The Simpsons Guy had Everything… Except Laughs

On September 28th, 2014: the great crossover happened. The Simpsons and Family Guy, together for the first time ever on TV. Wow, what a historic night… or it would have been say fifteen years ago. However, as the fist five minutes of the crossover point out – these things do not happen out of any sort of creative drive or desire to combine comic genius. The Simpsons Guy is exactly what any cynic might dismiss it as – a cash grab, a marketing ploy to make long wayward viewers (like myself) sit down for one more episode. Yet I do not want to give a victory to the cynical masses out there, so I will defend the episode as best I can. Let me say upfront that it has been years since I have cared to watch a new episode of either The Simpsons or Family Guy.

Actually, the plot of the Simpsons Guy is rather clever… once the episode gets to it. Peter Griffin’s beloved Pawtucket Pat is found out to be nothing more than a shameless ripoff of Duff: the long-established Simpsons brand of beer. As a result, Duff sues Pawtucket Pat, with Peter Griffin stuck in Springfield acting as his company’s defense. As any audience member might guess, this problem leads to many comparisons between not just beer brands, but the two shows in general. It is a fitting scenario for Family Guy to make fun of itself, while still making the case for its own identity. The differing joke styles are stated quite clearly in the episode, perhaps there is no greater stark difference than in this clip:

The problem, plot-wise anyway, is that the episode takes too long to set up this conflict. There’s an unneeded opening fiasco of Peter becoming a cartoonist (it actually isn’t bad, but nor is it great) and then it feels that the episode drags when the two families are meeting for the first time. Both of this diversions do not allow the main conflict to generate the full humor it was capable of. Instead, the lawsuit feels very rushed. The slow plot and ’empty’ spaces of the episode draw attention to the main problem the Simpsons Guy has: it has no soul.

A lot of the episode plays off nostalgia, rather than trying to do anything interesting.
A lot of the episode plays off nostalgia, rather than trying to do anything interesting.

No soul means that there is no organic drive. Neither the Griffins nor the Simpsons feel like real families anymore. Instead they all feel like actors, lining up to do the same routines regardless of whether or not there is any comedy left in them. When both shows were at their peak, they contained scripts that made the audience able to relate to the characters. Homer was a well-meaning nincompoop, Peter was… well very similar. Marge and Lois were family first stay-at-home women who each had private hopes and dreams. Meg and Chris were troubled teens. Bart and Lisa were the polar opposite of preteen development. In short: they were written like real people.

The moment where the episode begins to do something clever... occurs more than halfway into the episode.
The moment where the episode begins to do something clever… occurs more than halfway into the episode.

It is sadly funny that cynics will dismiss this episode, because it was definitely written by them. There was a recent article, published by Salon, on the need to remove irony and snark from their dominant places in our culture. The Simpsons Guy is material proof that cynicism has gone too far. While a fan of both shows (at least in their heyday), neither The Simpsons or Family Guy belong on the air any longer, especially with far superior animated comedies like Bob’s Burgers and Rick and Morty coming into their own.

Peter and Homer make a smug joke about needing to carry Bob, or else he'll wind up like Cleveland. Maybe Cleveland crashed because his show was more of the same? Ever consider that one, network execs?
Peter and Homer make a smug joke about needing to carry Bob, or else he’ll wind up like Cleveland. Maybe Cleveland crashed because his show was more of the same? Ever consider that one, network execs?

Was the Simpsons Guy worth watching… yes. If nothing else, it serves as a fond remembrance of what these shows used to be – while at the same time, proving that all good things do indeed come to an end.

Brace yourselves, even ending the series cannot save Futurama from being dragged back to life for another crossover. Coming this November.
Brace yourselves, even ending the series cannot save Futurama from being dragged back to life for another crossover. Coming this November.

Comedy Resurrection: Family Guy

When I was in high school (back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth), I remember one show achieving an incredible cult status. Family Guy was a short-lived comedy series which had aired a couple years before and been subsequently cancelled. This was before the days of the Netflix instant queue so whoever had the DVD sets of the three seasons (Family Guy‘s initial run) was Johnny Cool. There were fifty-one episodes of exceptional quality. The show was like a newer version of The Simpsons in terms of a family-oriented comedy but with a splash of (at the time) refreshing randomness in the humor. It had characters you could care about, stories that were interesting and jokes that made you laugh. In short, everything needed to be a great comedy. And there were 51 episodes so it hardly pulled a Firefly (only 13) before being cancelled.

The holy grail of television comedy between 1999-2004.
The holy grail of television comedy between 1999-2004.

Still, what if it came back? That was the hope on everyone’s mind. The first three seasons had been so good, imagine if there was more? Thanks to tremendous DVD sales (very similar to Austin Powers) Fox granted our request and, in 2005, Family Guy returned to television. Since then one hundred and fifty new episodes have appeared and Family Guy is still going strong, ready to begin its twelfth season this fall. But is it any good?

Short answer: no. Blunt answer: it really sucks. Commercial success is no guarantee of quality, simply look at The Simpsons‘ current twenty-four season run to validate that statement. So the question then becomes: what (in my opinion) went wrong? I was a big fan of Family Guy‘s original run, why do I hate the new episodes so much? Happy to elaborate.

In general, this sums up a good portion of my criticism.
In general, this sums up a good portion of my criticism.

Let’s start with the characters. As highlighted above, they did not return to television as they left it. Stewie in particular underwent a drastic change in the style of his humor. Gone were all his inventions, all his over-the-top, nowhere-near-remotely-plausible plans to take over the world. Instead of those jokes, we got gay jokes… which was great since there was no other source of homosexual humor present in Family Guy (besides Jasper, Bruce, Rupert, Herbert, Mr. Weed, etc). Point being, a unique source of jokes was substituted for cruder humor. None of these characters really portray any sophistication either, pretty much every one of them revolves around the concept of “ha ha ha, he likes guys – and he is a guy! That’s so gay and funny!”  So why did Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy‘s creator) decide that we needed yet another character dedicated to that style of humor, who knows? Maybe he was too busy with things like American Dad!, The Cleveland Show, and Ted to care.

This persona inspired nearly all the quotes that made Stewie Griffin a famous persona among teenagers. Still it was quickly changed when Family Guy returned.
This persona inspired nearly all the quotes that made Stewie Griffin a famous persona among teenagers. Still it was quickly changed when Family Guy returned.

But more about MacFarlane’s role (or lack thereof) in a moment. Remember those side characters I named. Just a list of five names, did you know all of them? I believe side characters to be an essential tool to increase longevity, especially in the case of comedies. When solid side characters (with depth and personality) are developed, it allows for a few episodes to shift their focus away from the main family, thus helping to prolong the freshness of the main cast. Let me use shows like the Simpsons and South Park for examples. Both developed their town ensembles ridiculously well. In this way, say South Park can devote an entire episode to Mr. Garrison while giving the boys only a cameo appearance. The episode is still funny since Mr. Garrison is more than a cut-out character.

This episode from The Simpsons made fun of the idea of spin-offs while at the same time devoting an entire episode to some of their stronger side characters.
This episode from The Simpsons, entitled “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase”, made fun of the idea of spin-offs while at the same time devoting an entire episode to some of their stronger side characters.

In my opinion, Family Guy never had the wealth of side comedy enjoyed by the other two shows. Aside from Peter’s immediate neighbors and in-laws, there isn’t much personality to be found in the town of Quahog. And when there is enough personality to salvage maybe an episode or two away from the Griffins, MacFarlane and company decided to take this route instead:

The Cleveland Show (2009-2013) was a poor decision on the part of Fox to further divide MacFarlane's jokes and comical talent. These characters should migrate back into Family Guy.
The Cleveland Show (2009-2013) was a poor decision on the part of Fox to further divide MacFarlane’s jokes and comical talent. These characters should migrate back into Family Guy.

When side character strength is a problem, don’t move the stronger ones out of town. This ties into another point: MacFarlane is a funny guy. Love him or hate him, it’s hard to argue with the amount of success he’s had… or didn’t have then suddenly had. Thanks to Family Guy‘s cult success in the DVD market, Seth MacFarlane went from obscurity to household name in a very short time. However I don’t think this success has been properly employed. Rather than simply putting Family Guy back on the air, Fox decided to do that in addition to giving another previously failed MacFarlane pilot the green light: American Dad!. Let the record show that, of the current MacFarlane comedy creations, American Dad! is my favorite. However, it’s creation would further the decay of Family Guy by removing writing talent from its staff. Watch American Dad! and Family Guy close together while remembering that formula I talked about back at the beginning of this article. Characters + story + random jokes = good Family Guy. American Dad! now has the stronger characters and story, leaving Family Guy to survive solely from its bouts of randomness.

Matt Weitzman and Mike Barker were two of Family Guy's more prominant creative staff who left to work on American Dad!. Their absence was quickly felt.
Matt Weitzman and Mike Barker were two of Family Guy‘s more prominent creative staff who left to work on American Dad!. Their absence was quickly felt.

But here is the real question: given how lucky Seth MacFarlane’s success was, did he really deserve so many venues for his comedy? Family Guy was not successful the first time it aired, the only reason the series survived to rebirth was because of the DVD sales. That isn’t roaring success by a long shot. Yet Fox was willing to give him multiple shows. Sure, you could argue and say that Fox did the same thing with Matt Groening (The Simpsons‘ creator) by giving him Futurama (we’ll talk more about this show later) but Futurama aired in 1999, the same year as season 11 of The Simpsons: the point where many people feel that The Simpsons began to drop dramatically in quality. Coincidence, I think not.

Imagine a show that combined all these characters and all these stories into one setting. That would be a dynamite comedy on the level of the original Family Guy.
Imagine a show that combined all these characters and all these stories into one setting. That would be a dynamite comedy on the level of the original Family Guy.

With Seth MacFarlane’s success now branching off into movies (I personally wasn’t a huge fan of Ted – thought it was okay), it is a real question as to how involved he still is with the show that made him famous. Sure, he may voice half the cast but that isn’t the same level of commitment as writing or helping to create characters. I don’t think his heart is in it anymore. But hey, don’t take my words for it – here’s his: “Part of me thinks that Family Guy should have already ended. I think seven seasons is about the right lifespan for a TV series. I talk to the fans and in a way I’m kind of secretly hoping for them to say we’re done with it. There are plenty of people who say the show is kind of over the hill … but still the vast majority go pale in the face when I mention the possibility.”

So there you have it, Family Guy was a short-lived gem that was resurrected into a bloated brand name used to sell evenings on Fox. I don’t think the show has many years left. It will always be remembered as the show that made Seth MacFarlane famous and (for me personally) a highlight during high school in the early 2000s. Yet this was clearly one case where everyone should have left well enough alone and Family Guy should have simply been allowed to rest in peace. Oh well, at least American Dad! is still okay.

Thoughts? Comments? Am I full of it or onto something? Let me know now in the feedback section of this article.