In Defense of Family Guy, Part 2 of Surely Thousands

Well, the title isn’t quite accurate. It’s more a defense of Seth MacFarlane. As you may have heard, Cleveland, the slow-talking Black member of the Family Guy cast got his own spin-off. And I’ll be honest, I thought I was going to hate it. I didn’t really like Cleveland all that much to begin with, and it seemed like Seth MacFarlane was looking to make a few extra bucks to add to his surely Scrooge McDuck-like collection of money. I thought it was going to be a cash-in. Then I watched it, and you know what? I liked it. No, it wasn’t Family Guy. But it wasn’t American Dad either.

Basically, Cleveland moves back to his hometown, ends up marrying his old flame when he moves in to help her raise her kids, and gets a job as a… well, I actually have no idea. Cleveland Jr. is back, but instead of the hyperactive twerp from Family Guy, he’s a fat, slow-talking, deep-voiced weirdo. There’s also a baby who’s kind of perverted. But I was impressed. Cleveland isn’t really the same character he was in Family Guy. He’s more upbeat, more dynamic. His neighbors are pretty funny. The format is similar to Family Guy in that it’s relatively thin stories buoyed by random cutaways to pop-culture and/or other references.

What the show is not is a realistic portrayal of Black families in America. But hey, no one would be stupid enough to think it would be, right? Oh, hi, John McWhorter of the New Republic. What do you think?

Just a Cartoon, But Still: Is Family Guy in Blackface Funny?

Oh, outstanding. And so it begins.

To strike a note I generally avoid, I am offended. And by a cartoon. Has anybody noticed what a patronizing mess Seth MacFarlane’s new The Cleveland Show is?

Sorry to go all Fire Joe Morgan with the Bold tags here, but this article needs to be analyzed properly. So let me start by saying this: you have a right to be offended. If the idea of Mike Henry, who is white, and Seth MacFarlane, who is also white, making a show about a black family offends you, that’s ok. But let’s give it a chance first. After all, Seth MacFarlane is not a racist. Why not watch the show and see what they do with it?

But the show itself is dishwater, and part of the reason is Cleveland. A Type B Droopy-Doggish fellow, he’s no lead.

You, sir, have not watched the show. This Cleveland is not the Family Guy Cleveland. And this brings me to own of my biggest complaints about people who dislike Family Guy, but feel the need to justify their perfectly acceptable dislike in a wafer-thin veneer of intellectualism. “Oh, the baby just wants to kill the mom and Peter’s fat and stupid and the dog is always drunk!” Look, Family Guy is not necessarily a subtle show. But one of the great things about Seth MacFarlane is his willingness to accept the fact that his characters are vehicles for jokes. He openly disregards continuity in favor of humor. This doesn’t always work for shows (see Simpsons, The – Seasons 18+), but it does for MacFarlane. If he needs his characters to have a certain trait to advance the plot, he gives it to them. I admit, when I heard the idea for the Cleveland show, I thought the same thing as John McWhorter. But so apparently, did MacFarlane and Henry, which is why this Cleveland is different.

Cleveland, however, has been plunked into a virtual blow-by-blow reproduction of Peter Griffin’s situation in Quahog. The bloated, goofy son is a Chris Griffin retread. The randy, hyperarticulate toddler, an especially shameless retread, is a dusky Stewie.

OK, where do I start? The toddler is totally different than Stewie. Stewie is a baby genius with a British accent who may or may not be gay. He is rarely openly sexualized. In fact, the only way the two are the same is that they are talking babies. To me, that’s not similar enough to be “shameless.” That’s like saying the Hillbilly neighbor who is nothing like Quagmire is like Quagmire.

The hillbilly neighbor (white, for the record) is a stand-in for sex addict neighbor Quagmire.

Oh. Well, you could put it that way too. This really isn’t fair. If you’re complaining that Cleveland has a wacky neighbor, you are not allowed to watch sitcoms ever again. Kramer? Larry from Three’s Company? George Jefferson when he was on All in the Family? Norton from the freakin’ Honeymooners?! Also, you had to clarify that the “hillbilly neighbor” is white?

The low-key Every-hombre Latino immigrant neighbor who happens to be a bear and yet is casually treated like a person is perhaps the funniest thing on the show – or would be if we hadn’t been enjoying the exact same bit from Family Guy’s dog Brian for ten years.

Sigh. Yeah, he’s a talking bear. Obviously, this means he is exactly the same as the family dog who lives with Peter and Lois and is a writer and is totally different in every way except that they’re both talking animals. Thus, Bugs Bunny = The Cheshire Cat = Scrappy Doo, Q.E.D. Just so we aren’t confused, why don’t I outline some of the things a retread of Family Guy could have:

  • A girl baby that wants to kill her father
  • A talking pet cat
  • A neighbor with some handicap
  • A creepy old pervert who lives down the street
  • A sex-fiend neighbor

Here’s a list of things that are in every sitcom ever:

  • A wacky neighbor
  • An attractive wife with a less attractive husband
  • Children that have one defining quality
  • A family pet

Notice a difference? Complaining that the Cleveland Show has these and so does Family Guy is like complaining that Full House is too similar to Seinfeld because Kimmy Gibbler is kind of like Kramer.

But this is intended as a franchise that will run for years, stacking up something like 200 episodes and running endlessly in syndication. In which case the joke will wear off, and in fact, by my lights, become irritating.

Well, at least you can predict the future. It’s not like any shows have ever changed even a little over 8 years. And also, you might want to get your TiVo fixed, since it apparently is stuck on nothing but a loop of the same commercial for The Cleveland Show.

The reason it felt right to pull this with The Cleveland Show is because of a sense that blackness is so much a “thing,” so diverting in itself, that painting the Family Guy people brown makes artistic and commercial sense.

OK,  I know I’m never going to understand racism the same way people who experience it do. I am on the outside looking in on this one. But you have just gone from saying, “the Cleveland Show is kind of like Family Guy” to “The very concept of the show is racist.” Want to explain?

And there was a time when it did – but it was a time we’re all happy to be past. The Cleveland Show is reminiscent of all-black productions of musicals in the old days such as the Hello, Dolly! with Pearl Bailey. The underlying notion was that because you couldn’t cast a black performer in a non-black role in a mainstream production, it made theatrical sense to concoct an occasion for there to be a black Dolly, a black Horace Vandergelder, a black Barnaby singing “It Only Takes a Moment.” What mattered was not the particulars of the performances – the names of the performers in these all-black mock-ups, other than the superstar leads, were quickly forgotten – but the fact that black people were doing them at all.

I’m not even going to argue the point that he’s implying, which is that the Cleveland Show does not make commercial sense, even though just being by Seth MacFarlane means there are enough people like me to give him a license to print money in the form of DVD collections and T-Shirts. No, what I want to argue with is the implication that the Cleveland Show = Jim Crow. Maybe we can tone down the rhetoric, right? I mean, you haven’t even said anything specific about the show being racist.

If Family Guy’s troglodytic son Chris is a classic character as the result of a once-in-a-lifetime synergy between the artwork and Seth Green’s vocal performance, then the same character with brown skin and a few adjustments is automatically lame

And we’re back to this. It’s not automatically lame until we know what the “few adjustments” are. I mean, he references “The Office,” which has two versions with “a few adjustments” and is not lame. How far does this thing go? Is being a fat husband with a few adjustments lame because of Ralph Kramden? What about a lovable baby with a few adjustments because of Little Ricky? Is Darth Vader automatically lame because he’s like Hamlet’s Uncle in shiny black armor? How general can you get with this?

I sense that we’re supposed to think it’s funny because he’s doing it with a black accent and a black face. But is “black” so exotic in 2009 that years’ run of a whole show can be based on this sniggering “Hey, they’re black!” take on race?

I get the impression that McWhorter refuses to believe that there are jokes in the show because he doesn’t like the fact it exists. I honestly don’t think he watched one episode. He certainly hasn’t commented on ANYTHING THAT HAPPENED ON THE FUCKING SHOW.

It basically goes on from there. Here’s my major problem. We all know Seth MacFarlane loves television. Most of his pop culture references are TV related. He uses a full orchestra to record the music because that’s how they used to do it and it sounds better. So what did you think the Cleveland Show was going to be? A show like Family Guy, except using Black sitcoms as a frame of reference rather than White ones, seeing as Family Guy usually isn’t described as a realistic portrayal of working-class Rhode Islanders? Or, a powerful and moving comment on the state of race relations in America? But is there a more ham-fisted, totally indefensible way to say what McWhorton says?

Yep, the problem with McFarland is not that he’s a bigot, for goodness’ sake. It’s that he’s a hack.

Boy, aren’t the guys at McFarland publishing going to be pissed when they find out they’re on Andrew Sullivan’s shitlist. Seth MacFarlane (only two letters off, Andy!), on the other hand, is lucky none of his critics have ever watched the shows he makes.

h/t Tohm

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5 Responses to “In Defense of Family Guy, Part 2 of Surely Thousands”

  1. i actually liked mcwhorter’s article. the point that making a spin-off with similar characters (come on, a fat, lazy son, a talking baby who knows and talks about sex, a talking friendly animal…i don’t buy that these aren’t direct cognates) but in a black context is racist seems pretty reasonable. if unintentionally racist or even reflective of the fact that we still have “white” and “black” television shows, fine. but i don’t know that it’s something to get excited about.

    also, don’t pick on andrew sullivan.

  2. and i’ll just add that i DO like family guy.

  3. Family guy is just plain fantastic, i have watched every episode so far and it never gets tired.

    People need to get a sense of humor!!

  4. oh, and a word about family guy and sit-coms (which is a large part of your defense of the cleaveland show)….

    first, sit coms are almost never funny. they are much too formulaic, and that makes them horrible horrible horrible. basically intolerable to watch. married with children–jesus god, i know people that really claim this was a great sit com. not to mention sit coms everyone admits to being horrible yet still had huge commercial success (home improvement). two formulaic shows.

    i mentioned Black Adder in the top five sit coms–and out of the things you listed “in every sit com,” there are none.
    it certainly has conventions of other sit coms–but they have much more versatility than “wackiness” and a tradition going back centuries. the schemer, the forger of “cunning plans.” from the odd couple to edmund black adder to homer simpson, much comedy has arisen from both successful and failed plots.

    Arrested Development has a lot of conventions too–3 wacky uncles, a kid with shallow motivations (pleasing his father) with a single father and dead mother; tobias’ wife is way hotter than him; everyone’s a schemer. However, lots of things counter these conventions. Out of the three uncles, Buster is the only one that is singularly “wacky,” Tobias and Gobe having other drives. George Michael’s pleasing his father is countered by wanting to date his cousin. Tobias’ wife is hot, but she is actually a flushed out character instead of T&A and has her own rather significant flaws to barely sort-of explain why she married Tobias. Maybe (the cousin, not the word) is not driven by a single motivation– her motivations are suited towards advancing the plot (piss off parents/kiss steve holt/keep the band together/etc). Then there is just good writing, acting and editting.

    There are lots and lots and lots of sit coms that feature no innovations, add nothing to established conventions. With the advent of animation, the sit-com could have new life. Disney made shit of varying quality for many years, but for a long time “sitcom” style shows were rare. But then Hannah Barbara came along and made the shittiest of the shit, blatantly stealing (or, as they styled it, paroding) live action sitcoms (Flintstones). Then, to my knowledge, came The Simpsons.
    I think you have been a little generous giving The Simpsons 18 seasons of staying funny. It was in the early teens when there was some sort of badger attack followed by endless non-sequiturs with the episode ending between badgers talking. This season was the beginning of a steep decline in Simpsons quality for me. The plots in The Simpsons, Homer’s schemes, secondary characters from Burns and Smithers to Krusty and Comic Book Guy, parodies from 32 Short Films on Glen Gould to Pulp Fiction (in the same fucking episode!), brilliant writing. During its peak The Simpsons remains better than any animated comedy sit com I have seen–for my money. There is much more to defend about The Simpsons than Family Guy.

    I give The Family Guy its initial few seasons. I think everything that has been made since its initial cancellation, while perhaps funny on the first viewing, is not worth subsequent viewing. And when those first seasons grew tiresome, I have not returned to them. I think I could make an argument that Beavis and Butthead is a funnier sitcom than Family Guy–a significant part of the comparison would be Beavis and Butthead talking over videos is much much funnier than some Griffin family member acting out some event from history or pop culture. The Family Guy was able to use animation very well, incorporating bits that could not be feasible in a live action animation. There’s a bit where Death tries to start his VW Bug while drunk that is absolutely hilarious. I haven’t seen this for 6 or more years, maybe 8?? Family Guy did have funny bits, but like the characters, it got old for me seasons and seasons ago.
    It is hard to have real discussion about taste and humor. Lots of people find the phrase “Giggity-giggity” to be the funniest part of the show. I’ll admit the show is more than endless catch phrases, but the characters and the bits have grew stale very quickly. My sister and I talked about this and agreed our impression of The Family Guy would have been better if it had not been picked up after being dropped those years.

  5. Great article. There’s a lot of good info here, though I did want to let you know something – I am running Mac OS X with the up-to-date beta of Firefox, and the look and feel of your blog is kind of flaky for me. I can read the articles, but the navigation doesn’t work so well.

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