American People Accidentally Enjoy Family Guy

Friday, 14 November 2008 — 3:36pm | Animation, Film, Television

The funniest thing I’ve read all week: “Indian People Accidentally Enjoy Roadside Romeo.” For those of you who don’t know, Roadside Romeo is a Disney-distributed CG production by Yash Raj Films that I have heard described as a Bollywood Lady and the Tramp; you can watch the trailer here, if you dare. It’s also a runaway hit. Amid Amidi proposes that all animation be removed from the nation of India, and I think he’s only half joking:

We’ll try the plan for two years. Don’t worry, good ideas like this take time. When the fine people of India feel they’re good and ready to respect the animation art form, I will personally send over a print of One Froggy Evening. If you enjoy that more than you did Roadside Romeo, we’ll send you Dumbo the following month. If you still enjoy Roadside Romeo, we’ll take more drastic measures like defrosting Walt and sending him over to help you see the light. Either way you’ll finally be able to see that your enthusiasm for Roadside Romeo was one huge terrible fucking mistake. Don’t feel too bad, even animation-savvy countries make mistakes sometimes.

It’s a satirical piece (“Additionally, any DVDs containing animation can be dumped in useless neighboring countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh”), and all the more effective because the plan would garner my full support. Honestly, sometimes I think we need drastic measures like this right here in North America—my fellow Canadians, that includes you—and I can’t think of a better remedial syllabus.

Let’s set Roadside Romeo aside for a moment, since I haven’t seen it. When India pulls off its equivalent of Spirited Away, which earned its way to becoming the biggest domestic success in the history of Japanese cinema by also being one of the best animated features in recent memory, then we’ll talk. Of far greater concern is the link in the last sentence I quoted. The Cleveland Show? This is like milking a diseased cow. Is Seth MacFarlane out of his giggity mind?

I make it no secret that I consider Family Guy a televised disgrace, a cancer upon the storied art form of Walt Disney, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Hayao Miyazaki, Nick Park, Brad Bird, and everyone else who belongs on my abbreviated list. And that’s to speak only of its offence to animation, never mind comedy (or, for that matter, Americana). I’m not sure when it became fashionable to equate “adult” animation with crude construction and crass immaturity; I grew up believing that adults were people who grew up. Maybe this is the same audience that never grew out of the adolescent sensibility of feeling too cool for cartoons.

The Family Guy franchise bothers me considerably more than the usual decadent pop-culture rot because of how it has managed to swindle so many otherwise intelligent people, possibly including Seth MacFarlane himself, into believing that it is in any way clever. It’s dumb-as-bricks entertainment that purports to be smarter than the average bear. It’s like a Dan Brown novel (which makes the ineptitude of Family Guy‘s onetime jab at The Da Vinci Code all the more ironic), though it casts a loftier net. At least trashy bestsellers fill the coffers of publishers who can then make risky gambles on unknown authors. (There was a rumour going around that Doubleday’s recent layoffs happened because they expected the next Brown novel to show up on this year’s ledger, though it was denied.) Family Guy begets more Family Guy, be it in the isomorphic stupid-to-make-you-feel-smart sitcom family of American Dad or the selfsame nucleus in The Cleveland Show. It has no excuse, and I will celebrate when it dies.

One often forgets that Warner Bros. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons attempted spades of pop-culture “references” (as distinguished from parody). Shorts like Hollywood Steps Out have declined into trivial irrelevance for all but the most serious collectors, and I say that as someone who recognizes classic film stars like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson; still, at least the drawings back then were actual caricatures. And one would have to admit that 8-Ball Bunny gets a little stale by the third time Humphrey Bogart’s character from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre shows up to pester Bugs.

True classics like One Froggy Evening will prevail as they always have, as will the best of the parodies—your What’s Opera, Doc?, your Carrotblanca. And there’s no question that there’s a lot of great animation being produced today, be it in North America, India, or anywhere else. The problem is the undiscerning audience that never sees any of it, and is stuck with deplorable examples of what animation can do. Unfortunately, that audience comprises a great many people. Some of them may even be your friends. I fully support their systematic inoculation, and if we have to haul Uncle Walt out of the freezer, so be it.

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2 rejoinders to “American People Accidentally Enjoy Family Guy

  1. I don’t deny that I’ve been known to watch Family Guy and laugh. But it’s by and large an exercise in autofellatio: since the show is little more than veiled reference to pop culture, it’s like a drinking game where you down a jigger every time you can name the [book?|movie|show|viral video|news topic] they reference, and then turn to your friends and muse about how Family Guy is only funny if you’re smart.

    But I think it’s little unwarranted to take a phenomenon like Family Guy (to wit: 22 minutes of crude humor and scattershot esoterica in hopes of getting laughs) and compare it to a fabulous movie like Spirited Away, implying that the comparison is valid because they are both technically forms of animation. What’s more, at least MacFarlane seems to be aware of the limited scope and appeal of his creation (as opposed to a shmuck like Dan Brown).

    Though I agree with you about this new Cleveland spinoff–trying to ride a head horse another few miles, I think.

    Saturday, 15 November 2008 at 7:51pm

  2. I don’t deny the show’s drinking-game appeal, or that to even mention it in the same breath as anything by Miyazaki is so unfair as to be absurd. But that’s precisely what I want to highlight here: the absurdity of what passes for animation in the public consciousness of TV audiences. This is why I am reluctant to make excuses for entertainment in any medium on the basis that it’s neither trying very hard nor aspiring to much.

    While Family Guy‘s audience is fairly diverse, I reckon that much of its popularity still comes from the shock value that cartoons—cartoons!—could possibly be for audiences other than kids. (Apparently this is news.) It plays to a common and serious adolescent anxiety about feeling grown-up.

    If you look at Seth McFarlane’s early work, like this 1995 student film and the pilot of Larry & Steve (both of which contain the seeds of Family Guy, including what McFarlane does well—voice acting, albeit within a limited range, and careful selection of music), it’s easy to draw the conclusion that the studio powers that be asked for something crasser and less animated. That’s not a trend I can support.

    With few exceptions, TV isn’t where to look for good animation nowadays, and my bigger problem with Family Guy is the humour. MacFarlane may be aware that his show is often quite dumb, but I don’t think he knows how much. It certainly puts on a pretence of being sharp.

    Sunday, 16 November 2008 at 10:47am

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