Family Guy producers break down episode skewering Trump
Family Guy wasted no time in the New Year going after the biggest target in the world: Donald Trump. In Sunday’s episode of the animated comedy, titled “Trump Guy,” Peter and the Griffins relocated to Washington after Peter was tapped by the president of the United States to be his press secretary. “Trump Guy” left no (Roger) Stone unturned, as the embattled Trump family and associates were ridiculed and skewered throughout the episode.
Things turned particularly disturbing after Ivanka Trump gave Meg a makeover (“When I’m done with you, you’ll be pretty enough to marry an Orthodox Jewish son of a felon who’s too stupid to get into Harvard the normal way,” she told Meg, referencing her husband, Jared Kushner) and introduced her new friend to Trump, who proceeded to leer at Meg and then reach for…. well, you’ve heard the Access Hollywood tape. (And Family Guy has taken that on, too.) Lois and Peter were initially dismissive of Meg when she told them that he assaulted her, but soon after, they walked in on Trump (now imagined as a gross Jabba the Hut figure) preying on their daughter again. As Lois apologized to Meg for not believing her, Peter went after Trump. “What would your third wife, the soft-core girl-on-girl porn lady, think about this?” he said. “Or the actual porn star your lawyer paid hush money to?” Trump, however, stumped Peter with a question of his own, asking, “If Peter Griffin gets to be jerk all the time, then why can’t Donald Trump?”
Peter quit his job, resolving to be less mean and insulting, though his body soon rejected this promise by leaking blood from his nose and nipples. He confronted Trump again on the White House lawn, which led to another exploration of Peter’s own behavior and responsibility, and ended in an epic, colorful fight across famous D.C. landmarks and into the air before they wound up stranded on the Washington Monument. Trump extended a tiny hand to help Peter, but they both went plummeting down, only to be saved by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who fortuitously had set up a giant Maple Leaf airbag on the ground. Trump and Peter then both praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, who revealed himself to camera as the writer/puppet master of the exchange.
Here to take you behind the scenes of this international incident — and the making of this outrageous episode — are Family Guy showrunners Rich Appel and Alec Sulkin.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the biggest challenge in bringing this episode to life? Animation production takes place so far in advance, so keeping up on the ever-changing Trump news cycle probably made you want to tear your hair out.
RICH APPEL: Yes! I guess the challenge is keeping it and fresh, and making what we put on the air seem like a comic take on what often seems emphatically unfunny.
ALEC SULKIN: We knew, writing this episode, that what we were writing we weren’t going to see on television for a year and a half, so we just had to lay into the fact that luckily Trump has been consistently a disaster, so that hasn’t changed at all. We knew that he was never going to be out of the news, and people wouldn’t be like, “Oh, yeah! I remember that Trump guy!” Of course he’s still here — and still embarrassing himself on a daily/weekly basis. So we just had to lay into that aspect of it. We know he’s going to be larger-than-life still when this comes out, and we don’t think it will seem like, “Oh, they finally got to this?” It’s an ongoing story that we feel like now we’re finally getting to cover.
APPEL: I think you could say: As Americans, we’re horrified. As comedy writers, we’re gratified. [Laughter.]
Looking across all the jokes that you pitched and what made it in and what didn’t, how did the news cycle impact that process?
APPEL: At different points, as in the news cycle, jokes about the wall became either fresh or dated. Things kind of come and go. I’ll give you an example. When they’re having dinner at the White House, we have a character off-camera who says, “What will you have?” to Roger Stone, and he says, “I’ll take the fifth [of bourbon].”
SULKIN: It was to Michael Flynn.
APPEL: It originally was to Michael Flynn. Then we went to Roger Stone. Michael Flynn, in the meantime, has pled and cooperated, and it was like, “God, the news is just so happening in huge waves,” so late in the game we switched it. And then it worked perfectly because we threw in Roger Stone before the last little boomlet of Roger Stone news about a month ago, and we thought, “Now it will seem like we were timely.” There are a couple of these dark figures in Trump’s circle who you can bet on, and they won’t disappoint you.
When we last talked, you said that Fox executives didn’t have significant changes on the script. But did you get the sense that they would rather you not take on the most powerful person in America, who’s shown himself to be vindictive?
APPEL: I don’t really remember them asking us to make any changes, besides the typical standards issues or legal issues that come up in any episode.
SULKIN: I remember briefly when the episode was conceived that there was an initially this feeling of, “Well, we’re just going to have to see about all this.” But then, to everyone’s credit, that was all we ever heard. It was just an initial “We’re not sure,” and then when they started seeing what it was, everyone was like, “Okay, great.”
APPEL: I think they had us pitch it in a way that we might not have pitched every single episode, and I will say — and not just to pat us on the back — 30 seconds in, we heard chuckles and laughs, and we jumped on that. And by the end of the call, they were like, “Go ahead.” I think they just wanted [us to] pitch them the episode top-to-bottom in ten minutes, and they signed off.
Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane’s politics are clear, and the show has taken shots at Trump before. But was there some concern even in the writers’ room about alienating more conservative fans? Or did you always feel like if you based the comedy in truth, then that was the best defense?
SULKIN: I think we were less concerned about that and more concerned with being funny with this material. It feels like it is all over the place these days. I’ve noticed that sometimes in our show, in early drafts and early screenings of different episodes, when we come across political jokes, even if we think they’re funny or sharp, they just play in-house to kind of groans and people don’t want to listen to it. They’re so sick of the political environment in general that I think even us trying to joke about it sometimes comes off the wrong way. But with this Trump episode, I feel like everyone kind of understood, “Okay, we’re kind of pouring it all into this one.” And I think it comes off much better in that way.
APPEL: There’s also at least two kinds of political jokes. You could have someone making a joke where the punchline is based on thinking that one side of a hot-button [issue] is wrong, like right-to-life or abortion or prayer in school. And then there’s another: while Peter and Trump are battling in full view behind Sarah Huckabee Sanders, she says, “I haven’t had the chance to ask the President if he’s fighting with Peter Griffin” and that joke is politically based, because it’s in the White House. But it’s just about hypocrisy, it’s just about lying. I think that there’ll be a lot of Trump voters who won’t be offended; they’ll laugh and think, “We’re not fools.” But if you ask them, they will disagree with us on some other policy points that we don’t address in the show.
Why did you decide to have Trump prey on Meg?
APPEL: Let’s play a game. If I say the words Donald Trump to you, what’s the first thing you think?…. The only point in using Meg was to show that men like Trump can attempt to prey on vulnerable people. It’s clearly offensive and gross and not appropriate. But not only didn’t we not want to show it, we don’t want to be too explicit about exactly what happened.
Sexual assault is a sensitive subject. What discussions and concerns did you have in the writers’ room?
APPEL: We wanted to touch on this aspect of Trump’s public face, without putting Meg in too compromised a position. And the focus of the show was not [that]; our point was that Peter and Lois found it hard to believe at first that the president could be accused of an unwanted touching, but as is so often the case, people who question someone’s reporting of an unwanted touching realize they need to take it really seriously, and that’s what happens in the episode.
There’s an interesting moment where Trump calls Peter out on his own hypocrisy for being mean and insulting people — and Trump points out that many children have learned their favorite Jewish, black, and gay jokes from Family Guy. It’s nice to see you throw a little penalty flag on yourselves, but did that lead to any discussions about the line-toeing or line-crossing jokes on the show? As the episode notes, cartoons can be turned off — unlike the president — but outside of that, what standards should a comedy be held to?
APPEL: Those discussions have been going on, certainly for as long as I’ve been here. We are being a little self-deprecating there, but we try always. If it’s going to be a joke that someone might perceive as edgy or potentially offensive, what’s underneath it? And are we commenting on cliched assumptions? Are we commenting on people’s knee-jerk reactions?… Yes, the show has historically among many other things isn’t afraid to touch various third rails of comedy, but there are a lot of third rails, and it’s hard to eliminate a lot of them, and you always want to make sure that the joke is getting at something other than what people might accuse the president of, which is name calling.
SULKIN: As Rich is saying, with jokes that can seem to cross the line, we do a good job of monitoring ourselves. And the ultimate judge is: Is it funny enough? If you’re going to be offensive in some way, it better really funny and something kind of new. I think we’re pretty good at either coming up with those or saying we didn’t come up with one, and moving on, and trying to think of another way to tell a joke.
The episode takes a little shot at Bob’s Burgers — which Trump calls his favorite show in the episode — as Peter says that it looks like it was animated in a moving car and he seems befuddled by its popularity. Why go after those nice, funny people at Bob’s?
APPEL: Because we like them, respect them, and are jealous of then. And really, doesn’t that motivate 70 percent of human behavior? Yes, we like them, we know they’re talented and they’ve won awards. We have not. What more do we need to say? I think it’s pretty obvious in the show where Peter turns to camera and tries shamelessly to point out to Emmy voters that Donald Trump, which is absurd, loves Bob’s Burgers. [H.] Jon Benjamin did voices on Family Guy before Bob’s Burgers, continues to do voices on Family Guy; he has a very good sense of humor about all this stuff and has appeared on the show as Bob in self-deprecating ways. And obviously we would not shrink from him making any reference to Family Guy in his show if he wanted to.
So maybe this could touch off a gentlemanly feud?
SULKIN: Rightfully, I think they’re already above it and we’re still here in the mud. They’ve taken a very healthy, almost weary attitude toward our prodding. We know that they’re funny and they’re the new sort of hot girl on the block and we’re like, “Well, what’s wrong with us?”
You guys have some serious staying power. You’ve been on that block a long time.
SULKIN: We have. We’ve been working this block, $20 a pop —
APPEL: I see no problem with this metaphor. Let’s continue!
What message do you want people to take away from this episode? At the end of the episode, you advise viewers to check out the Steele Dossier, and Peter says: “From our family to yours, we’re very frightened.”
SULKIN: Yes. That holds true. The point of view of our show is what it is. And we’ve tried not to stick it in everyone’s face, but then when an episode like this comes along, where we’re specifically dealing with our President, I think you’re going to understand how we feel and we’re going to want you to think that we’re right. [Laughs.]
APPEL: Here’s the most hopeful thing we think you can take away. Hunky Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau is played as well by Josh Robert Thompson. So in a world where Josh Robert Thompson can play both bookends, there’s got to be some hope — and some middle ground.
What do you think Trump’s reaction to this episode might be? Have you pictured him watching it?
APPEL: I hope if he watches it, his reaction would be: I now want to buy the DVDs for seasons 1 through 16. So, you know, I can dream.