New York Comic Con: "Family Guy" Cast & Crew Discuss Show's Evolution

"Family Guy" has developed a powerful standing on FOX's animation line-up, even after two cancellations and consequent revivals because of the strong fan following. Best known for it's edgy humour, whacky characters, and cut-away gags. But with an increasingly tumultuous and rapidly evolving sociopolitical landscape, from the #MeToo movement to the refugee crisis, the question arises as to how a show like "Family Guy" can survive. The only way forward is to adapt, and the show's producers all have something to say about how the show's humour has evolved.

Rich Appel: I'll presumptuously speak first because I've been there the least amount of time. But to me, watching the old shows, there's a lot more based on the characters [now], which happens naturally in a show that's had the good fortune of being on the air this long because you know who they are. So we can tell stories that in some ways are smaller-scale about the interpersonal connections between them set in the world and tone of "Family Guy". But I think that's one way it's evolved.

Kara Vallow: Because it's an animated show, it has the ability to evolve in way that you can't really think about tangibly. We can go into a video game universe. There are endless possibilities of exploiting the medium in ways that other live action shows will invariably get stale. We have sort of an endless well to come up with ideas from.

Alec Sulkin: I think there are certain jokes that we've done in the show in the past that we just couldn't do now with the changing societal climate and I think we recognise that. We understand, things we've done in the past would not fly today. We have to adapt and come up with new, different ways to be funny.

When pressed further on this point, Sulkin asks if the line of questioning is in reference to the more sensitive societal developments like the #MeToo movement. The reporter says yes, and asks if it makes writing the show more difficult.

Alec Sulkin: I actually think it makes it easier because it gives us another thing to try and cleverly work our way around. If you can come up with a joke that's funny and that sort of somehow refers to what's going on without offending people, that's the key.

Rich Appel: The challenge is always to find fresh stories and angles on stuff, so it's good that society gives us a lot of them. You feel like, 'What will be Family Guy's take on it?' to seem a little fresh, a little edgy, but also we hope kind of progressively correct too. But that's not the first priority.

Another way that the show has evolved is the development of certain relationship dynamics that allow for greater story-telling, such as the dynamic between baby Stewie and Brian the dog. But what about developing new character interactions and relationships?

Rich Appel: Yes, we've talked to the writer's room. Gary Cole plays Principal Shepherd, the principal at the kids' school and he is so funny, and the character's just grown and grown that we're looking for ways to use him with Peter just because we think they'd be terrific together and they've had a couple of moments and it always plays. That's because [of] not only Seth, of course, but Gary Cole is just terrific so we want to do that.

Kara Vallow: We've lost a few of our main characters, Adam West, Carrie Fisher, so we're going to be coming up with some new characters to try to incorporate into that world.

Some of these new characters are already set to begin in this new season.

Rich Appel: Bryan Cranston and Niecy Nash are gonna be a married couple playing Peter's bosses at the brewery. They're not replacing, but standing in for Carrie. We don't know if or when we'd replace our mayor.

Kara Vallow: He seems irreplaceable.

Rich Appel: Carrie's irreplaceable too, but we're at the office, I mean to be fair to this show, so much more than there's a need to hear from the town's mayor that it felt like one you have to replace for narrative reasoning. The other, it hasn't felt right.

Watch our interview with "Family Guy" producers Rich Appel, Kara Vallow, Alec Sulkin here:

Mike Henry arrives at our table fresh off doing a recitation of a rap Cleveland did on his own show, for another interview on the New York Comic Con press line. He is humble about receiving the compliments our table of reporters bestow on him for the performance, saying he struggled to remember all of the words and ran out of energy at the end. Without a doubt, Mike Henry has prospered tremendously since being on the show.

Henry is best known for the role of Cleveland Brown, an African-American father and member of Peter's core friend group. At one point, Cleveland even had his own spin-off series that ran for four seasons before it was cancelled and Cleveland was quickly brought back onto "Family Guy" with a decent amount of meta jokes made in his return episode at the spin-off's expense. Henry voices a number of other recurring characters on the show, and it joined at our table by fellow voice-actor John Viener. We first ask about whether they have any other voices or impressions in the repertoire that they have yet to be able to use on the show.

Mike Henry: There was sort of this character that I used to do in the room from time to time that ended up sort of being the greased up, deaf guy but not greased up and deaf. A lot of times we'll read parts at the table read and it'll be like 'Man #2' or 'Fed-Ex guy' or whatever and for me, and I know John [Viener] does this and all the voice actors do it, we'll just sort of invent something and read the stuff as that guy. New stuff is born all the time. I'm not in the writer's room anymore but that's where I sort of invented Cleveland, and Consuela, Herbert, Bruce... like some random guys that were in it for a little bit. Not being in the room, it's harder to create characters but you still get a pretty good shot when you're reading them.

John Viener: I do mostly, they call me in for impression that aren't great but are funny. I just basically did a Joe Paterno but I did a Joe Paterno based on the Al Pacino. *demonstrates*
It was ridiculous. I have fun doing a bad imitation of something but if it gets a laugh in the room I get to do it in the show.

They remain tight-lipped about previewing specific storylines in the coming episodes, out of concern for violating contracts. But they are both eager for viewers to see all of the new content to come.

John Viener: I wish it was one of those things where you're like, 'This is a crazy idea!' But I feel like every episode, scene to scene we're just excited about people seeing what we're working on.

Mike Henry: What I love about the show is you can watch old episodes and you don't know which gags are in them. Most of the time you watch the show, repeat TV show, you know what the story's going to be and you remember the jokes but given that the non-sequiturs are in there so much you'll find yourself laughing like you never saw it before.

John Viener: The fun for me, the reason I love being on the show and want to be back there all the time is that most shows you get sick of the characters but we do so many cutaway to random things. I was in New Orleans for Jazzfest and I couldn't help but notice that all these jazz bands have like nineteen people, half of which aren't even in the band. They're all clapping along and you can't get around them so I just created a song of 'We're all just blocking the street' and I came and pitched it. Brian became a part of that gag but ultimately it was just a slice of life that you can stick in anywhere and it doesn't have to be relative to that thing. That's what I like about the show is that people can bring in real-life stuff, come up with stuff that's completely different from the show and it can land in this space.

For any who may wonder how Mike Henry has been effected by portraying an African-American character in voiceover for so long, he has nothing but respect and gratitude for what he has learned from the role.

Mike Henry: To be honest with you, playing Cleveland has effected me greatly. At first I sort of pitched a voice based on this guy that I had met and played basketball with. I just had this voice, and I like the slow voice, and there's something there immediately. But having played Cleveland now for almost twenty years and having done "The Cleveland Show" with a lot of African-American writers, actors, performers, I would always defer to them. 'Can Cleveland say this?' I don't walk in the shoes on a daily basis so playing Cleveland has made me very socially conscious so that's just a cool thing that's happened for me.

John Viener: I did one gag like ten years ago. It was opening day of the Mets, "And here's the first pitch... and the season's over." I would think that that would just go by the wayside cause you do it and move on. I just found out in New York they play that every time the Mets would lose and my friends were like, "If I hear this again I'm gonna punch you." It was the opposite of the effect of 'We love your work,' it was 'We never want to hear your voice again.'"

Watch our interview with "Family Guy" voice actors Mike Henry and John Viener here:


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