Is it lucky there’s a family guy? It is a very common complaint in Family Guy criticism (and yes, I am cool enough to have read quite a lot of it, try the AV Club’s reviews) that it focuses too much on “cutaway” gags, the “manatee jokes” to use South Park’s satirical formulation – the “this is worse than the time when” – scenes. Any episode with a greater than usual focus on plot, and few cutaways, will always be praised by critics as a welcome change, something a bit less idiotic and random.
Well, speaking as someone with a Masters from Durham University… I disagree.
I watch Family Guy for the cutaway gags. This might lead you to immediately wonder why, then, the show shouldn’t just be a sketch show without any connecting characters or plot. The trouble is, we’ve seen that: it’s called Seth MacFarlane’s Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy, it’s on YouTube, and a lot of it is just not very funny. Family Guy’s characters do actually connect the random cutaways – they tend to fit in with the character being used in them – and there’s often a fair bit of humour to be found in the interlinking plot too. It’s also not as if the show never has any decent plot; this season’s premiere was a double-length murder mystery without a single cutaway, and worked very well, partly as a parody on that genre, while Brian’s reaction to killing another dog made for an intriguing narrative.
The show will also go to places that other shows, with the exception of the incorrigible South Park, which is on a much less watched channel, will not go – or will, but in a very half-arsed way. When The Simpsons did gay marriage, Homer started marrying gay couples for the money and Marge got upset Patty was lesbian; when Family Guy did it, Brian took the mayor of Quahog hostage at gunpoint. In a very bizarre Family Guy way it was somehow more credible, more real, than The Simpsons’ predictable take on it (and as some readers will recall,
In its recent seasons Family Guy has also become surprisingly subversive and self-referential. The key is, it just doesn’t seem to care any more. I once observed to my ex-flatmate that Seth MacFarlane has clearly given up on Family Guy and is trying to run it into the ground (after all, wouldn’t you be fed up of Fox demanding the next Surfin’ Bird moment by now?). This seems especially possible given that, as a conventional sitcom, American Dad! is many degrees better. At the time I meant my observation as a criticism, but now I’m not so sure. This new abandon has allowed the show to become a sarcastic observer on itself, and by extension popular culture – and sometimes even just the little awkwardnesses of life. An episode from a couple of weeks ago had an almost totally naturalistic, very awkward, conversation between Joe and Meg like you would see between many teenagers and their adult neighbour, though not without its humour as Joe asks what Lady Gaga is, asking in all earnestness if it’s a douche. One laughs, but my Cambridge-educated godmother and her husband once asked me with just as much earnestness what “STD” stood for because they’d seen it used a lot on the Tube.
I’m not for a moment claiming Family Guy is a great work of art. It isn’t. However, I am interested in how it has metamorphosed into the ironic director’s commentary on pop culture, television and society it has become. There is a beautiful moment at the start of one episode where the show opens with the Griffins on a boat. For a second or so nothing happens at all, then Peter “notices” the camera, says “Oh”, and starts speaking. Of course there’s no camera, this being an animation, and Peter isn’t an actor, he’s a drawing. But it works because it reminds us (well, those of us who like to overthink our television) that writing is so contrived: the dialogue Peter launches into is typical expositional speech that no one would ever say in real life to establish the scene, the sort of dialogue that many shows and films, many of far better artistic quality than Family Guy, use to explain.
In another new episode, we get a cutaway from Meg in which we instead see Peter, dressed as Meg; he ends the gag laughing at how he has stolen Meg’s cutaway. The scene comments on the criticism about cutaways, that the characters are interchangeable and so it might just as well be a sketch show. Of course, it’s all the funnier because of the family’s relentless vicitimising of Meg, which even crosses over into this self-referential commentary, which to some degree answers that criticism – it works more with some character context. Not to turn this into a list of favourite scenes, but a final recent example will indicate what I mean about the show’s arguably layered commentary on life: Peter, when arguing with his kids about the role of parents, states that he sets the rules, because “I’m the big… mamou around here”. His hesitation before saying “mamou” is done wonderfully, summing up both the ridiculous nature of much screenwriting, and the awkwardness that we all encounter when words don’t quite make it to our mind in time, or quite as we expect, in the midst of heated conversation.
This sort of self-reflexive moment, together with the show’s acerbic take on most of modern society, are what makes the show more subversive than it is given credit for. Even when pushing MacFarlane’s own liberal viewpoint it is mocking – sure, Brian gets the town to legalise pot using a catchy song-and-dance number, but he gets them to re-illegalise it with another for his own selfish ends (though not without a little bit of exposition on the history of cannabis laws that even I didn’t know that The Simpsons or similar shows would never dare to give away). It has changed a fair bit from its original, slightly more conventional and plot-oriented self, but it is a mistake to even try and view it now through that prism. Though it is a sitcom partly for lack of any other clear identifier, it’s really a compendium of absurdist and subversive humour and commentary filtered through recognisable characters who can serve as linking guides for the viewer. It’s for that reason that I’ve come to think that, if it resembles anything, it might even be that unimpeachable comedy god, Monty Python (after all, let’s not forget a point made, in fact, by Family Guy – a lot of Python outside of the iconic scenes was actually not that funny).
And even Monty Python didn’t dare spend four minutes in the middle of a show entirely on an impossibly escalating fight with a giant chicken.