When the 2009 Emmy broadcast this week came to “Outstanding Comedy Series,” I didn’t realize how close to the Apocalypse we had skated. The nominees included some stalwarts (30 Rock, The Office, Entourage) and an underdog favorite of mine (Flight of the Conchords) … and, like a boorish, over-served second cousin at your daughter’s wedding, Family Guy.
It’s not just enough to say I’m relieved 30 Rock won — no, indeed, I didn’t notice that Family Guy‘s presence was history in the making. Awful, embarrassing history that sullies the good name of television. Which is no easy feat, you know?
Here’s the problem: I did not realize until today that FG is the first animated show to be nominated in the high-prestige “Outstanding Comedy” category since The Flintstones in 1961. What? What? Not once in its 20-odd seasons has The Simpsons merited a nod, yet the crude and obvious Family Guy is what breaks the cartoon barrier? The Simpsons has had more influence on comedy and television than the past 10 Outstanding-est Comedies combined. (Namely 30 Rock , The Office, Everybody Loves Raymond , Arrested Development, Friends, Sex and the City, and Will & Grace.) Heck, Bart Simpson is on Time magazine’s “100 most influential people of the 20th Century” list.
When I saw my first Family Guy, I found it funny. Because it is. It’s loaded with funny, particularly the martini-swilling dog and Stewie, the evil baby. One of the early gags, about Stewie’s recollection of his birth, got a good laugh out of me. Still does. It’s brilliant.
I distinctly remember the moment I mentioned my Family Guy admiration to Tom Deja, a respected colleague whose taste I trust implicitly. Tom looked at me with a wounded “I expected more from you” expression.
“What?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” he promised. And he wasn’t the only one; several other comedic intellects I know shared his view. And after I watched long enough, I began to see what was eating them.
Family Guy is jam-packed with wacky vignettes and clever song lyrics and outrageous sight gags, each of which on their own might be funny as a fraternity skit or locker room prank. But when you shove them all together, it becomes the very outer limits of overkill, to the point where the laughs pile up in a big bland bowl of unsalted gruel. This show exhibits all the restraint of a sugared-up toddler on Christmas morning, and I don’t want to be the kind of parent who indulges children peeing on the Yule log. The exhibits for the prosecution:
* Excessive use of nutty “cutaway gags.” At any given moment, completely irrelevant to the context of the plot, a character will exclaim a non-sequitor like “This is worse than the time I hit Ringo Starr in the face with a pie!” or “Sheesh, this reminds of the time we enlisted in that traveling minstrel show!” That’s the cue for a 10-second segment where we see that very bit of zany mummery played out, and ha ha, what will those guys come up with next? Sadly, coming up with these kinds of asides is about as challenging a writing assignment as filling out Mad Libs. Try it yourself: “This reminds me of the time when [character] [verb]ed that [outrageous noun] with [celebrity reference]!” One at a time, these japes might be mildly amusing. But when they come in an endless stream like a horde of zombies, they make me want to claw my eyes.
* Jokes that go on too long. I think it’s some kind of post-modern reaction to the Simpsons era of jokes that just keep coming atcha. Family Guy (among other modern comedies, I’ve noticed) enjoys deliberately hanging around too long with a joke, milking the comedy of obnoxiousness — if such a thing can be called comedy. If you care to subject yourself to an example, here’s a barbershop quartet tune about vasectomies. Like most FG songs, it’s got lots of witty, ribald lyrics … and then once the joke is over, they stick around and beat you with the stick. Ha! Ha! They just don’t know when to quit — and that makes it funnier!
* Parodies that add nothing to the original joke. Just because a thing happened once, and it was funny or memorable, doesn’t mean it’s still funny and memorable when you act it out again. That’s high school logic, and the comedy goldmine of teen boys who spent the weekend watching the Austin Powers marathon and want to act out funny scenes on Monday in Government class. Remember that classic news blooper about the reporter who falls while stomping grapes? FG riffs on that — by re-creating the scene exactly, bringing nothing new to the joke, drawing no clever parallels to anything else, furthering the story not an inch. (Click here for a cruddy YouTube clip.) Many of FG’s jokes feel this way: Look what we remembered about the ’80s! Ho!
* Crudity that makes The Simpsons look like NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. See, Family Guy thrives on “prude bait” — edgy and raw jokes meant to outrage the puritans among us. A lot of shows do this, including, at times, The Simpsons. That’s because subversion is funny, and nothing is more subversive than smart and subtle naughtiness that tweaks establishment values. FG knows smart, but it turned out the lights and pretended it wasn’t home when subtle came knocking on its door. I’m not going to roll my eyes over babies nursing men’s nipples, or obvious and uncreative boob jokes, or weird allusions to teenager-dog bestiality, because I’ll just sound like an old man. “In my day, Bart Simpson rode skateboards naked and that was naughty enough for us, dag-blame it!” I don’t have to point this out, since groups like the Parents Television Council (gawd, I can’t believe I’m about to sympathize with them) already object strenuously to an episode where “Fox treated viewers to everything from an ‘eleven-way’ gay orgy to baby Stewie eating a bowl of cereal with horse sperm instead of milk.” Look, I know it’s fun to push the envelope … but sometimes what’s on the other side of that envelope is just a guy saying “Poopy! Poopy! Poopy!” into the microphone for 22 minutes straight. That looks to be the natural terminus for the path Family Guy is treading. And lucky us! We’ll all get to see that graceful decline to its inevitable conclusion, since Fox has contracted episodes through 2012.
Happy viewing, friends.