“Family Guy” may be one of the most popular shows of our time, but its approach to comedy has also generated a lot of haters.
Just look back to 2006, when Comedy Central’s “South Park” captured what many in the industry thought about the show in a two-episode takedown, which claimed that Fox’s “Family Guy” is actually written by a group of manatees who randomly select combinations of “idea balls” that are used to generate jokes.
The gag, which makes fun of the absurd cutaways that “Family Guy” is known for, had some venom to it. “South Park” co-creator Trey Parker explained in the DVD commentary that he and co-creator Matt Stone “don’t respect [“Family Guy”] in terms of writing.” He added that much of Hollywood felt the same way, with producers from “The Simpsons” sending them flowers after the episode and people at “King of the Hill” expressing thanks (despite both shows being on Fox). “There was this animation solidarity moment, where everyone did come together over their hatred of Family Guy,” he said.
“Family Guy,” created by Seth MacFarlance in 1999, just seemed to make people mad. There were complaints about the show’s reliance on “gag-humour,” as well as its clearly ripping off elements of “The Simpsons.” The show was offensive, too, even if no more than “South Park.” But what may have upset the industry most is how successful it was.
Back in 2006, “Family Guy” was making a comeback after three years off air, during which time its following had swelled through DVD sales and reruns. The fourth season averaged 7.9 million viewers, more than twice as many as “South Park.” By 2013, “Family Guy” at 6.9 million ratings was more than twice as popular as “The Simpsons” at 3.4 million viewers.
As “Family Guy” has dominated in ratings, its brand of humour has become more widely accepted, too. Case in point is the much-hyped appearance of The Simpsons in the upcoming “Family Guy” premier on Sunday night.
Why has “Family Guy” been so successful? We asked Executive Producer and Co-Showrunner Steve Callaghan, who has written for the show since its debut.
To start, he says the show has actually put together some compelling stories, despite its irreverence: “The series is constructed in such a way and was created by Seth in such a way that it can accommodate a lot of different types of episodes. We can do an episode that has a message where we take on a political issue, and then the next week we can do one about time travel, and in the next week we can do one where Peter gets a metal detector and goes crazy.”
He says the show keeps getting better: “Not only has the look of the animation vastly improved … but also we found more things to do with the characters, and the characters have become more multidimensional.”
And he’s excited for season 13: “We’re pretty far into our run, but I’m always happy to see that we keep working harder and we keep topping ourselves. I hope fans feel the same way.”
It’s worth mentioning that many people like those random cutaways, which MacFarlane says are not easy to pull off.
“It’s something that in later years has almost become something that’s s— upon in writers circles. And it’s interesting because those are the hardest things to write,” MacFarlane said at a panel in 2012. “When you’re dealing with story-based comedy it’s almost easier. With the cutaways, you need to develop a brand new premise, storyline, arc, all in just a few seconds.”
As for how the show is made, there are no manatees involved. The process involves many rounds of edits from a large team and takes up to a year, which is typical for TV comedies, according to Callaghan.
He walked us in extensive detail through the production of one episode:
“At the very beginning of every season … everyone will come in with some thoughts on stories or possible episode ideas and we’ll spend a day or so just pitching out all those individual ideas. They could be three or four paragraphs or they could be literally five words depending on whatever depth of an idea someone comes in with.
“Then we’ll start breaking the story. What I mean by that is we’ll get four or five writers in a room together and we’ll start talking about that basic idea and we’ll start figuring out ok if there’s a story here with a beginning, middle, and end; what might happen in act i, act ii or iii; what are the act breaks; and we’ll literally write it out on a dry erase board.
“Once we feel like we have bare structure of the story, it will get assigned to a particular writer who will then go off and write an outline. … The outline is maybe 10 or 12 pages long and it’s just description of the action that tells what happens in each scene.
“They will turn that into myself and my co-showrunner Rich Apell and a couple of other folks, and we’ll give them notes on the outline and then they will go off and they will have two weeks to write the first draft.
“They will come back after that time with the full script with all the dialogue and the stage direction and everything like that, and then we will as a group go through and rewrite the script line by line, page by page, and fix any story issues that might still exist. We’ll try to punch up the jokes and make them better, maybe make some trims. As you can see it’s all very, very collaborative.
Speaking at a panel in 2010, MacFarlane described the madness of the writers’ room: “It’s a completely free, open … They tell me to f— off all the time when they think I’m wrong about something. It’s a completely open … You hear about writers rooms where it’s like — formulate your pitches before … make sure it’s absolutely perfect before it’s ready to pitch — no, dude, if something’s on your mind short of cacophony, throw it out there. It might stimulate someone else to come up with something.”
Next comes the table reading, as Callaghan explained:
“This is the first time that anyone who is not part of the writers room or part of the writing staff is hearing the script … We all sit around a big table in our conference room and the actors are there … we have some representatives from the network and the studio on hand, our crew is present, our writers, and so we’ll go through and do a cold reading of the script. Like I said, it’s the first time people are hearing it and the whole purpose of that is to hear what works, what doesn’t work.
It sounds both fun and nerve-wracking. Here’s an example:
“Based upon how that goes we’ll get some notes from the studio and the network, and we ourselves will assess how we think the script went, and we’ll do a rewrite based upon that table reading. Sometimes that rewrite can be significant, sometimes it can be relatively minor.
“Once that rewrite process is done, then we have the actors come in and record the episode. … Then we take all that audio, and our sound engineers will put it all together, and we’ll make some notes on that, maybe tighten up things, maybe choose different takes, but we’ll finalise the audio and do something called the radio play, which is just the audio for the episode.
“Once that’s locked, then the animators will start drawing the episode. That process takes a few months. They do many, many, many storyboards, and what they assemble after that period of time is something called an animatic. It’s like a rough version of the show, so it’s got audio and it’s got pencil sketches, but not every pose is drawn.
“We’ll have a screening of that animatic, and we’ll have a group fill up our conference room again, and we watch it, and the purpose is sort of the same, to see what’s working, what’s not working, and again some things that may have worked at the table reading, once we see them executed may or may not work as well as we’d hoped.
“We’ll do another rewrite based on that, and then the show gets sent off overseas where a lot of the animation happens for us, and then that episode comes back a few months later, and we watch it one last time, and at this point it’s in colour and it looks like pretty close to what the episode will look like when it airs. … We get one last chance to rewrite it and hopefully by this point you’re making smaller and smaller changes, but we still do have an opportunity to keep rewriting at this point.
“After that last rewrite then we do our final few things. We’ll sit with the composer and figure out where the music needs to go, we’ll add in sound effects, we’ll do any final cutting to get it down to the proper running time … put the credits on.
“That whole process takes about a year, so what’s nice is that you’ve constantly got this flow of episodes going through our pipeline. … It gives you a chance to have a little distance from it and then it comes back and you get another chance to view it with fresh eyes.
“We do about 22 episodes a year, so it’s almost as if we have to be juggling two different seasons at one time, because I’ll have to be thinking about final changes on a show that might air this coming weekend or the Sunday after that and then also thinking about what the Christmas show is going to be a year and a half from now and everything in between. We have a large board in our writer’s room where we track every episode that’s currently in production. … It’s a lot of balls to keep in the air, but it is a lot of fun, and we’re very lucky to have a very talented writing staff.”
Got all that?
Callaghan offered some thoughts on his favourite episodes:
“I think our ‘Star Wars’ episode turned out well, but I think some of my favourite episodes tend to be the ones that … are smaller simpler stories where we take an idea that on another show might seem a little familiar but we always spin in a ‘Family Guy’ sort of way. Here’s a bad example — and this isn’t my favourite episode — but we did an episode called ‘Trading Places,’ and I remember just because it was one where I happened to write the first draft. It was an episode where the parents and the kids switch places, which is something that we’ve seen before on many sitcoms, but in this one Chris ends up taking on Peter’s job and is so stressed out he has a heart attack, which you wouldn’t see on ‘The Brady Bunch.'”
As for “The Simpsons” crossover:
“A lot of the credit for that episode should go to Rich Appel, who is the co-showrunner with me. He is a very talented guy, who earlier in his career had worked on and written for ‘The Simpsons,’ and so he obviously knows the show and knows many of the people who were still involved with the show. … He contacted them and presented the idea that we wanted to do something like that and I think the fact that they knew him and trusted him and knew that that he had had experience over there gave them the confidence to know that we were going to take the job seriously and that we would do a good job and write the characters as the characters and not abuse the opportunity. … Once that got going, all the folks at ‘The Simpsons’ were just terrific. They basically said to us: ‘Here’s our characters, go ahead and write the show, and just please let us see the script when you’re done.’ They gave us a lot of freedom to come up with the story we wanted to do and write the episode as a ‘Family Guy’ episode. In the end not only did they have very few notes but they were very happy with the way it turned out.”
As for the future of the show:
“Obviously, we can’t do this indefinitely, but i don’t feel like there’s any sign right now that the show is nearing its conclusion. I feel like if anything we’re in a strong period in the lifespan of the show and i feel like it could go for quite some time.”
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