I think Family Guy is a sometimes-funny show. It’s been an important cultural touchstone throughout the Western world for well over seven years, a time period that includes two cancellations and DVD sales that powered the show back onto the ever-fickle Fox Network’s prime time schedule. It’s hard to ignore Stewie, Brian and Peter as the comedic emblems of this era.
All that being said, Family Guy’s probably one of the least original shows on television (ignoring The Simpsons references). Often it’s crass, tasteless, superficial and sight-gag heavy. Unlike so many animated “adult-themed” shows, Family Guy’s cultural resonance seems confined to pop culture references and interchangeable jokes – a thoroughly post-modern take on what constitutes The Funny. South Park, in its infamous Cartoon Wars episodes two years ago, made this point clearly: Family Guy’s detractors rightly point out that it’s a trashy show, sure, but its humour and appeal seems to come from audiences not investing very much of themselves into it. It’s basically the TV version of M&M’s – tasty at first, a little sickening after awhile, not good for you and very superficial in its appeal.
But how has a show so clearly and unapologetic in its trashy ways gained such a huge audience in less than three years? After a very sluggish start back in 1999, the show’s gained traction largely through DVD sales. While the animation has improved slightly over the years, nothing about Family Guy has evolved in the slightest since the show’s debut. The character development is weak, the story lines inconsequential, and the humour is decidedly mixed in result. For every laugh-out-loud moment of Peter Griffin insanity, there’s distinctly unfunny moments that border on creepy (the Marge Simpson being attacked by Quagmire on screen clip comes to mind). More to the point, the show seems to have reached a threshold in terms of “quality” – this year’s season has been mediocre, at best, so far.
The answer to this show’s popularity, I’m daring to argue, isn’t because people’s cultural tastes have declined considerably (although that may be true). It isn’t because, in an era of time compression, people aren’t interested in getting into shows with depth and narrative.
It’s got everything to do with the America of George W. Bush.
As so much of how we understand culture is based on private theories, this is one theory that probably doesn’t make sense at first. But there’s some merit to it.
In the America of Bush II, two very distinct trends have emerged when it comes to how we consume culture, specifically on television.
Firstly, the culture of attack. Television culture throughout America has gotten much rougher under the reign of Bush. While Dubya isn’t himself to blame for this, it’s undeniable that from cable news shows to ‘personality-driven’ shows like Bill O’Reilly’s The O’Reilly Factor to torture-friendly shows like 24, the general morbidity and darkness of the Bush Era have filtered down into our culture. The nasty, cut-throat humour Family Guy embodies – the Nazi-McCain arc of last week’s episode is one example – seems part of this general theme. But unlike Bill O’Reilly or 24, the roots of Family Guy as satire – or at least, an attempt at satire – is nasty, aggressive and mean-spirited in a particularly unsettling way. It’s sending a message that brutal equals funny, that it’s perfectly acceptable to say and do sophomoric, stupid things just because it’s aggressive. It’s humour in spite of itself.
It’s funny for a time of acute frustration with institutions, business and even the Presidency. In a world where no one seems accountable – even Bush – and the anger of a populace is impossible to channel, saying brutal things that would be unthinkable on comedies even ten years ago seems enabled, in part, by a much angrier, attacking culture.
But there’s another element to it: the Culture Of The Disconnected.
Family Guy, like America throughout these brutal eight years, has become a much more disconnected culture. Shared cultural narratives form the heart of any nation; just like books, movies or LPs, sharing an appreciation of cultural artifacts is an important part of any national debate. Family Guy, in this respect, brings people together. But not in the way you’d think.
In a time where finding humour in our daily experiences is impossible due to the sheer gravity of the crimes Bush and his cronies have done, Family Guy takes a variety of cultural references that have nothing to do with moving a plot forward. It’s funny in bite-sized chunks that are familiar, but not innovative. It’s grabbing useful cultural bits and putting them together into a superficial package. In the Bush Era, smart political satire that directly takes on the administration’s craven nature is impossible – there’s too much bad, too much of the time. Finding the funny in a sea of bad – Iraq, the financial crisis, Katrina, et al – is hard and deeply polarizing, particularly in a country like America that seems frozen into highly divided, deeply partisan bickering. It’s easier and lazier to take pop cultural reference points and pass them off as original and funny.
At its heart, Family Guy reflects America in this deeply troubled time: creatively bankrupt, extremely harsh and, dare I say it, lazy. It’s humour for the nihilistic, the disconnected, the superficially engaged.