20 Years After Its Debut, ‘Family Guy’ Showrunners Explain How Those Cutaways Keep the Show Fresh

“It’s an easy way, or at least a challenging way that’s available to us, to stay current,” co-showrunner Rich Appel tells TheWrap

Family Guy

When CBS debuts “The World’s Best” after Super Bowl LIII on Sunday, they can only hope the series will have as long of a run as “Family Guy,” which got its own debut after the Super Bowl 20 years ago.

The Seth MacFarlane-created series, which was canceled after three seasons only to be brought back for 13 more (and counting), is currently in the middle of its 17th season. The long-running sitcom’s showrunners — Alec Sulkin and Rich Appel — spoke with TheWrap on how they’ve managed to keep the animated series fresh after all these years.

It’s all about those cutaway gags.

“It’s an easy way — or at least a challenging way — that’s available to us, to stay current,” Appel said. “We can do something that you might see on a sketch show like ‘SNL’ or something that you might see in a news comedy show like John Oliver, weekly, without straining and breaking into a sweat. That’s one huge advantage.”

For example, cutaways during the current 17th season have made references to Kanye West’s antics, “La La Land” and “Stranger Things.” Appel compares the show’s frequent use of cutaways to the same way that “SNL” sketches or late-night TV bits find their way on YouTube: “‘Family Guy’ was coming up with [that kind of content] before those platforms were even available.”

“Family Guy” debuted following Super Bowl XXXIII on Jan. 31, 1999, and aired for three seasons on Fox, which shuffled its timeslots, leading to poor viewership. The show was canceled in 2002, but found a second life after Turner’s Adult Swim picked up reruns. Its high ratings on Turner’s late-night comedy block, coupled with strong DVD sales, led to Fox reviving the series, and it returned in 2005.

Sulkin, who had worked with MacFarlane on the short-lived Fox comedy “The Pitts,” recalled when MacFarlane told him that Fox was considering bringing “Family Guy” back. “I’m thinking to myself there’s no way that’s going to happen, because that never happens,” he said. “But, sure enough, it did, and all of a sudden there were a bunch of us sitting in a room, pitching jokes for it, it was very exciting.”

These days, however, MacFarlane is primarily involved with “Family Guy” as a voice actor, accounting for approximately 65 percent of the characters in every episode, including the Griffin family trio of Peter, Stewie and their dog Brian. MacFarlane also currently stars on, and is the creator of, Fox’s live-action “Star Trek” homage, “The Orville.”

“He’s not in the writing room anymore,” Appel says, adding that he still serves as quality control, since his name is closely intertwined within the show: “He responds to scripts in the booth.”

Since “Family Guy’s” revival, Fox has kept the series on the same night as its other long-running animated sitcom, “The Simpsons.”

“They’re not dead, not close to it,” Sulkin adds. “We say to ourselves: Well if they can do it, we can too.”

Appel, who worked on “The Simpsons” years before “Family Guy,” sees a similarity between the two in the expansive list of secondary, or even tertiary, characters. “What that allows an [animated] show to do, that live action shows literally wouldn’t have the budget to do, is to have an entire community of 40 to 50 characters, who, if I threw their names at you, you would know,” he said. “It’s still a challenge to do it well.”