It seems like you had a great experience making Ted, but, as evidenced by your three hit shows, you’re a TV guy at heart. Is television what you’ll always rely upon as you bread-and-butter?
Well, there are advantages in both. I think it’s worth keeping a hand in both forms of media. With television, you really have, I suppose, an opportunity to make more of an impact with your characters; I feel like, as important as characters are in film, if you really want to take a simplistic view of it, you can say that television is character-based and film is premise-based.
That’s not to undersell the value of characters in movies, obviously, but in the simplest form that might be an argument that you can make. The immediacy of television is definitely appealing; in the time it takes to get a movie off the ground and get it made, you can create and launch a television series—everything just happens faster.
With movies, the slowness of production is both an advantage and a disadvantage. It’s an advantage in that you really have time to perfect each shot in ways that you can’t on TV. But at times there’s a sense of, All lright, let’s just get this thing out there—we’ve been working on this forever, let’s get it in front of some people, for God’s sake. So, for me, I would like to keep a hand in both from here on out. You could never do a character like Ted on television, at least not now—maybe in 10 years or so.
And why is that?
To generate that kind of detail and that kind of realism just takes time. It takes a lot of work—you couldn’t do that with TV. The level of animation is just too extensive.
The immediacy of TV lends itself to allowing you to work on multiple shows at once, which you do with Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show. Do you ever look at your TV slate and think of ways to fall back from those projects? Or figure out end-dates that will make it easier for you to concentrate on other things, like movies?
I am far from doing it all single-handedly, though; I’m a big believer in hiring people who are smarter than you are. [Laughs.] That’s one of the things that has made it all work.
The importance of Family Guy is always paramount—that’s a show that really does still have to be taken care of in a big way. American Dad is a show that should be credited very much to Mike Barker and Matt Weitzman, who have run that show almost since the beginning. I co-created it with them, and it was around the same time that Family Guy came back from cancellation, so I had to spend most of my time getting Family Guy back in motion and I couldn’t devote much time to American Dad, and I didn’t really have to.
Those guys are so capable and they’ve given that show a voice that’s so unique. It’s the only thing that’s allowed me to do so much: I’m surrounded by a team of people who I can really delegate to in a big way. It becomes a matter of relinquishing the vision to somebody you trust, and letting them make it their vision, in a lot of ways.
The Cleveland Show is another example of that. Mike Henry and Rich Appel run that show on a day-to-day basis, and they do a fantastic job. It makes it unnecessary for me to have to juggle eight million things at the same time, which I really couldn’t do. I wouldn’t enjoy it, it would be impossible, and I’d drop dead from exhaustion.
With Family Guy being “the mother ship,” it’s important to keep it fresh and exciting, even though it’s been on the air for 10 seasons now. Is it difficult to keep the show provocative and relevant?
It is a constant source of discussion. I’m a big believer in, this late in a television series, doing things that could potentially ruin the show. [Laughs.] Those types of stories always seem to work, because they take risks. You really can’t do the same things that you’ve done since the beginning after 10 years; episodes like the hour-long murder mystery ["And Then There Were Fewer," season nine], or the one with Stewie and Brian in the vault ["Brian & Stewie," season eight], or Stewie and Brian going back to the pilot episode ["Back to the Pilot," season 10]. There are things that you have to constantly keep changing about a series, otherwise it gets stale.
I think when a TV show lasts a certain amount of time there’s a tendency, with both comedy and drama, to fear deviating from the formula. In a lot of ways, that’s what happened late in the game with the Star Trek franchise on television: They were so successful, and everybody loved what it was that they did, and they created such a unique tone for those shows, but 15-20 years after the fact, there was a tried-and-true formula that, perhaps, wasn’t being deviated from quite enough.
I think that’s the secret to keeping a show alive after so many years: You have to keep taking risks, and, from time to time, abandon things you know will work in favor of new things. That’s the nice thing about television: If something doesn’t work one week, you always have next week. But that is always in the back of my head as we move into the later seasons of Family Guy: Let’s do things that make noise, and change the world that we see within the show’s context.
You became the youngest executive producer in television at age 24, and you bounced back from Family Guy’s cancellation to show Fox executives that they screwed up big-time. Do those accomplishments give you extra confidence?
Yeah, but maybe not quite enough. [Laughs.] In many ways, I’m just as insecure as I was when I started. There’s truth to the belief that when you start to think you’re doing great work, it becomes the opposite of that. It’s good to maintain a sense of insecurity and fear about what you’re doing, because it causes you to push yourself that much harder, but you have to have some confidence; even in the beginning, I had confidence in what I wanted Family Guy to be. But you should always be questioning yourself every step of the way, just to keep yourself honest.
I once had a conversation with Norman Lear, who’s probably the greatest sitcom writer there ever was, and I asked him, “Does it ever get any easier? Do you suddenly understand how to break a story and what works and what doesn’t?” And he said, “Absolutely not.” You just never really know. If the answer was “experience,” then people who’ve been in the business for 20 or 30 years would be making one hit TV show or one hit movie after another. If we’re smart, we all remain somewhat fearful of screwing up. I know I certainly do.