Matt Belinkie: I have a sense that anybody over the age of 30 now views Family Guy with either complete apathy or outright disdain. But it’s also true that when it was new, Family Guy was absolutely cutting edge humor. We LOVED it. I ordered bootleg DVDs from eBay and invited everyone over to watch them, and we rolled on the floor when Peter and that giant chicken fought to the death.
So what happened? Did Family Guy change, did WE change, or did the world change?
Ryan Sheely: I was definitely among the people who came over and watched the bootleg DVDs in your apartment, and I even kept watching the new episodes for a while after it came back from cancellation. I then kind of fell off for reasons I don’t quite remember (I think there were a run of episodes that just weren’t that funny), and then I think the South Park episode in which Family Guy is written by manatees who write jokes by pushing “idea balls” into a “joke combine” was the final nail in the coffin.
That episode was so good and so damning because it crystalized what had become unsatisfying about Family Guy, and then once the formula was exposed, it was tough to unsee.
I think that South Park is an interesting comparative case here actually. I still keep up on South Park pretty regularly, and still find it pretty consistently great. There are ways in which a lot of the recent seasons are some of my favorites of the whole two decade run, in part because I think it has shifted and changed over time, in terms of what they make fun of and how they structure the episodes and seasons. The last few seasons have actually been a lot more serialized, pulling together into a much more cohesive arc with a bigger payoff than previous seasons.
So I definitely think that we changed, in terms of what we wanted to see in our comedies. I have less of a clear sense of whether Family Guy has changed as it has gone on, getting more rigidly formulaic.
Matt Belinkie: That “Cartoon Wars” episode, which is now 10 years old, was a pretty scathing takedown.
“I am NOTHING like Family Guy!” Cartman fumes. “When I make jokes, they are inherent to a story! Deep, situational and emotional jokes based on what is relevant and has a POINT! Not just one interchangeable joke after another!”
Mark Lee: I can actually pinpoint the moment I soured on Family Guy: the episode where Peter joins the New England Patriots. I think he scored a touchdown, then led a crowd in a veeerrrrrry long song/dance production of “Shipoopi” from The Music Man. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Music Man, but this felt way too self-indulgent. If memory serves correctly, it was around then that I also realized that the writing had gotten a lot less cerebral and had lost the high-brow reference points in favor of nonsensical gags, toilet humor, gratuitous violence, and throwaway pop culture references.
Richard Rosenbaum: I feel like Family Guy stopped being good reeeeeally early on. At least it stopped being consistently good. I’m talking like season two. What occurred to me when I really started disliking it, after having liked it, is that it feels like the writers have absolutely no empathy for the characters, or even particularly like them. They’re joke-delivery devices rather than people. Contrast that with Simpsons, where even the minor characters feel like they have an inner life and someone kind of looking out for them. When Simpsons episodes are bad, that’s the reason why – the characters stop feeling like someone “out there” cares about them. Every Family Guy episode feels like that.
Belinkie: So guys, I just did some field research and watched the second-to-last episode of the most recent season. First off, it’s remarkably similar to the way I remember it. It hasn’t evolved at all, like South Park has.
Although on the other hand, some of the one-note characters have been homogenized. Quagmire didn’t say anything sexual at all. Stewie doesn’t appear to have any aspirations for world domination or killing Lois.
Sheely: So did you like it?
Belinkie: I didn’t like it but I didn’t hate it. Plotwise, it was remarkably bland. Chris gets elected Homecoming King, to everyone’s surprise. Brian and Stewie find out that the other kids just felt sorry for him, and they try to tell him. But Chris has become insufferably smug and doesn’t believe them. He realizes they were right at the homecoming dance, and the three of them have a “I’m glad I have family like you” moment straight out of Full House. It’s a plot that any 80s sitcom could have done.
But of course, with Family Guy the plot is always a clothesline to hang the jokes on. And some of the jokes are good! But Ryan, here’s the interesting thing. That South Park criticism doesn’t really hold true in this episode. Family Guy’s signature cutaways were never just a random collection of nouns – they usually have a specific pop culture target. For instance, in this episode they have a cutaway about the Bourne movie where they couldn’t get Matt Damon. Two CIA guys are conferring in a dark command center. “We can’t get in touch with Bourne,” one of them reports. “Who can we get?” the other asks grimly. “The sixth billed actor from The Avengers. The one who sort of looks like a young Popeye.” I chuckled.
Now that may not be particularly funny, but it’s not manatees and idea balls. It’s really like Robot Chicken, a one or two joke pop culture sketch comedy bit.
One of my favorites involved Kurt Cobain if he had quit drugs. He comes offstage. “Great show Kurt!” “Thanks. Oh, have you met my wife, Courtney Love?” “Who?” the guy says. Courtney Love frowns. That’s it.
Sheely: So here’s my question- why have the sitcom family setup at all if it is just a general pop culture joke delivery mechanism?
Did the pop culture jokes used to a bit more connected to character in some way, and they’ve just gotten more disconnected? Or has there always been that disjuncture?
Belinkie: Family Guy, for better or worse, breaks the “rule” that jokes have to arise out of character and plot. Family Guy will just cut away to Stewie telling campfire stories to One Direction.
Ben Adams: I think there’s more to the manatee-tank criticism than the “jokes must arise from the story” argument.
It’s not just that Family Guy is fond of cutaway gags that seem random and unconnected to the plot – I think the South Park criticism is also that the cutaway gags are internally random, with references that are seemingly unconnected to each other. It would be quite different if Family Guy cutaways were like mini Amy Schumer sketches, with a clear satirical target.
Belinkie: Here’s the thing about Family Guy: can we condemn its randomness without also wishing away some of its legitimately classic bits? Remember Peter’s barbershop quartet singing “You Got AIDS?” Or the gem about the salad you get at every single pizza place? What possible show could that have existed in, if not a Family Guy random cutaway?
So maybe the problem with Family Guy isn’t the cutaways, which can be really funny. Maybe it’s what Richard said earlier in this conversation: it’s that the writers don’t seem to have any affection or interest in their characters. The plots just seem like joyless excuses to get to the next cutaway.
And you know what’s interesting about that? I remember when Family Guy first came out it got dinged for being a Simpsons clone. Big dumb husband, long-suffering wife, dumb son, bright but underappreciated daughter. We could overlook that because the cutaways made it fresh and unpredictable. But the longer the show goes on, the more it’s clear that we don’t really want to hang out with any of these folks, except for maybe Brian and Stewie.
Jordan Stokes: Early on, Family Guy had one thing going for it: audacity. And it really WAS audacious, at first — so audacious that it got cancelled. But as time went on, they didn’t find new frontiers in audacity. Rather, they kept on hitting jokes that are just a little too blue or too random for The Simpsons. At a certain point, it’s no longer audacious! If you’re hosting the Oscars and anchoring a movie franchise, what you are doing IS THE MAINSTREAM. Which means you no longer get any points for audacity, not unless you find a way to push things further.
This doesn’t mean that Family Guy is always going to be terrible — the chicken fight, for instance, was hilarious because it went on for so long and got so brutal, but it still holds up because it’s an inventively choreographed fight scene. The gag has good bones.
Same deal with the recurring gag of “Let’s have a whole episode where Brian and Stewie do one of the old Bob Hope/Bing Crosby ‘Road’ movies.” This no longer feels as bafflingly wonderful as it did the first time out — but because the ‘Road’ formula is basically strong (and perhaps because, as Matt suggests, Brian and Stewie are the strongest characters), these episodes still hold up even after they stop being audacious.
And the random cutaways have to sink or swim in the quality of the jokes. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for “this reminds me of that time I tried Axe body spray for sick cats.” But that idea would still work if it was in a Saturday Night Live sketch, or in a stand-up act, or if it arose organically out of a plot where Peter gets a new job designing products for the Axe corporation. Randomness alone — the audacity of randomness, that is — is no longer enough to carry a weak joke over the top.
John Perich: The nadir of Family Guy’s random grab-bag humor, for me, was a tangential gag where Peter refers to “that time he slayed a dragon.” Cut to: Peter ringing a doorbell. “Are you Cybill Shepherd?” What follows is a long and interestingly choreographed fight scene.
Stokes: So the joke was, that she’s… a dragon somehow? I’m legitimately confused. If it had been Benedict Cumberbatch this would have been hilarious, right?
This seems to fail on all sorts of levels. If it’s meant to be an insult to Cybill Shepherd, it fails: “you dragon!” doesn’t work as an insult in the same way as “you troll!” or even “you goblin!”
Belinkie: Family Guy’s sense of humor seems to have aged right along with Seth MacFarlane. A lot of the punchlines are 70s and 80s cultural references. So the longer the show goes on, the more firmly it cements itself as a dad show, not something the kids would understand.
Peter Fenzel: And Archer has taken over a lot of that mindspace now, if you ask me, as the dated cultural references are more grounded in character and tend to mean something for the plot more often. As in, if we want, we can either laugh at the reference or laugh at the character making the reference.
Stokes: Yeah, Archer is an interesting point of comparison. On Family Guy, when Petet mentions Cybill Shepherd, there’s no sense that — for him — there is anything funny about this. Whereas Archer can get mileage out of MUCH more obscure references by having the characters care that they are making a reference. A lot of this is down to the voice actors — the demands that Archer puts on its cast are pretty remarkable, the fact that they routinely hit those marks, doubly so.
Belinkie: For the record, I like American Dad! quite a bit. I think Stan is a lot more interesting than Peter. He can be just as self-centered, but he’s smart and competent instead of being dumb and infantile. And one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on TV is when Stan’s boss (voiced by Patrick Stewart) comes into the kitchen after hooking up with Hailey and says, “Stan, do you have any Gatorade? I seem to have left my electrolytes in your daughter.” Which is classic Seth MacFarlane edginess, but the fact that it’s Patrick Stewart saying it makes it just sublime.
Belinkie: I remember it putting a lot more time into clever plots that go unexpected places. I think if you take away Family Guy’s cutaway crutch, then you force yourself to get more humor out of the characters and situations.
Belinkie: There was one episode of American Dad! where it turns out all the family’s vacation had actually been simulations piped into their heads while they sat in giant vats, so Stan could get more work done. Francine then insists they go on a real vacation, but is constantly suspicious that they’re still just “in the goo.” At the end of the second act she hurls herself off the cruise ship screaming “I’m in the goooooooo…” To which Stan cries, “You’re not in the goo! And you have our room key!” I’m convinced this is where Christopher Nolan got the idea for Inception.
Stokes: Is that necessarily *better* though? Like, some comics are gag comics, some are storytellers. I get why some people prefer storytelling, but there are some amazing gag comics out there. Mitch Hedberg (of sainted memory), never told a story that I recall. We say that random cutaways are laziness, but in a way they force you to work harder as a writer, because you don’t have plot and character to fall back on. When they DO work, we should respect that. This doesn’t mean that they work on Family Guy anymore, though — and when they don’t work, it can get pretty unwatchable pretty fast.