Talking to Showrunner Alec Sulkin About Working to Revitalize ‘Family Guy’
Recently, I wrote about the gradual decline of Family Guy over the years, along with my optimism over the show’s decision to bring in Billy Domineau, the writer whose Seinfeld 9/11 spec script became a huge hit on the internet this summer. After publishing the piece, Family Guy showrunner Alec Sulkin contacted me about it. He said that he agreed with some, if not all, of my points, and that he was working on fixing some of the issues I discussed. He wanted to give me more context into what changes he’s looking to make with the show and what the thinking is behind the scenes. With that in mind, we talked more and more, and the following interview is the result of our exchange.
Thanks for getting in contact with me about my previous article. You told me that you agreed with some of the criticisms made of the show, is that true?
Yeah, I mean, it’s not verbatim. I still think the show is good overall, but I acknowledge that the show has had challenges trying to keep things fresh. There is kind of a burnout factor. Steve Callaghan was the showrunner before me, and I think he did a good job, but there is a clock on the show, and it can be difficult to get excited and stay focused.
One of the things I mentioned was that the plots are kinda thin these days, and the characters can be hard to sympathize with.
Yeah, I think in the earlier years, the plots were more grounded, and probably more simple. We know who these characters are at this point, so it can be hard to give them new insight, but it is something we work on. Regarding the plots, a lot of times the first act is disconnected from the rest of the show. We call that the first-act mislead. We’ve been doing it for a long time, but I think in episodes that aren’t as strong, it feels like a more glaring issue.
Are you working on episodes that have longer, more detailed plots?
Definitely. We have a three-part story arc coming up this season involving Brian. Have you read the book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed?
I’ve heard of it. I know it talks about what happened to Justine Sacco.
Yeah, that’s the story we’re working on. Basically, Brian goes to a movie, and right before he goes in, he tweets something insensitive. It’s…kind of racist, but ultimately harmless. But the internet mob descends upon him, and it becomes so severe that he has to leave Quahog.
That sounds a bit like what happened with Peter’s comic strip in “The Simpsons Guy.”
For sure. In this case, I think we give it a more realistic bent, though, and we turn it into a story that can hold up on its own. I’m proud of that one. We’re also doing a Sherlock Holmes parody with Stewie as Sherlock and Brian as Watson. I think one turned out really well, and actually holds up as a legitimate Sherlock mystery.
I’ve noticed the episodes with Brian and Stewie seem to have held up, even as other aspects of the show have declined.
We hear that a lot. I think that started with the “Road To…” episodes. Seth is a big fan of those old Bob Hope road trip movies, and he loved working in that frame. Also, I just think Brian and Stewie have the most interesting relationship, and are probably the most intrinsically interesting characters on the show.
Will you be doing episodes that flesh out other characters, like Meg and Chris?
That’s definitely something we’re working on. We certainly try to do episodes with them. The thing about Chris is that he’s so goofy; he’s a lot like Lenny from Of Mice And Men. Those characters are probably the most one-dimensional on the show. We are working on that, though. There’s one story we have, it’s by no means final, but it would involve Meg coming out as a lesbian.
That’s interesting considering her past. In “Brian Swings And Sings,” she pretends to be a lesbian for social acceptance, while in Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story, we learn that in the future, she becomes a transgender man named Ron.
Yeah, it would be interesting how we might handle both of those storylines. Sometimes, we do things that go against continuity. We try to explain it, but sometimes, if it doesn’t fit in, we tend to make a joke about it.
One of the things that sparked my original piece was that you hired Billy Domineau, who wrote the Seinfeld spec script about 9/11. What did you see him bringing to the show?
Yeah, I really loved his Seinfeld script. As you mentioned in your article, it was the kind of dark humor that we enjoy doing on our show, and we definitely thought he could invigorate the writing staff. Billy’s been here for about a month, and he’s done a great job.
Five years ago, Seth MacFarlane said that he thought the show should’ve been canceled three years before that. Does he actually feel that way?
Definitely not. In 2011, when Seth said that, he was working on Ted, as well as American Dad and The Cleveland Show. He was overly busy at the time, but he absolutely wants the show to continue.
Ddoes not having Seth in the writer’s room effect the quality of the show?
Definitely. When Seth was in the writer’s room, he was the best writer there. He made the show better just by being there. He was certainly stretched a little thin by all the projects he was working on, and while we have a lot of other talented writers, it was bound to effect the quality of the show.
Looking back, has the show done anything that you regret?
Well, it’s kind of a blur. Episodes tend to run to run together because we’re often working on multiple episodes at the same time. I would say some episodes aren’t as strong as others, but the reasons aren’t always easy to track. I wouldn’t say one episode or moment stands out in my mind. Whether or not an episode works tends to come down to the first draft. Some are stronger than others, and sometimes, we can only punch up a script so much. But we’re working on a fixing a lot of the problems you talked about, and hopefully, bringing some fans who left back into the fold.