Creative Generalist Q&A: Steve Callaghan
Steve Callaghan is a writer and producer for the hugely popular cartoon TV show Family Guy. Steve has worked on the show since its inception and has even personally helped Stewie assemble his Guide to World Domination. He has also written sitcoms for CBS and MTV, screenplays, and live sketch comedy. He lives in Los Angeles.
Walk us through how an episode of Family Guy is made. How many people are involved?
Well, as you might imagine, it is a highly collaborative endeavor. There are about 100 people or so who are in some way or another involved in putting together an episode. The process begins, of course, with the writing staff. My fellow writers and I will come up with a concept for an episode and discuss the general storyline that it would contain. The episode is then assigned to a particular writer who will write the first draft of the script. The whole writing staff then takes that first draft and, as a group, rewrites it — improves jokes that might need some help, fixes any story issues, etc. — before the show gets recorded by all of our voice actors. Once the audio has been recorded, then our animation team takes the baton, creating an animatic, which is a rough, pencil-sketch version of the show. Once we all screen the animatic, the writers take another pass at the script to address any remaining writing issues. A while later, the show comes back in color. We then do one more, smaller rewrite on the script before the finishing touches (music cues, sound effects, etc.) are added and then you’ve got yourself an episode of “Family Guy.”
How solo or collaborative is the show’s concept development and creative writing process?
The process is enormously collaborative. Each episode reflects the work of all the very talented writers on our show.
What did you do before Family Guy? How did you come to be a Family Guy writer and producer?
After college, I worked in a series of television production jobs from production assistant to writers’ assistant and so on. One of those jobs ended up being on “Family Guy.” I managed to make enough of a contribution where and when my position allowed that I was able to demonstrate that I was capable of more responsibility and was subsequently elevated to Staff Writer. I wrote on the show for two seasons before it was cancelled. After writing for other sitcoms on MTV and CBS, I came back to work on “Family Guy” when Fox brought it back, this time in a writer/producer role.
As both a writer and producer you balance a couple very different roles. Creating characters, imagining scenarios and crafting jokes but also making sure things get done, the property is properly represented, and the execs are satisfied. Do you find the thinking and doing aspects complement one another or compete?
I actually think they complement one another very much. Any time you are thinking about these characters and this universe, whether with your fellow writers, executives, or whoever, it can only enrich your ability to bring more to the show in all respects.
What excites you most about the huge success that Family Guy has achieved?
That this is one of the rare instances where the fans were able to truly make their voices heard. I can’t really think of too many other examples where a network took a show away and the fans’ reaction to this — through buying DVDs and watching reruns on Cartoon Network — sent a loud and clear message that there was an appetite for the show out there. It’s empowering to know that executives will listen when fans are able to make their preferences known. And what also excites me is that all those fans who bought DVDs and watched those reruns helped to give me back a job that a truly love. So, I will always be enormously grateful to our fans for that!
I love that I can watch episodes dozens of times and still laugh out loud at many scenes. Which scenes are your personal favorites? Which characters do you enjoy watching or writing for most?
I actually enjoy writing for all the characters. They each bring something unique to the show, so it’s a great deal of fun to integrate all of their different voices into an episode. And as far as my favorite scenes, that’s a tough one. There have been several. But I will say that one of them involved Peter trying to leave his mark on society by creating a lovable character to teach kids not to litter, Gary The No-Trash Cougar. The costume (a scary, lifelike cougar with huge, bloody fangs) and the absurdly agressive persona were quite terrifying and, well, frankly, just the absolute wrong way to go about teaching kids anything except how to wet their pants in fear.
TV media is changing quickly and significantly. The “Nobody’s Watching” pilot that your colleagues Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan made and that became a hit on YouTube, for example, demonstrates this brilliantly in a number of different ways. In general, where do you see TV and screenwriting heading? Is the big network hit going to become a thing of the past?
I don’t think so. While there are more outlets now through which people can get their work seen, I still think, in the end, that quality wins out. And television, like most of the media, operates in cycles. I don’t think it’ll be long before we see another huge comedy on the scale of “Friends” or “Seinfeld.” We just need to wait for the right show to come along.
What are your interests outside of the show? Any side projects of note?
Yes, I have been collaborating on a variety of screenplays and developing some ideas for television as well.
Where do you find your ideas? What inspires you?
Real life, mostly. I find that comedy is at its most successful when it’s at its most authentic. Even in the animated world of “Family Guy” the very real moments are often the ones that make me laugh the most. Comedic situations taken from real experiences, or when one character mishears one another, or just the truncated manner of speaking that we all actually use in real life — to me, those are the building blocks of good comedy.
Thanks very much, Steve.