Seth McFarlane today is a bit like Jay Leno was in his prime: ubiquitous, obviously hugely popular, and absolutely scoffed at and despised by the chattering classes. Certainly, McFarlane has become elevated in the last two decades into that rare class of creators like Quentin Tarantino who are just as recognizable on camera as off, something scum-dwelling writers like myself no doubt all aspire to.
I don't know that it's fair to say that McFarlane sold out or even bought his own hype. If anything, I think he is genuinely delighted to be an entertainer, with his love of old-fashioned musicals and vaudeville, and a huge grin perpetually plastered to his face that doesn't seem to have an ounce of guile oiling it. His Achilles' heel is, in my estimation, the same as another famous creative, Charles Schulz, who it was said found it utterly impossible to say "No" to anyone who offered him a tie-in, endorsement, or spin-off of any type.
But McFarlane's status as a titan of animation is a later development that we'll be addressing in quite a few future "Re-Animated" installments. In the late '90s, he was just a cartoonist who had done a few one-offs about a man and his talking dog for Cartoon Network. That show, " & ," evolved considerably into "Family Guy," which debuted on Fox after the Super Bowl in 1999. "Family Guy" indelibly changed the face of adult cartoons - whether for good or for ill, we'll take a look at a bit now.
At the time of its premiere, and still to this day, "Family Guy" was largely derided as a "Simpsons" clone. That's partly par for the course, as basically any adult animated series is going to be compared to "The Simpsons," but in the case of "Family Guy" there were also some major cosmetic similarities. The main character, Peter, is a big fat dummy, a terrible father and husband, who can sometimes be goaded into showing some heart. There are three kids: a son, a daughter, and a baby. And Lois, the mother and wife, is longsuffering, a dutiful housewife whose common sense makes her not much more than a stick-in-the-mud.
Beyond that, though, "Family Guy" and "The Simpsons" are so different in tone they might as well come from different planets. "The Simpsons" was witty, sometimes with jokes only the intelligentsia could understand, and, at its best, always had genuine heart and sympathy for its characters. "Family Guy" was (and is) a joke machine, with all the advantages and drawbacks that implies. Possessed of an acerbic, nihilistic sensibility, it also gleefully crawled in the gutter, at times even more so than "South Park," whose creators have made no secret of their disdain for their erstwhile peer.
"Family Guy" is crass, almost constantly racist, sexist, homophobic, and demonstrates just about every kind of un-PC attitude imaginable. Its target demographic (as the show is often quick to point out) are mindless frat thugs. Many "Family Guy" episodes have been pulled from the air or even shelved due to content, and its creators are open about their glee in pushing every button imaginable.
Did that last paragraph seem unkind? Perhaps it was, but it's also true. Which is not to say that I dislike "Family Guy," although I liked it a lot better in its early years. The flip side of it being a joke machine was that the show was just goddamned laugh-out-loud hilarious. If I could boil down "Family Guy's" essence to a single thesis it would be something like, "Anything, as long as it's funny."
This led to the show's signature device, cutaways, often to outlandish situations that made no sense in the context of the episode, but were funny for a one-liner. The cutaways are just the tip of the iceberg, though. "Family Guy" has never ceased to be a laboratory for comedy, experimenting with every imaginable variation of jokes and entertainment. They routinely break the fourth wall, cut into the animated show with live-action clips, defy the laws of science and nature even within the world, all in pursuit of the laugh. There's something pure and admirable about that. And for a solid three years, "Family Guy" was putting out some of the funniest shit on television.
Then it got cancelled. In 2002, ratings were not up to snuff for Fox to continue the series. If that was the end of the story, this blog might be far more laudatory, a lament for a show cut down in its prime but remembered fondly by those of a certain age, like "The Critic" or "Duckman."
But the saga of "Family Guy" is far from over...
We'll be delving into this more (much more) in the coming weeks, but in 2001, Cartoon Network began executing a plan for a late-night block of comedy for stoners and college students called adult swim. (Yes, I know, it's stylized with brackets, but I can't use brackets on my blog thanks to the html Nazis.) adult swim had something of a surprise success by repurposing old Hanna-Barbera cartoons which Cartoon Network owned the rights to as absurd, post-modernist shows.
The block was a success, but adult swim just didn't have enough programming, so they quickly began picking up other failed adult-oriented cartoons from other networks - most of which we'll be covering in future installments - to keep their audiences amused. They purchased "Family Guy" for a song, and it instantly became the most popular show on adult swim and turned the weird, experimental sub-channel into a powerhouse practically overnight.
Re-runs of "Family Guy" in the middle of the night were getting better ratings than some network shows. And the "Family Guy" renaissance on adult swim led to huge DVD sales. It seemed that there had always been an audience for the show, it had just never discovered it at 8:30 pm on Fox.
And so, for the first time in television history, a cancelled show...was uncancelled.
(If you know of an earlier example, please let me know in the comments. I know, at a minimum, it was an extraordinarily unusual occurrence at the time.)
Saying this today almost seems like no big deal. Between Netflix, network jumps, crowdfunding, and all the powers of fandom on the internet, series being saved from oblivion seems to happen all the time. "Arrested Development" came back. So did "Community." "Jericho" got an abbreviated extra season. "The Mindy Project." I could keep going.
But in the dark days, the long long ago, of 2005, networks were pretty much in charge and did whatever the hell they wanted and never resurrected a cancelled show. "Family Guy" opened up those floodgates. At the time, demanding that a show be brought back on the air was about as likely as an incompetent, racist reality show host being nominated by a major political party for president.
For a triumphant year or two, "Family Guy" came back. And it ushered in that grand era of McFarlane ubiquity in animation I alluded to at the beginning of this post. Of course, all good things and all that. "Family Guy's" weak points began to show, and it wasn't much longer before a straw broke the camel's back, and more or less everyone agreed that "Family Guy" had become a soulless, clattering, misanthropic vehicle for jokes without a hint of a story to be found. Of course, "Family Guy" had always been that way, but now the sheen's worn off, a bevy of imitators have surpassed or at a minimum diluted the brand of the original.
"Family Guy" joking about "prom night dumpster babies" was pretty edgy in 2005. But now when I watch a blistering "Rick and Morty" dialogue about when and how it's okay to use the word "retarded," I can't help but think that the zeitgeist has passed "Family Guy" behind. And maybe that's okay. I'll keep watching it. But, then, in case you couldn't tell from this series, I can't not watch cartoons.
"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov
Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."
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