Friday, 23 March 2012

Family Guy - good or bad?

Family Guy is a popular but not hugely fashionable show. The first three seasons don't do much to dissuade one from the latter view. It does indeed feel like a Simpsons clone: the unlikeable characters seem to clash with the unironically "happy" and "sad"' family values moments, while the unremarkable animation and straightforward design work don't suggest this would become a show that would make brilliant use of the medium. The cut-away gags, at this point, seem to justify the amusing attack in the show in South Park.

In Series 4, however, the show found its voice. It embraced the fact that Peter had no heart of gold, but embodied everything vile about the American Everyman. It also embraced the fact that the cutaway gags were the show's main content, not added sprinkles. The best observation about Family Guy has come from Lawrence Miles, who notes here that the show differs from The Simpsons because it comes from the Warner Brothers/Merry Melodies school of animation, in which characters change identities within the same scene. We can see this everywhere in Family Guy. Brian fluctuates between being a dog and being an urbane but ineffectual liberal who hates Republicans but struggles to put up a fight against hem and can't get his novel published, Stewie fluctuates between being a baby and a snidey gay adult, Peter and Lois fluctuate between being a paradigm of normal parenthood and abusive, infanticidal monsters. The most ingenious use Family Guy makes of this effect is in the scenes between Brian and Quagmire, one of Peter's drinking buddies. Normally, Quagmire ranges from being the voice of the oversexed American male to being a sex offender, but when Brian asks why he doesn't seem to care for his company, Quagmire snaps and delivers an eloquent and heartfelt attack on him and everything he represents.

"You pretend you're this deep guy who loves women for their souls when all you do is date bimbos- yeah, I date women for their bodies but at least I'm honest about it: I don't buy them a copy of Catcher in the Rye and then lecture them with some seventh-grade interpretation how of Holden Caulfield was some profound intellectual - he wasn't, he was a spoilt brat! and that's why you like him so much: he's you! God you're pretentious And you delude yourself by thinking you're some great writer even though you're terrible [...] And I think what I hate most about you is your textbook liberal agenda - how we should 'legalise pot, man', how big business is crushing the underclass, how homelessness is the biggest tragedy in America - well, what have you done to help? I work down at the soup kitchen, Brian: never seen you down there. You wanna help - grab a ladle! And by the way, driving a Prius doesn't make you Jesus Christ - oh, wait, you don't believe in Jesus Christ, or any religion for that matter, because 'religion is for idiots' - well who the hell are you to talk down to anyone? You failed college twice, which isn't nearly as bad as your failure as a father: how's that son of yours you never see? But you know what? I could forgive all of that - all of it - if you weren't such a BORE...!

The incongruity of Quagmire taking this stance isn't a flaw here: it's a sublime stroke that makes the scene feel different to anything else on television. We can forgive the misinterpretion of Salinger: this is a lovely example of the poetry of comedy, with the viewer's expectations played with, and sincere convictions (the writers are clearly talking from experience here, painting a thoroughly convincing portrayal of a pseudo-liberal) defamiliarised for us so that we can experience them afresh.

The cutaway gags have become a way of exploring comedy as an artform in itself. Consider three gag here: after Lois derides someone as a "dumb beaver," we cut to a comedy beaver protesting he didn't say anything. A straightforward gag, but when the beaver is granted another line later on. Peter remarks "he was in our house earlier." In a relatively early episode, Peter is rescued from a fall by Spider-Man, who tells him "Everybody gets one" before web-slinging away. When the same thing happens to one of Peter's friends in a later season, Spider-Man proclaims "Everybody gets one. Tell them, Peter,"' "Apparently everybody gets one," confirms Peter vaguely. For a final example, another episode sees Peter declaring that Meg needs "serious parenting" and heading off to get his Bill Cosby sweater. Lois and Meg continue their conversation, but the moment of the expected payoff comes and goes. Eventually Peter appears and says "I can't find the sweater." All three of these moments are poetic in the sense that Roman Jakobson defined it: the entire aesthetic is turned back upon itself. Jakobson noted that only in poetry is language able to reflect back upon, play with and subvert itself, but it seems to me that the astonishing (yet critically under-explored) effects that pure comedy can create are comparable.

The magnificent chicken-fight scenes and those with Conway Twitty take this style to a crescendo. In the former, a giant chicken with nothing to do with the episode's plot attacks Peter mid-sentence, and the two engage in a fistfght that minutely recreates every action movie cliche, until Peter defeats his opponent and carries on with this week's story. The Conway Twitty gag consists of Peter wondering how he can create a distraction following an awkward moment. He turns to camera: "Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Conway Twitty..." we then cut to genuine live-action footage of Conway Twitty singing, which just won't stop. Like Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes, or many of Stewart Lee's funniest routines, it raises audacity to an artform. The viewer's belief that the programme-makers can't let this footage go on for much longer, and their delight in seeing how much further they are willing to push it, is not merely tested but played with, until the aesthetic sense is tingling.

This "step back and savour the comedy" technique can also be used for something more affecting. In one episode, in which Jesus has teamed up with Peter, they pay a visit to George W Bush. In a nod to Marshall McLuhan's cameo in Annie Hall, Jesus denounces him in public and denies any sanctioning of his actions in Iraq, and Peter turns to camera and says "Wouldn't it be great if life were like this?" Only comedy can create this glorious sense of the author turning to one side and giving a flash of insight in a single quick sentence, like a Shakespearean fool.

Peter, Stewie and Brian are useful because they can be put into any situation the writers wish to satirise: Peter can represent the worst kind of pro-lifers and the pro-choice voice of reason within the same episode. Take this beautiful exchange between Peter and Brian about 9-11:

"So Saddam Hussein did this?"
"The Iraqi army?"
"Some guys from Iraq?"
"that one lady who visited Iraq that one time?"
"Peter, Iraq had nothing to do with this, it was a bunch of Saudi Arabians, Lebanese and Egyptians financed by a Saudi Arabian guy, living in Afghanistan and sheltered by Pakistanis."
"So you're saying we need to invade Iran?"

It's a similar combination of populist entertainment and sophisticated social, political and historical commentary to that which the Elizabethan stage was able to achieve. This is cultural response at its best.

Family Guy still has a couple of lessons to learn, though. Firstly, it's not clear if the production team themselves have realised that the strength of the show lies in the fact that it is now a sketch-show rather than a sitcom, closer to The Onion than The Simpsons. The least successful episodes of recent seasons have been those that resembled episodes from the earlier days, with plots and character motivations that are not ridiculed or subverted. Listening to cast and crew on the behind-the-scenes feature for the largely cutaway-free episode And Then There Were None, one gets the impression that they think the decision to kill off some minor supporting characters is significant. The show needs to embrace the fact that it isn't character-based.

Secondly, there's the question of black humour. The inescapable truth about this is that if something's funny, there's no point pretending it isn't, even if it is based around an appalling subject. The "You've got Aids" song is funny: there's no way round that. If something's genuinely funny, then there must be something sincere, something moving, something worth having at its kernel. Because the AIDs song makes one laugh, it surely must be beautiful in some way, giving us a bearable way of seeing something painful. (Compare it with this brilliant piece in The Onion:,2836/
Yes, the subject is troubling, but by the time we've finished laughing don't we feel oddly moved by it, as if we have seen a painful experience that will affect all of us in a fresh and yet truthful way?) Black humour fails when the writers are more interested in shocking than in being funny, hence the worst bits of Family Guy (the vile song about Teri Schiavo, the gag about Humphrey Bogart's cancer in a deleted scene that sadly made it to the DVD, the line about a woman with cervical cancer being "just a boob on a leg", the relentlessly one-note untempered ableism in the treatment of Joe, the sneer about how when it comes to kids with cerebral palsy "you never see an old one" ), in which, just for a second, our aesthetic sense is not being stimulated or challenged, and we find ourselves sitting there disliking the writers. Admittedly, everyone has their own threshold (I love South Park at its most offensive, but can't bear to watch the one about Christopher Reeve: although I'm quite looking forward to the Asperger's episode despite having the condition myself), so the odd gag you genuinely wish they hadn't done is the price to pay for black comedy, but one still hopes the Family Guy team will allow their intelligence rather than willfullness to guide them.

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