Hello and welcome to In Too Deep, where I over-analyse a certain section of pop culture.
Now last time I wrote about why I don’t think that The Simpsons is funny any more. Long story short it’s become a childish cartoon where the characters are only in service for the sake of a joke, with any prior characterisation being thrown out the window in the scene. So in this follow-up to that I’m going to look at one of my favourite animated sitcoms, Family Guy, and work out why it has gotten funnier over times.
So lets start with the biggest complaint I tend to hear when I say I like the show: That it’s racist/sexist/anti-Semitic/anti-religious/anti-Republican etc. Basically that it’s against everything and offends people that it does that. Now a majority of the time I don’t see it because I’m often on Seth MacFarlane’s side (he and I do share similar views on certain issues), but at the same time I don’t always agree with what he says. And I do find some of his jabs a bit offensive at times. But does that mean I don’t find it funny? Well… no. I find a lot of the jokes funny even if they are offensive. Now there’s a few reasons for this. Firstly since pretty much everything is fair game it never feels like the show is targeting one thing in particular and constantly beating on that. Everything gets equally insulted. But more than that I don’t think the show is offensive because it’s clearly too much of a joke. There’s no malice behind the jokes they make on the show. They’re not trying to convince people that their way is right and anyone that disagrees with wrong (most of the time at least). They make the joke because they think it’s funny. So whilst they do say offensive things I doubt there’s any real desire to be mean behind it. No it’s just saying things they think is funny and whether you agree that it’s funny or not. But that’s damning with faint praise, so what else can I say about defence of the show?
Well the second complaint I hear is that none of these characters are remotely likeable. They’re all rather cruel and mean. Which is true… and kinda the point why I enjoy the show so much. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing, but many of the greatest British sitcoms feature unlikeable characters being punished for their misgivings (compared to American sitcoms, that tend to have funny people getting into wacky hi-jinks). If anything the more unlikeable they are the funnier the show gets. It is, in essence, a show where bad people hurt each other and get hurt themselves for being bad people. That is the joke in a way. You can’t sympathise with them but you’re not really meant to at this point. You’re not meant to feel sorry for them or be on their side. You’re meant to laugh at them for how horrible they are. Now again this is personal taste, you might prefer wacky sitcom hi-jinks to cruel punishment. But since I find the suffering of those that deserve to suffer funny I likewise find the show funny as well.
The third complaint that pops up is ‘it’s too random’ or ‘they’re are too many cutaways’. Again a somewhat valid criticism since they’ve grown over the years and have started to overwhelm the show a bit. But again, this is something I find funny since it really is a homage to the Monty Python way of showcasing humour. It’s random, yes, but the joke is in its randomness. When done well the cutaways work because it goes straight to the visual punchline with no need for complicated set-up. The create the set-up â€œThis is the X since the time I Yâ€ and then show the visual joke that completes it. They don’t need to create a story to make the joke, they just present the joke in brief and move on. But what about those jokes that tend to go on for far too long and stop being funny? Well there’s a fine line in that where the line of ‘funny’ and ‘unfunny’ blurs. For reasons I’m not quite sure of myself (but probably have something to do with the absurdity of the situation we’re watching) a joke can start off funny, lose its humour when it goes on for too long, but then revolve back round to funny again when it really shouldn’t be. Now sometimes Family Guy nails it (the frog trying to be thrown out of the window springs to mind) sometimes it bombs spectacularly (playing a music video for about 3 minutes and presenting that as the joke). But on the whole Family Guy’s random absurdity works because it is random absurdity. It’s done purely for the sake of the joke and nothing more. Which in a way makes it the complete opposite of The Simpsons.
So I don’t find it offensive (or at least don’t think it’s malicious), enjoy the horrible characters and the off-brand humour. Is there anything else I like about it? Well the last big thing is that, quite simply, it does more challenging and interesting stuff then most TV shows out there. Now my favourite episodes more often then not tend to be the Brian/Stewie team-ups that involve some sort of science-fiction device. Whether it’s time travel or alternate universes or cloning whenever they do episodes about science-fiction they often come out to being the most interesting. In fact I still think the Road to the Pilot episode has a brilliant climax dealing with the consequences of going back in time to stop yourself from doing whatever you were going to do. So there’s that aspect of it. But another, often overlooked aspect, is how it’s one of the few shows on TV really taking advantage of the animated medium. Oh sure last time I complained how The Simpsons was doing that, but that’s because The Simpsons was a sitcom first and an animated show second. Family Guy was also something that put animation at the front and centre and had the characters revolve around it. As much as people complain about the chicken fight sketches at least they’re often visually interesting. They play around with what can be done in animation and showcase just how creatively imaginative they can get. Likewise they do use the animation format as a way of making jokes and scenes that would otherwise never be able to be made. So as much as the critics criticizes it at least they’re doing something interesting in terms of animating things not usually seen on TV.
So there you have it. My defence of Family Guy on the basis that there really isn’t else like it on TV. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Till next time.