Matt and Trey from South Park hate it. Sounds like sour grapes. Supposedly, the writing staff of The Simpsons aren’t thrilled with it, but Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane and Simpsons guru Matt Groening trade gags constantly. (Peter Griffin called a plagiarist in a Sideshow Bob episode, Stewie mowing down Homer in a direct riff on the Simpson‘s opening sequence.) Frankly, I think Family Guy is the funniest show on television.
There is something very charming and intelligent in the show’s nothing-is-sacred-everything’s-game attitude. Sure, the humor is crude, and I think creator Seth McFarlane sometimes thinks it’s the four-letter words drawing the laughs, but that’s not it. Family Guy spins an old formula used by Mel Brooks and the three-headed monster of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker (Airplane, The Naked Gun series) and amps it up a notch with its cutaway gags.
Yet the gags are much more thoughtful, sometimes poking a pop culture nerve or ripping on someone’s pet conspiracy theory, making even one who’s offended laugh. The show is unabashed in its liberal bent, yet doesn’t hesitate to make it look just as absurd as the conservatives it pokes fun at. Without conservatives, McFarlane posits, the world would be just like the Jetsons. On the downside, George and Jane Jetson would be on the fast track for a divorce. Fred Flinstone shows up in cameo from time to time, and with the safeties off, coming off as slightly to the right of Archie Bunker.
Speaking of Archie, the lovable old bigot finds a childish spiritual son in the show’s patriarch, Peter Griffin. Peter is a fat, mentally challenged alpha male constantly being outsmarted by his family, including dimwitted Chris. But while Peter Griffin shares a few too many traits with South Park‘s Eric Cartman (but the Cartman’s IQ), he also has a real heart beating in that chest.
Daughter Meg is the family punching bag, while Stewie makes Hannibal Lecter look like a coward. Or does until he evolves into an infant song and dance man. (Is he gay or isn’t he? Or is he…. confused?) Mother Lois is quite possibly the second hottest cartoon character ever. (Jessica Rabbit would be the hottest.) Rounding out the Griffin clan is Brian, the family’s atheist dog who gets in the garbage and occasionally suffers from worms, yet swills martinis, dates an eclectic array of women from the gorgeous and vapid Jillian to the lovely cougar Rita, and is a Yale dropout.
The show’s biggest comic gem is Batman‘s Adam West playing Mayor Adam West, a nearly-senile, paranoid version of the actor. It’s not clear how much of Mayor West is McFarlane’s writing and how much is West ad libbing, but West’s comic delivery puts William Shatner to shame in terms of self-parody.
Probably what makes Family Guy works so well for me is its attitude that nothing, not even Seth’s own mindset, is sacred. Anything goes on Family Guy, and that’s as it should be in a time where most Americans need to really lighten up.