The hipster consensus on Family Guy — at least since South Park so devastatingly suggested the show is plotted by manatees — seems to be this: It was pretty decent in its first three-season run through 2001; derivative of The Simpsons, for sure, but still pretty funny in its own way. After monster DVD sales prompted FOX to reconsider the show’s cancellation in 2004, though, the re-launched Family Guy became a parody of its former self. The cynicism creator Seth MacFarlane allegedly developed from the experience gives the show an unappealing misanthropy, and the gags, which at their best were often B-grade fart jokes and predictable pop-culture riffs, wear ragged as the series continues and MacFarlane recycles them for American Dad and (God preserve us) The Cleveland Show.
I’d like to argue that that assessment is not entirely fair. Family Guy is not only an entertaining show and a key reason the alternately insane genius and infuriating inanity of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim maintains viable ratings, but it also beat many of those hipper, less popular shows to the punch by mixing elements of Dada absurdity and discursive streams of conscious into broad, working-class-stoner humor.
That’s what I’d like to argue, anyway, but my most recent exposure to the show — this 45-minute Empire Strikes Back parody (itself a sequel to 2007’s Blue Harvest, a parody of A New Hope) — makes me feel like a defense attorney delivering an opening statement while his client cleans an automatic weapon and attempts to purchase crack from the judge.
The opening riff on the Star Wars franchise’s iconic crawl text is funny-enough satire, setting the story “A long time ago, before the gays were all in your face about it,” then criticizing the 20th Century Fox decision that allowed George Lucas to keep the Star Wars merchandising rights and proving the point by purposely squandering $58,000 on a computer-generated elephant.
But then the manatees take over. Within five minutes, the show trots out allusions to Aaron Sorkin, The Jetsons, Sesame Street, and
CompuServe (remember CompuServe?), and the show keeps the same frantic pace throughout, for no good reason. References to Juicy Fruit Gum and Allstate Insurance are so random and needlessly prolonged you hope Fox charged them product-placement fees. At this point, it’s tempting to compare Family Guy to those damned Not Another ____ Movie movies, but once the Empire uses Paula Cole’s 1997 hit “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” as a torture device you realize that isn’t fair. At least the Wayans et al. are keeping up with the times. Jokes about the Star Wars series itself were mostly exhausted in Blue Harvest (or at various times throughout the run of the regular Family Guy TV series), and the occasional references to the film’s plot holes and general goofiness (of the Rebel base on Hoth: “I like all these electrical wires just nailed to the ice. That’s probably pretty safe right?”) are occasionally laugh-worthy, but not really any funnier than the laughs you’d get from discussing the film with some average geeks.
Family Guy’s other main humor source, shock comedy, seems equally tapped out. Homophobia, racism, sexism, jokes about abortion, child molestation, and the disabled — the button-pushing feels more like clock-punching at this point, and the difference between scriptwriter Kirker Butler and some purposely offensive message-board troll isn’t creativity or subtext but an oversized paycheck.
That troll should get himself an agent and a copy of Cartooning for Dummies. This DVD’s currently number two on Amazon’s best-selling animation list. — Jeremy Martin