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.
A possible alternate opinion: Family Guy became the wrong kind of audacious.
I believe that audacity/edgy humor seems to exist at the spectrum. At one end you have observations that are “cutting edge” because they haven’t entered pop culture yet (think taking a pro-gay rights stand in the mid-90s). At the middle of the spectrum you have mainstream ideas (taking a pro-gay rights stand in the mid-2010s) and at the other end of the spectrum you have observations and ideas that have left the mainstream and now seem regressive (taking an anti-gay rights stand in the mid-2010s.) The biggest criticism of Family Guy I tend to hear is that it’s the wrong kind of audacious – it too often makes jokes that are racist/sexist/bigoted in other ways. Given that time and progress march on, it’s possible for a show to remain unchanged for 20 years but for public response to pull a complete 180 because the culture around it changes, which might be part of Family Guy’s problem.
When I used to tutor teenagers (2-4 years ago), I did the usual ice breaker, getting to know you conversations. I could pretty much guarantee that boys 12-17 would include Family Guy or South Park amongst their favorite shoes. I haven’t seen Family Guy or South Park in many, many years, but both shows makes me think of Cards Against Humanity (I do not like CAH), humor that calls itself “edgy” and tries to escape criticism with its label of edgy but is really just making fun of gays, women, minorities, the disabled. That appeals at that age (I’m a lady and I loved South Park as teenager) because you want to be cool and edgy, and it feels like those PC jerks are just trying to ruin your fun.
With South Park, I think the “doesn’t the system suck” libertarian tone goes a long way. When I was a teenager, I identified with the everyone else is stupid vibe because I also thought everyone else was stupid. As I got older, I realized that, actually everyone else isn’t stupid. Did I change or did South Park change? Both, I expect. I can tell you the episode where South Park lost me. It’s the one where the guys rescue a veal calf and a bunch of hijinks ensue. I forget the details, but the episode ends with the guys needing to eat meat because they were growing vaginas. Ha. That’s some really edgy comedy. There’s nothing brave about picking on vegetarians.
I remember finding Family Guy funny at one point. It must have been the second or third season. It always felt like a bunch of random jokes to me. Some were hilarious in their randomness, but others fell flat. I think it appeals to teenagers for similar reasons as South Park– it brands itself as edgy, aren’t those PC people lame.
Family Guy first aired in 1999, while The Simpsons was in Season 10 and South Park was just barely starting to challenge Fox’s animated cultural supremacy.
This thing is an artifact of the Clinton years; a pre-9/11, pre-Internet moment crystallized for almost two decades now. That makes it a really interesting touch point for discussion because, for one thing, the goalposts for offensiveness have shifted tremendously from the Iraq War period to the ascendancy of Donald Trump. And for another because the value of randomness is absolutely different in the world as designed by Apple, Youtube and Vine. Family Guy, like Robot Chicken, SNL, the Daily Show and late-night talk shows was uniquely structured towards a gag format that actually adapted pretty well to being consumed in thirty-second clips online.
But nowadays they’re also not the only game in town. In fact, the value of producing a weekly animated sitcom for this kind of humor might not really be worth it when any kid with a cellphone and a sense of humor can get the same response. And the kid doesn’t need to get paid, and the kid’ll probably do marketing work for you just for the exposure and the kid is legion beyond measure.
This also leaves Family Guy in a weird position because its very structure is a callback to a time when Matt Groening was the only guy to beat. Considering that The Simpsons has had cancellation rumors haunting it for years it’s bizarre that Family Guy is still on the air. Especially when the characters could have easily transitioned off of television and into a purely internet space where they could star in sketches and prop up what’s probably a small but reliable merchandising empire by this point.
Family Guy lost me the first time it decided to splice an ENTIRE CONWAY TWITTY SONG into the episode. Then they thought it was such a good idea they decided they’d KEEP DOING IT …
I prefer South Park and American Dad. That is, I still watch both shows as they continue to stay quality. Simpsons I don’t regret watching before leaving it altogether as they lost their comic mojo years ago but Family Guy is the worst. Cutaways were fun at first but they’ve become annoying. Who puts up with the same jokes after 14 seasons?! FG needs to end now, I’m sorry I ever watched it in the first place.
From my point of view it is that the writers simply either run out of good (funny) ideas or get lazy or both… They have deadlines to meet and come hell or high water (or stupid, not funny crap) an episode must go to air. Simple as that. Sometimes they strike comedy gold and make me laugh my ass off and other times leave me scratching my head sadly thinking that was really stupid…
The same thing has happened with every great show that has stayed on the air for years… some of it is classic, some not so good and some real crap.
I think the writers themselves must go to bed at night on occasion knowing they’ve turned in some pretty low grade garbage. It happens to the best. Love the great work and know that it can’t all be gold. It just can’t and that’s the way it is.
Here is some insight also from head writer Alec Sulkin: https://www.maxim.com/entertainment/family-guy-not-funny-2017-4
I take particular note of his comment that creator Seth MacFarlane has been absent alot from the writing room due to his busy schedule. Seth is clearly the genius behind the show and with him absent things would certainly suffer, and have. Sad, but Seth is doing great things elsewhere. He can’t be everywhere at once.
South park and American Dad are all I can stand out of all four, the other two being Simpsons and Family guy. The last two shows lost their appeal a long time ago. At least SP has grown as a series with its timeless topical humour. That and not picking sides while portraying then recent events in a more satirical light. AD has stories that are interesting as they are hilarious. More depth to the characters too, I’d like to add.
The one joke I can’t understand from Family Guy is actually the Cybil Shepard dragon joke. Does anyone know what it’s from or means?