Call me sick, call me twisted, but I’m delighted about the resurrection of Fox’s nasty but extremely funny Family Guy. This animated comedy, about a family so dysfunctional they make The Simpsons look like Father Knows Best, premiered to much fanfare in 1999, was cancelled a couple of years later, and now–after a cult following that grew astonishingly after the show’s DVD release found an unexpectedly large audience–returns to Fox with new episodes in May. This is really rather a remarkable situation; as far as I know the first time that a cancelled show has been revived years after its demise.
Creator Seth MacFarlane also has a completely new cartoon sitcom, American Dad, that debuts Sunday after the Super Bowl. Alas, it isn’t very good. But more about that in a minute, and don’t let the disappointing new show put you off the excellent revived one. Speaking of the Super Bowl, even the envelope-pushing Family Guy has been affected by the FCC’s post-Wardrobe Malfunction mood, and although I’m a big fan of the show, I don’t regard this as a disaster. Fox is now airing repeats Sunday nights, and a couple of weeks ago the Family Guy dad’s bare backside was electronically blurred, which it wasn’t when the episode was originally broadcast five years ago. The network also has changed the title of its Best Damn Sports Show Period to Best Darn Super Bowl Road Show Period.
All that’s fine with me, even though I’m offended by neither the nudity of middle-aged cartoon characters nor mild expletives. But I also don’t think that taking the notion of public decency (slightly) more seriously means that the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse are about to gallop over freedom of speech, and I tend to be sympathetic to lowbrow vulgarity. Not everyone is, of course. “People either loved Family Guy or hated it and wanted it dead,” MacFarlane said at a Fox news conference last month.
Among those who hated it were MacFarlane’s old prep-school headmaster, who launched a bizarre one-man letter-writing campaign against the show during its first season. That didn’t kill it, but Sept. 11 almost did: MacFarlane was supposed to be on the doomed Boston-to-Los Angeles flight, but his itinerary mistakenly listed the 7:45 A.M. departure time as 8:15 A.M., so he missed it. Even so, he remains a true disbeliever in the war on terror (“I think it’s all been a huge overreaction”) and this may be the problem with his leaden American Dad, a kind of anti-Incredibles about a bungling midlevel CIA-operative–the comedy sinks under the weight of MacFarlane’s political agenda.
With the apolitical but pop-culture-obsessed Family Guy, the standard complaint is that it’s derivative, which seems rather like accusing Bugs Bunny of not acting like a real rabbit. Family Guy takes the concept of derivative and turns it into something sublime. Just in the first season, the show had blink-and-you’ll-miss-them gags about All in the Family, Joanie Loves Chachi, One Day at a Time, CHiPs, Star Trek, Calvin Klein perfume commercials, Speed Racer, Happy Days, Kool-Aid commercials, and, as they used to say on Rocky and Bullwinkle, (to pile on the pop culture references myself) a host of others.
By the third season, perhaps because the writers by then assumed that no one was watching, the inside jokes became especially edgy. In the “Special People’s Games” episode, for instance, dad Peter Griffin surreptitiously helped his paraplegic policeman neighbor, officer Joe Swanson, win a wheelchair race by dissolving steroids in a glass of water. “Gee, Peter, this water tastes kind of funny,” said straight-arrow Joe. “You mean like hah-hah Jerry Seinfeld funny?” asked Peter. “Or Elaine Boosler-God-bless-her-she’s-trying-funny?”
Brian, the Griffin family’s deadpan and world-weary talking dog, seems inspired by Mr. Peabody on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle show, although MacFarlane said not when I asked about it just after Family Guy began its original run; at the time, he was 25, the youngest executive producer in TV history, and quite a wiseacre. “There’s a Sherman and Peabody episode on Family Guy coming up,” he said. Really? “No, but we’ll send you five bucks if we do it. Will that cover it?”
Stewie, the family’s erudite, evil baby reminded me at first of Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons, but MacFarlane, who himself voices baby Stewie, Brian the dog and dad Peter, said he actually based Stewie’s condescending tone on Rex Harrison’s in My Fair Lady: “Sideshow Bob sounds a lot like Frasier, in case you haven’t noticed.”
The Family Guy family watches a lot of TV, even more so than The Simpsons with their glassy-eyed devotion to Itchy and Scratchy. So Peter is quick to figure out that the “Go _Uck Yourself” clue on Wheel of Fortune means “Go Tuck Yourself In.” And when he gets angry, his TV references approach turbo-mode. “I hate these guys even more than the last few years of MASH, when Alan Alda got control of the camera,” he yells. “It’s worse than… than copyright infringement,” he exclaims later, his face morphing furiously into Mickey Mouse’s head.
But even in a cartoon pandering to that raunch-loving young male demographic, there are limits, and some were set before last year’s Super Bowl. In an early episode, everyone in Family Guy found fun new activities after the town’s TV reception stopped working. The script originally included this dialogue: “I’m gonna go masturbate!” announced one character, joyfully stepping out onto a sunny street. “I’ll go with you!” exclaimed a second. That bit was cut, much to the disappointment of its writers. After all, noted MacFarlane, somewhat sulkily, “we never told you how to do it.”
MacFarlane and his writers are remarkably tuned in to the smarm of contemporary speech. In one episode, Peter is annoyed when his teenaged son begins hero-worshiping policeman Joe Swanson, who lives next door. “He killed a man!” says the son in awe. “Well, technically he was killed by the state,” says Dudley Doright-esque Officer Joe, with unctuous fake modesty. “But–funny story!–he did curse my name just before the injection.”
Nor do they miss any opportunity to twist a cliché, and the effect can be brilliantly surreal. “When you guys fall, does it make a sound?” a hallucinating Peter, lost in the forest, asks a tree. “Are you kidding?” the tree answers. “Scott fell last week and he hasn’t shut up about it since.”
–Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.