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Rich Appel And Alec Sulkin Examine The Past, Present, And Future Of Family Guy - Exclusive Interview

"Family Guy" is a comedy institution at this point. Despite being canceled and coming back on the air many years ago, the show is about to embark on Season 21, offering new jokes and gags into the "Family Guy" iconography. While there are numerous people to thank for the show's longevity, it's safe to say the show wouldn't be where it is today without the tireless work of Rich Appel and Alec Sulkin.

Appel has been with the show as an executive producer and co-showrunner since 2012. Meanwhile, Sulkin has been with "Family Guy" since 2004, and he's gone on to produce, write, and provide voices for over 200 episodes, ascending the ranks to become executive producer and co-showrunner in his own right. They've ushered the series through various eras all the way to the current 21st season.

Looper had the chance to speak with the two of them for an exclusive interview where they talked about all things "Family Guy," including the legendary "Star Wars" episode — as well as the one joke Appel was surprised actually made it onto the air.

Why Family Guy has remained relevant all these years

We're about to enter Season 21 of "Family Guy." What do you think it is about the show that's allowed it to remain so popular for so many years?

Alec Sulkin: The simple answer's the comedy, and also being an animated show, it's easy to digest for people when they're younger. You have a tendency — if you're like me, who still owns lightsabers — to latch on to the things that you loved when you were younger. When "Family Guy" reaches people at an early age ... They sort of decided it can be their comedy comfort food.

Rich Appel: Comedy comfort food — there's the goal.

Were there any moments or jokes you wanted to see make it into an episode, but they didn't for any reason? Were there any jokes you didn't think would make it but ended up being allowed?

Appel: No. Yes, we credit where credit is due, and "Family Guy" will itself bite the hand that feeds it with Fox and jokes about Fox. But the standards departments of both our studios — Disney and Fox — are pretty good with working with us. There are a few rules we know to follow, and with certain storylines, even as long as there's a way to interpret something that is appropriate, if other minds might take it a certain direction — well, that's on them, or that's more acceptable. 

When Jimmy Connors was on an episode and had to reassure Meg that she'd eventually find love, and he became a half-spectral spirit in the episode ... He came into her window to cheer her up at the end, and he could see that she was still down. He was holding two tennis balls, and he said, if she ever felt down, all she should do is to take his balls, "Rub them, and I'll come." I fought the valiant fight and had a steam — "How could this not air?" When they agreed to air, I was like, "You're kidding."

Sulkin: One thing you might not know about Rich is that not only does he have a law degree from Harvard Law School, but he was an ADA in Manhattan's Southern District many years ago. I don't think there's any showrunner ever who's been more uniquely qualified to fight for the silliest and most disgusting of notes. He wins a lot of those battles.

Appel: That's very kind of you to say. Often, though, you can imagine when I left the law 28 years ago how my mother reacted ... Occasionally, now, if I were to tell her a story like that, she will say — I'm not exaggerating — "Now, aren't you glad you went to law school?" It's like, "No, Mom."

Sulkin: My bachelor's degree [is] from Connecticut College, where when I graduated, I literally had a moment of tension when I opened the diploma to make sure it was in there.

Parody hopefuls

Season 21 will contain a "Silence of the Lambs" parody. Are there any movie or TV parodies you hope to do in a future episode?

Appel: We talk about them all the time. We were just talking about ... Well, [that] might be a surprise still, the one that we're working on, because Hulu has said keep it — otherwise, we'd tell everything.

But all the time we're thinking ... Alec, again — he's too modest. I may have gone to law school, but I don't know word one about "Star Wars." Alec famously wrote the original "Family Guy Star Wars" parody that is one of the seminal episodes of the show. 

The challenge is finding movies that are both iconic enough, beloved, and familiar, and that we can think of a fresh take on. Maybe it would've been harder today to do the "Star Wars," and it was 15 years ago when Alec did it, I don't know. But boy, did that feel — and it still does — it holds up fresh, and you want to see a parody of "Star Wars." We're always trying to think of what is the current ... Maybe nothing will ever reach quite that, but what's the movie that would sustain it for a full episode and be a blast for everyone to watch? Seriously. I'm asking you.

Well, I was going to ask, with the "Star Wars Family Guy" episode being so iconic, and with the sequel trilogy out and now all these "Star Wars" Disney+ shows ... Plus, with the Disney merger, "Family Guy" and "Star Wars" are closer than ever. Are there any thoughts on doing anything like that with those properties?

Sulkin: No; given that "Family Guy" did a couple of "Star Wars," probably Seth [MacFarlane] would feel we shot our best shot. Now it would feel everything would be compared to something that turned out so well, [and] I personally am not brave enough to risk doing something that would not be as good as what they did before I was at the show. We do keep sniffing around "Lord of the Rings," but nothing serious yet. That's one that is on that level of "Star Wars," where a lot of people love it and know it and may be worth a shot at some point [in] the future.

Appel: Everything I said about not wanting to repeat ourselves as "Star Wars," it's separate here. He would do "Star Trek" in a heartbeat.

Sulkin: Yes, absolutely.

Appel: He would have 106 reasons why it has nothing to do with "Star Wars." I'm sure he'd be right on all of them, and we would do it.

More PSAs?

"Family Guy" came out with a PSA to raise awareness surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine. Is there any chance we might see more of these PSAs to educate the public on matters in a way only Stewie and Brian could?

Sulkin: God, I hope not.

Appel: By that, Alec means [that] while we of course wish for the public to be healthy enough and in a good place, it was a lot of extra work. That was Seth [MacFarlane]'s idea. He was the engine behind that. Seth is a very serious, bonded person in addition to being a comic genius. He already had relationships with all these different Covid experts because he knew he'd be going back to his live-action show — plus, he was just interested in that. It was the first time that Alec or I, in our relatively long comedy careers, were taking notes from immunologists at Mass General.

They were lovely people to a person, but it was one after the other. Then one would call us and say, "While I respect and understand what Dr. Smith's point was on the third line, it should be ..." It was like, "Trust me on our audience." I don't understand half of what I've had a part in writing. I don't understand what this line means, but sure, we take the note. It was very worthwhile to do, but it was hard because it was science, and no one in our office wanted to be a scientist. That's why we're here.

Working with Seth MacFarlane

He's come up a couple of times now, but how has working with Seth McFarlane changed over the years as he continues to add more and more projects to his résumé?

Sulkin: His time is at a premium now. When we were all starting, or at least when I was starting on the show — which was 18 years ago, and I still feel like a newcomer — Seth was there in the room with us all the time, and it was fantastic. He does a dozen voices perfectly and is the best writer the show's ever had, because it's his show, and he can speak in all those characters' dialogue so effortlessly.

But as time went on and he became a successful director and is spearheading other successful shows, we don't get him the way that we used to. We have a great relationship with him, but he comes in and does the voices, and then he will also let us know the things that he likes and doesn't like about the show. Then he will occasionally pitch us a story idea, which instantly goes in the pipeline. Our relationship has evolved with him.

Appel: He used to be such the dynamic center of everything, but now, it's built-in that he's quality control, because literally almost — not every line, but he's in just about every scene with one of his characters. Even if he wanted to blow off a week, he can't. He has to read every script, so he knows exactly what's happening with the characters and with the show. As Alec says, when he is recording, he can say, "Make sure we're not playing Brian too much like this." It's a quality control, which is hugely helpful — unless he doesn't like something, [in] which case it's a burden.

Other projects

"The Simpsons" has a few Disney+ shorts. Is there any chance "Family Guy" may make it to the streaming platform at any point?

Appel: We're not on Disney+. I don't want to speak out of turn, but I think it's because Disney+ ... we're considered maybe a little too adult. I don't know what the phrase would be, but I'm sure at some point — well, I don't know. Perhaps the Disney Corporation will not want to further monetize 400 episodes of "Family Guy." I'm guessing. We're obviously on Hulu and fill a big presence, a huge presence, on Hulu.

Sulkin: It's like when you play Monopoly — it's nice to have Boardwalk and Park Place, but you're also building hotels on Baltic and Mediterranean. I think that's where we are.

Appel: At the end of the day, people land on Baltic and Mediterranean every bit as often.

Do you mind talking about any non-"Family Guy" related projects you have in the pipeline?

Sulkin: I'm doing a podcast. If you want to print that, please do. It's called "A Typical Disgusting Display." I do it with one of the other writers on the show, and we're having a blast.

Appel: [Jokingly] Alec and I are going to do "The Music Man" when it comes to the Ahmanson. They couldn't get Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, so they got the next best thing.

"Family Guy" Season 21 premieres on Fox on September 25 at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT.

This interview was edited for clarity.