In the third episode of Family Guy’s twelfth season, “Quagmire’s Quagmire,” eponymous character Glenn Quagmire meets Sonya, the woman of his dreams: someone as perverse and predatory as himself. For a while they enjoy a life of debauched sexual chemistry, but soon the depravity becomes too much even for Quagmire: After Sonya demands a grueling multiple-times-a-day sex regimen and strongarms him into having sex with his transgender father, she kidnaps and sexually tortures him off-camera, leaving Peter, Joe and Cleveland to find him and restore equilibrium to the program. Just before the next episode inevitably wipes the slate clean, Quagmire morosely remarks, “My dad’s pregnant.” Cut to credits.
I remember what my reaction was upon hearing this joke for the first time. It wasn’t outrage or titillation, and it certainly wasn’t amusement. It was utter indifference. Family Guy had somehow come to the point where something as obscene as a transgender incest joke was not only not shocking or transgressive but passé and predictable. My expectations for the program became nonexistent; when I did seldom tune in, it was only out of habit.
It is perhaps not surprising that Family Guy has ended up at this place, funneling vulgar taboos through a veneer of pop culture pastiche that is witless and self-indulgent. Some would say that this has always been the program’s modus operandi, but I would (and will) argue that this is not the case. Something in the show’s DNA has slowly but deeply and irretrievably altered since it was resurrected from cancellation over a decade ago, and considering that millions of people still watch Family Guy every Sunday, it may be worth examining what that something is and why it happened.
There’s an early episode of Family Guy that begins with Peter and his family watching an episode of Little House on the Prairie. The gag is that the father in the program keeps putting obstacles in front of his blind daughter for her to run into, like footstools and frying pans, and then gently chides her for not knowing her way around the house. The joke culminates when he guides her to a ladder leading out the window instead of to her bunk. We then cut to Peter, who muses, “Geez, life was a lot tougher back then.”
This seems like a simple gag, and it is, but it’s important to take a moment to analyze its construction. The father’s whimsical cruelty towards his daughter is the windup that leads to the joke (Peter’s clueless assessment of the program), not the joke itself. Certainly some of the humor comes from the mean spirited nature of the buildup, the “naughtiness” of such a situation, but that mean spiritedness, crucially, is not the payoff of the joke.
Compare this to a joke from a more recent episode. Peter has a Chinese drycleaner recommended to him, but when he comes to the street where it’s supposed to be he finds two drycleaners right next to each other. To figure out which one is the Chinese business, he looks at the masthead of each one: one of them reads “Spencer’s Cleaners,” the other “Super Cowboy USA Hot Dog Rocket Ship American Cleaners Number One.” “That’s probably it,” Peter remarks of the latter, and walks in. Naturally, as is the stereotype of Asian business owners, the elderly proprietor is a greedy, truculent hobgoblin.
The setup and the punchline of this joke are one and the same: “Chinese businesses sometimes utilize imperfect English and often have difficult owners.” It is a lazy observation tinged in bigotry, such a tired gag that it’s remarkable more for its datedness than its potential to offend. If this premise were to occur in an earlier Family Guy episode it’s not hard to imagine Peter walking in and finding the business with the ridiculous name to be run by bumbling hicks or charlatans, whereas “Spencer’s” would be owned by a perfectly fair-weather Asian man in his 30s. The joke may not have shed all of its problematic elements in this way, but at least it would be unexpected, subverting the viewer’s basest assumptions. As it is, simple, untampered racism is both premise and reward.
There is a world of difference between using cruel humor as a means to an end and that cruelty being an end in and of itself. It is the line between a lampoon and an insult, a satire or simple bullying. In the nearly twenty years since its debut, Family Guy has changed from plucky upstart to brawny gatekeeper. There is no target too easy for this show to shoot at, no joke worth stretching for if a simpler one is already close at hand. Two or three laughs per episode can’t be considered significant when any given program will have dozens of one-liners, puns and parodies that don’t land. As allegorical shorthand for a certain lifestyle philosophy of cynicism and juvenilia, Family Guy is a roaring success. As comedy, it is valueless. And the tragedy is that this value was not stolen from it but given up willingly, over years of increasing stakes in its success and a decreasing desire to earn its place.
In order to fairly assess Family Guy and its impact one must admit, however grudgingly, that the show has a thorough and at times masterful understanding of the traditions of American comedy. From Groucho Marx to Harold Ramis, Joan Rivers to Judy Garland, Huckleberry Hound to Space Ghost Coast to Coast, there are few wells that the show does not drink from. Walter Murphy, bandleader of Family Guy’s 40-piece orchestra, has gone on record as being astonished by show creator Seth McFarlane’s grasp of pop history, and this love of the entertainment arts bleeds through unmistakably even during the most dire episodes. When its trademark hybridization of camp, grotesquery and absurdism is running on all cylinders, the results can be a thing of beauty: consider when the show pivots to a nearly unabridged reenactment of The Music Man’s “Shipoopi” during an unrelated episode about football, or the wistful soft-shoe routine performed by a brigade of aborted Prom Night fetuses, or the first Giant Chicken Fight that absolutely derails the episode with a fistfight between Peter and a man in a mascot suit that’s positively bloated with early ‘90s blockbuster action clichés and all the more joyfully ridiculous for it. Family Guy at its best is total fucking nonsense, an animated laissez-faire variety show hosted by Gene Kelly, staffed by potheads and scripted by a man with the world’s most impeccable VHS collection.
And indeed, Family Guy’s most infamous feature–the cutaway gags, or “Manatee Jokes” as satirized by South Park, frequently pop culture lampoons or non sequiturs that are jammed into the episode with no regard to the show’s overall plot–are neither as rare on television nor egregious for this show in particular as the program’s detractors would have you believe. The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show was structured in a not-dissimilar way, with a core story that fumbled along at a snail’s pace and which was always keen to move out of the way for whatever pun or parody happened to grace the writer’s fancy at the time of production. This style is rarely seen in narrative comedy, but it isn’t unheard of, and is perfectly in keeping with Family Guy’s reverence for its comedic forbears.
This paradox is what Family Guy excels at: structurally formulaic and obsessed with vintage, while also being chaotic and disinterested in conventional narrative. In its best moments, it walks a tightrope that other programs wouldn’t even dream of and crosses it as though it were the easiest thing in the world.
Then there are its other moments.
The first time I noticed there was something deeply amiss with Family Guy’s modern execution was when I saw the Aquaman rape joke. A woman is being sexually assaulted on a beach, with Aquaman a few feet away in the water. The joke is ostensibly making fun of Aquaman’s powers and ineptitude as a superhero: he haplessly tosses a starfish at the rapist, calls a few fish over to splash around, etc. The joke culminates with the rape victim screaming “He’s hurting me!” and Aquaman tersely replying “Yeah, well maybe you shouldn’t have led him on.”
Family Guy had always been risqué, and its jokes always carried the potential to offend, but before this gag it had never been quite so…mean, and pointlessly so at that. Regardless of the inherent absurdity of the scenario, or whether or not Aquaman is the focus of ridicule and not the rape victim (both of which are debatable), there is simply nothing comedic about watching someone endure a prolonged sexual assault. At the time this joke felt like an outlier, a comedic misfire not to be repeated, but soon it seemed to become the new model for Family Guy’s M.O. going forward.
Like many other “edgy” comedies, Family Guy always chooses to hide behind the excuse that it considers no boundaries sacred and picks on everyone equally. But this can’t explain the litany of vicious insults directed at Joe for his being handicapped that occur in nearly every episode, or why daughter Meg started enduring ceaseless humiliation from the entire cast due to her simple crime of being homely and boring. It doesn’t explain the joke about Stewie (the baby) getting raped in a closet during a yard sale, or the joke about Quagmire saying he’ll find his adopted daughter again (who he has spent the entirety of the episode bonding with) when she turns 18.
Some people will say these jokes are “satire.” Fine: What are they satires of? Generic, “wholesome” sitcom fare? Family Guy was already doing that; that is the premise of the show. Are they satires of the whole notion of PTSD or victim psychology? I don’t think even this show’s writers are quite that ghoulish. I think they’re not satires at all. I think they’re cheap, flat gags that fill time but mostly exist for their own sake, jokes that exist to prove that you can put something reprehensible on television and that doing so is worth it for its own sake. I have yet to see this argument convincingly articulated.
My pet theory is that the show’s new, nastier direction was at least in part due to its syndication on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. A mix of robust DVD sales and phenomenal ratings on its new program block led to the show’s resuscitation on FOX after being cancelled by that network; and this happened at a time when a) Family Guy’s continued success was by no means a guaranteed prospect, and b)Adult Swim’s own slate was moving away from bouncy stoner shows and towards a darker kind of psychedelia, from Metalocalypse’s muted hues and perpetual ultraviolence to Squidbillies’ surreal sadism and nearly apocalyptic portrayal of an impoverished, kaleidoscopic Georgia landscape. It doesn’t seem farfetched that the producers might want to make adjustments to Family Guy’s tone in order for it to fit in better with the rest of Adult Swim’s programming, should it have become the show’s permanent home.
Whatever the whys and wherefores, the changes stuck, and we’re now living in an era where a primetime show on a core network can feature a minutes-long skit about its central character trying to silently scoop the festooned organs of a beached whale back inside of its carcass with a forklift. Oh brave new world, etc. etc.
It’s not as though they didn’t try to right the ship at certain points. After the show lost its original spark of novelty but before its writers became utterly complacent, there was a mid-period of Family Guy in which the program became restless and eager to shake things up. This time from around 2007 to 2010 produced the most creatively risky episodes in the show’s history. “Road to the Multiverse,” a yarn in which Stewie and Brian traipse through parallel universes in an attempt to return to their own, showcases some of the most sophisticated animation the show has ever attempted and set a template for time travel/parallel reality exploration stories with the duo that remain some of the most entertaining episodes of the show’s latter years. This era also produced “And Then There Were Fewer,” a double episode in the style of Clue wherein, for the first time, cutaway gags were abandoned entirely and several supporting characters were killed off and stayed dead permanently.
Special note must also be given to “Brian & Stewie,” an episode in which the titular characters become trapped in a bank vault over the weekend. Not only are there no cutaway gags, but it is also the first episode without any soundtrack whatsoever, and in fact Brian and Stewie are the only two characters that appear during the episode’s whole runtime. There are still jokes and gross-out gags but these are largely sidelined for dialogues exploring the duo’s resentments and insecurities. Considering McFarlane himself voices both characters, the episode comes across like a man talking to himself in an empty room, working out his purpose in life all by himself yet simultaneously broadcasting his deepest fears in front of a millionfold audience. Minimal and intimate, nothing like it happened on Family Guy before or since, and I can think of few television episodes much like it in any genre (Breaking Bad’s celebrated “Fly” one-off is the only thing that comes to mind).
Yet even amongst these flashes of ingenuity, mediocrity still ruled the day. Whether it was an episode about Brian practicing MRA tactics to date Cheryl Tiegs, a parody of Spies Like Us guest-starring the audibly bored Chevy Chase and Dan Akroyd reprising their roles from that film, or its bombardment of intermittently amusing but far-too-long Star Wars reenactments, Family Guy had lost its magic touch for pop culture pastiche. Bogged down with guest stars and homages irrelevant to anyone under 35, it doubled down on its vulgarity to fill the gaps. And when the writers eventually gave up their aforementioned experiments entirely, this formula became all that was left: tired pop culture references, strained obscenity, and a dwindling audience compelled to keep watching out of nothing but Stockholm Syndrome.
The latest season of Family Guy includes an episode which attempts to comment on the police brutality crisis sweeping the American consciousness. This sentence may come across as redundant, but it’s a fucking disaster. Peter shoots Cleveland Jr., the son of his black neighbor Cleveland, thinking he was attempting to break into the house. Cleveland labels Peter a racist, and he ends up in jail for a separate but related crime. Somehow his defense uses this as an excuse to exonerate him for shooting Cleveland Jr. (?) by portraying the boy in court as a violent thug, to which Peter objects. The episode ends with a clean slate, as always, insisting that Cleveland overreacted to Peter shooting his son (!) but also positing that racial stereotyping is never acceptable.
What a toothless, mewling thing Family Guy has become: a show that built its reputation on “edge” that doesn’t even have the gumption to take a concrete stance on the racist slaughter of black Americans for fear of alienating its viewers. Charmless, meaningless and untethered from any innate sense of responsibility, Family Guy has become the Andrew Dice Clay of its era: very occasionally showing flashes of brilliance that are suffocated by laziness and entitlement, an inexplicably popular totem that has become less culturally relevant than yesterday’s Gawker gossip item.
Only things that were once good can have the chance to age badly; Family Guy modeled itself after entertainment icons that folded up and faded away with their era. And if this is indeed the era of Family Guy, it’s hard to fathom who will mourn its passing.
Christopher M. Jones once wrote a comic about dogs people liked a bunch. He ostensibly does other things too. You should follow him on Twitter.