I recently felt the room go cold when I told a few uber-liberal colleagues that I was bingeing “American Dad!” I suspect there’d have been an on-the-spot political demonstration from them had I chosen to binge “Family Guy” instead.
“American Dad!” really is the superior series — its satire is focused, with Stan Smith, the “Dad” of the show’s title, being a highly conservative CIA agent and patriot. “Family Guy” is also a medley of satirical gags, but the problem is that many folks are understandably more sensitive to the randomized overload. The show satirizes ignorant Americans and the squeaky clean family sitcoms of the 1960s and 1970s, taking limitless inspiration from the likes of “All in the Family” and “The Simpsons.” It’s messy but entertaining.
It’s true that “Family Guy” is known to have very few boundaries when it comes to subject matter. Characters are unabashedly racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, abusive. They’re the worst kind of idiots, and some of the humor is shocking. There was the infamous JFK Pez dispenser gag that MacFarlane later regretted. Season 13’s “The 2000-Year-Old Virgin” paints Jesus as the guy who only wants to sleep with your wife. An abortion-focused episode “Partial Terms of Endearment” — which contained at least a rape joke or two — was deemed by Fox to be too controversial to air. I still cover my eyes in secondhand embarrassment and find myself gasping at some bits.
Still, I simply don’t find myself married to the notion that some topics are untouchable to comedy. I just always assumed that writers and comics have to find a way to make hot-topic issues easier to laugh at.
While tastefulness is a virtue when approaching touchy topics, being overly vigilant can be just as questionable as insensitivity. Of course we should strive to be considerate of others’ sensitivities. It’s important to understand the context of a joke and the audience hearing it. But comedy is also where you’re (mostly) allowed to let go of the reservations that plague you daily and have a laugh. Ruthlessly and indiscriminately maintaining political correctness to a fault may not be the most rewarding way to approach comedy. This standpoint stifles comedy and has infiltrated perceptions of shows such as “Family Guy.”
As liberal as my colleagues’ perspectives are, it’s made them much less liberal with their laughter. No, they don’t have a bad sense of humor (nor do I), but it’d be nice to be able to talk about the shows I watch without feeling overwhelming anxiety or shame about it.
“Family Guy” isn’t meaning to insensitively reinforce racist or politically incorrect notions — they’re pulling an Archie Bunker on you. Peter Griffin is an idiot, Brian is eye-rollingly pretentious, Quagmire is, well, we know what Quagmire is. They’re not your national heroes, nor are they meant to be. They’re parodies of awful people. Isn’t that almost every television show on air anyway? Only “Family Guy” heightens this and touches issues that are difficult to talk about, and it offends people. But, really, the show is just a silly, lighthearted recreation that isn’t meant to be taken as a serious ideological threat. Save that terror for Donald Trump.
Besides, there’s a lot more to “Family Guy” than the stuff that makes headlines.
The “Family Guy” team writes top-notch musical numbers complete with a full orchestra and “Singin’ in the Rain” choreography — albeit about AIDS or Down syndrome. Extended cutaways and obscure cultural references aren’t being done in any other cartoon universe to this degree. Of course, the merit of the too-long Conway Twitty cutaways are all the more obnoxious because no one has any idea why some mumbling country singer is suddenly performing.
It’s absolute nonsense, but a lot of it is actually really clever.
The show contains one of my all-time favorite jokes, when a notoriously pompous Brian says, “When I read my Henry David, I tend to be pretty Thoreau.” (Sue me.) If the writers are getting laughs out of both corny puns and a family vomit session, a sex-obsessed pervert’s misadventures and sophisticated tributes to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, I’m enviable of such a wide-ranging sense of humor.
Aside from that, the show actually does have emotional promise in fragments. There’s always that sweet little lesson at the end of episodes, such as when Quagmire learns to accept his father’s gender transition (“Quagmire’s Dad”). And the season eight bottle episode “Brian and Stewie” is as brilliantly poignant as it is hilarious. The episode shows that as villainous as the young critics around me judge them to be, the writers at “Family Guy” certainly are supremely talented — creator Seth MacFarlane and the writers are not just fratty, insensitive moneymakers getting a kick out of fart jokes and trashing celebrities.
No one’s asking you to laugh at every single joke. They’re simply asking you to indulge in idiocy for 30 minutes. It actually is a lot of fun when you stop overanalyzing and let fictional idiots be fictional idiots.
I shouldn’t have to be embarrassed to tell my Berkeley colleagues that I watch “Family Guy.” If you don’t like it, change the channel, but let me live.