four for best animated program, the show in 2009 made the bold decision to take itself out of consideration in the top animated category and compete in the comedy series field instead. It paid off at first — in 2009 Family Guy became the only animated show besides The Flintstones to land a best comedy series nomination. It is the last best program nom for Family Guy which eventually switched back to animation consideration but has not been able to get any noms beyond voice-over categories for the past six years.
In an interview with Deadline, Family Guy showrunners Rich Appel and Alec Sulkin talk about the recent Emmy drought, Family Guy‘s blunt mailers and accurate predictions, breaking the form this past season and what is store for the upcoming 17th season, including an episode that pays tribute to the late Adam West and a spoof of Fatal Attraction.
DEADLINE: The provocative Emmy mailers. How did that tradition start?
Alec Sulkin: I think when we first started doing it, Seth was a little more hands-on and involved in the process. So, when it started, it had to have his stamp of approval, so it had to be pretty edgy and funny, and I think we knew that it was a really good opportunity to send out a single joke with a visual image, and that’s kind of what we do all day long anyway. So it just was a logical extension of what we already do, and it was very fun to see that people enjoyed and responded to it.
Rich Appel: And in the years I’ve been a part of it, there’s a self-awareness that, if you were raised at all right, there’s something a little unseemly about begging for votes and advertising yourself and saying somehow you’re better than others. So this is a way I think to make it not just about saying, oh, you know, give us something, as opposed to an opportunity…
Alec Sulkin: And it completely worked because we haven’t gotten the vote.
Rich Appel: Yes, it seems that the comedy has completely outplayed the intention, but also, our entire ad and marketing budget is that single mailer, so we try to make it go as far as we can.
DEADLINE: This year’s mailer tackled the Hollywood-centric and timely topic of sexual misconduct.
Rich Appel: Alec is too modest to say this, but this year’s was Alec’s idea, which I will claim credit for mutually liking. I supported it, but Alec can speak to it.
Alec Sulkin: It’s funny that you said that because I don’t even remember if it was my idea or not, and I don’t want to take credit for it if it wasn’t. I remember we were definitely in the room — as they say in Hamilton, in the room where it happened — and we were all pitching on some funny ideas, and obviously, the Harvey Weinstein story/#MeToo movement, which is much larger than just Harvey, if that’s possible, was on our minds and was on everyone’s mind. It was a Hollywood story, but it was also a national and international story. So we felt like we could step into that fray with something that was appropriately funny, but also kind of reminding everyone, you’re not off the hook.
DEADLINE: What has been the response from people in Hollywood who got the mailer? Did they look inside?
Rich Appel: We’d like to think that people all over town turned themselves in for inappropriate conduct, but I have not heard of anything.
Alec Sulkin: I only heard from Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise, who both loved it… That’s a joke.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about Family Guy‘s Emmy strategy. You took a big risk a few years ago switching from animation to best comedy series. The show got a nomination in that category and then a few years later you switched back. Why is that?
Rich Appel: When we switched, I think Seth — I don’t necessarily want to speak for him, but here I go — I think Seth wanted to try at least to get animation recognized in what the industry obviously sees as TV’s biggest night, and Seth is a lifelong animator himself. I think it had an extra weight with him, and so the show tried and was successful.
And then I think for at least a year or maybe two after, we remained as candidates for a nomination in that category, but what happens is, we have almost 100 artists in our building, and for them to be nominated for the Juried Award for the Emmys in things like storyboard, character design, color design, all of the animation awards, not to mention the voiceover awards, which is the only way our actors get recognition, that’s also in the animation category, and we just decided that it was a little too disjointed.
It seemed odd to be trying to submit all of our artists in 4 or 5 categories for animation, our actors in animation categories, and somehow not our program in the animated category. So we thought let’s be consistent, and let’s stay in the animation category regardless, frankly, of whether or not it’s a successful strategy. It just felt like it kept us whole as a show, and so that’s what we’ve been doing.
DEADLINE: Family Guy had a consistent Emmy presence before the switch to comedy series but things have been a little different since the show came back. It seems like, once you joined the the live-action comedy leagues, it’s been hard for voters to accept you back as a purely animated contender?
Rich Appel: It’s possible. A comedy brand is generally a really good thing, and it has been for Family Guy. But at the same time, and I think Seth would be the first to say this, sometimes brands are reductive, and to think you know a show because you know the thumbprint… Family Guy and a show like The Simpsons are unique on television because they’ve been around so long. Family Guy has been on the air almost 20 years, and Seth is the first person to push the show and to say, we’ve done this, and we’ve done that, and this tone has been established, and let’s try to do new things each and every year.
So I think part of the challenge for a show like Family Guy that’s been on the air so long is to keep it fresh and try to get the word out that, to just look at our last season, we did our 300th episode, which, on the one hand, obviously, 300 episodes, but it was a very emotionally capturing story between Brian and Stewie that was also really expansive.
Seth, when he first started Family Guy, by design, had the show sort of shot as if it were a multi-camera sitcom, that was part of its identity. As the show progressed, we did an episode this past season called Three Directors that Joe Vaux directed in the style of, one act Quentin Tarantino, one Wes Anderson, one Michael Bay; it’s really a cinematic episode.
Also, I think Family Guy is the first animated show on Sunday night that Fox aired without commercial interruption, which is the episode with Stewie in therapy, and it’s just Stewie and his shrink, played by Sir Ian McKellen.
To make that visually inventive when you’re just basically in his therapy office is a real challenge that I think the artists pulled off, but again, I think if you ask somebody what’s a typical Family Guy episode, they wouldn’t describe that.
DEADLINE: Is this the season with the most creative risks the show has taken?
Rich Appel: I think another really great one where we did that was what we call Family Guy Through the Years that’s directed by Julius Wu, and we claimed at the start that Family Guy had been on the air for 60 years, was the longest-running show in TV history, and here’s an episode from three different decades, the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, and again, each one of those acts was directed in a style of television shows or movies that would’ve aired in those decades. All new designs, backgrounds. Our characters were redesigned to fit the time period. So that was another one I think we tried something new.
And then there was a two-parter we did where Brian sends out a tweet that many people in town found offensive, and it leads him to basically being kicked out of the Griffin house. I salute Artie Johann, who wrote it, and our director Julius Wu; in the end of that episode, it’s Brian as a lowly guy in a CVS store buying whatever his budget allows him, a few items to take home to his lonely guy apartment, and just sitting there basically listening to Wheel of Fortune in the neighbor’s apartment on their TV because he doesn’t have one, and it lands with a kind of poignancy, but it’s also funny. Again, it’s not what was the typical ending of a Family Guy episode a decade ago, and then the next part was how he finds his way back into the good graces of the town and the family, plus 100 jokes.
Alec Sulkin: I’m going to highlight the Kingsman scene in the episode where Brian sends the offensive tweet. There’s a ripple effect. The kids, Chris and Meg get harassed in high school just for associating with Brian. I don’t know if you saw the movie Kingsman, there’s a great violent and awesome fight in a church, and so we do our version of that in the school cafeteria where they have to fight off everybody. It’s a PC mob, we call it, but that scene was just so well animated by our team.
DEADLINE: Are you continuing to push the form next season? The three acts in three different styles has been a franchise for you. Is another one coming?
Alec Sulkin: Well, yeah, that three-act structure with different stories is something that we have done a few times over the years, often with very good results. We had Three Kings, which is three stories by Stephen King, that were each an act, we had the three directors that we just talked about, and for next season, we’ve been working on one which is three classic love stories.
Rich Appel: Yeah, from Helen of Troy to Romeo and Juliet, and then we say, and sometimes love doesn’t work out, so we do Fatal Attraction, which will be part of our Valentine’s Day episode. What could be more romantic than watching Fatal Attraction on Valentine’s Day, or at least the Family Guy version of it? And we’re doing one next season that I think also pushes the envelope. It’s a DVD commentary episode where we have the cast just in voiceover watching the episode that the audience will be watching and doing their commentary about the making of that episode.
We have one story that’s happening in the episode that they’re commenting on, and then another story that just unwinds in the recording booth and voiceover when Lois discovers that Peter makes more money than she does, and the reason for that is that he’s still paying alimony to Sarah Paulson — playing herself — who was his first wife. She was also in our universe as a guest star in the episode they’re commenting on, and the director of that one, Greg Colton, spent a ton of time, because you have to adjust the volume of what story you’re listening to, but the story on screen still has to make sense.
DEADLINE: Have you heard back from any directors whose styles you imitated in the three-act episodes? What did they think about your interpretation?
Rich Appel: I don’t think we heard from them, but we did hear from Kingsman‘s Matthew Vaughn. He had seen that, and then invited the entire production team to the Fox lot to watch a sneak preview of the sequel, which many of us, myself included, did do, and that was really nice because, we hadn’t sent it to him, but someone clearly had, and he contacted us and said that he loved it.
Alec Sulkin: And usually we only hear from people when they’re very mad.
DEADLINE: Speaking of people being mad, are you planning more stunts with deaths — fake or real — of Family Guy characters? Brian’s brief “passing” in 2013 made waves.
Alec Sulkin: I would say that that’s always a possibility. I don’t think that we have any immediate plans to kill off any of our main characters, but with our show, you never know. That’s why people went so nuts over the Brian thing, because it felt very real, like it could happen. Of course we got it all back.
Rich Appel: Yes, and at the time, I remember that someone wrote a column in a big newspaper about how the Family Guy writers realized that it was a huge mistake from fan reaction, and two weeks later, they brought him back in an episode. I remember thinking, that’s somebody who does not understand that we spend a year on each of these shows. So, luckily, fans missed him because we knew he was coming back. Brian, next year in the season premiere, he’s going to get married, and that’s a two-parter. So that’s something — instead of killing off a character, we’re bringing on a character, and we’ll see what happens with that.
DEADLINE: Anything else you can reveal about storylines and guest stars next season?
Rich Appel: We’re going to have a big episode which says a proper farewell to Adam West who obviously was a huge part of our town. He was the mayor, he played Mayor Adam West, and as a person and as a character, he was as original a comic voice as you could imagine and such a collaborative and sweet man, honestly. So we wanted to commemorate him, and there’s a full episode about how we honor him and say goodbye to him. We also doing a Korean Olympics episode where we have Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir playing themselves, which I think will be fun. What else, Alec?
Alec Sulkin: Bryan Cranston is now a cast member on the go as Peter’s new boss, which is very exciting for us; it’s great to have such an amazing actor.
Rich Appel: Also, Mandy Moore is going to be in an episode playing Quagmire’s teenage daughter that he did not know he had. So I guess we’re giving birth to new characters. At least we’re not killing them.
DEADLINE: Family Guy just crossed the 300th episode mark and did the episode that envisioned it as 60-year-old. How long do you see Family Guy going?
APPEL: Well, I personally would like to see the show staying around till my youngest child finishes college, and after that, you know what, I don’t really care.
The thing that, honestly, Alec and I can’t stress enough is, we get to speak on behalf of an incredible team. We have a writing staff, aged 30 to 60. we have 100 animators. I think we may be the only show — and certainly I think we’re not only half-hour show, because The Simpsons no longer does this– to have a full orchestra of 60 musicians every week with our composer, Walter Murphy, that scores this show, and that’s something I don’t think we’ll ever lose, because Seth’s vision of this show is that it’s a complete work, from the animation, to the performances, to the music, and it just gives it such a rich feel to have that capacity.
We’ve been lucky to have a studio that has the budget that we’ve got to have an orchestra like that, and I think, luckily, Seth’s still a young man, and luckily, he enjoys doing the show. So I hope that, whether we are streamed on a Disney podcast or Comcast billboard, we’ll still be making new episodes.
Alec Sulkin: I like the idea of a Comcast billboard. Let’s start writing episodes for those.
DEADLINE: Speaking of the potential acquisition of Fox assets by Disney or Comcast, it seems like Family Guy is competing with The Simpsons in how many predictions they can make that come true. They had the one about Fox and Disney. What predictions have you made or are making next season that you feel may become reality?
Rich Appel: Well, we are going to have an episode of Family Guy trying desperately to win an Emmy, and they couldn’t. We could even write an episode where Family Guy won an Emmy. Any other predictions we have, Alec?
Alec Sulkin: I feel like it’s almost like that a stopped watch is right twice a day, where we throw a lot out there, and then when certain things come to pass, we seem like Nostradamus, because nobody’s pointing out the 20 other ridiculous things we said that weren’t even close to coming true. But yeah, I think they just happen organically in the moment, and the Kevin Spacey thing, we were probably almost 10 years ahead of that. So to say that we knew it, that seems a little… well, we didn’t.
Rich Appel: In the Disney one in The Simpsons, they actually played that within an episode that I wrote. When (the merger news) came out and it went viral, I did get a couple of calls from journalists, and I had to shamefully admit that it wasn’t in my original draft. It was pitched late at night around the table not by me but even at the time; you could see the way the wind was blowing that Disney was starting to eat everything in its path. So, just to reinforce what Alec says, you get lucky, and, especially if the show like The Simpsons has had 650 episodes and we’ve had 300, it’s almost incompetent if you can’t get a couple of things right.
But by the same token, I think that, what Family Guy does allow through parody is to take things that are in the air, and as long as you make them funny, you can get them out there, because we’re not a documentary. We’re a comedy, and so as to touch on subjects that might be considered off limits in other contexts, like Kevin Spacey or like Seth making a pointed impressionist joke about Harvey Weinstein when he announced the Oscar nominations.