Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy, was profiled by Deborah Solomon in the September 13 New York Times Magazine. MacFarlane’s smart-ass answers to Solomon’s fatuous questions were something of a tour de force, and they got me thinking, yet again, why a spinster of a certain age, snobbish about many things, conservative/libertarian in her politics should find Family Guy so hilarious.
Before I lose you, let me make clear my bona fides: I think Aristophanes is a hoot. I get the joke about my Uncle Toby’s hobby-horse. There are parts of Ulysses I think are laugh-out-loud funny. I’ve tittered my way through countless adventures of Guy Noir. In short, I have a pretty finely honed sense of the comic and the absurd.
So maybe it’s my Hobbesian view of life—solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short—that commends Family Guy to me. Certainly the Griffins’ Spooner Street world is straight out of Hobbes: knock on any door and you’re likely to find a satyr, a pedophile, a murderous schoolteacher, an evil monkey. Suburban Providence never seemed so dark.
In this bleak landscape, one hears a variety of sounds: the cartoon is perhaps the most musical show on television, whether it’s an infant-doggie duet reminiscent of a Hope-Crosby tune or snippets of Woody-nominated porno background themes or a peppy version of “The Spirit of Massachusetts,” Family Guy integrates music into the plot lines in a manner as seamless as it is informative. Even the closing credits are played out in a singular variation of the show’s theme music. Genius.
Who am I trying to kid? I adore Family Guy because it is utterly, irredeemably crude and lewd—the stuff a thirteen-year-old boy’s joke book is made of. Patriarch Peter Griffin announces that he’s gotta get to the toilet in a big hurry because, “I’m crowning here!” Brainy lush Brian the talking dog wakes himself from a sound sleep with the trumpet blare of his own flatulence. Son Chris casually sticks his finger up his nose in a way that suggests the habit is inveterate.
Then there are the sex jokes, often but not always at the expense of women: they’re just as likely to touch on masturbation, remaining true as they do to the adolescent’s lifestyle.
Best of all though is the good old-fashioned cartoon violence of the kind that brightened my Saturday morning when I was kid. Before America went completely schizoid about violence—if Quentin Tarantino does it, it’s art, but if Wiley Coyote does it, time to call the censors—a kid could get a vicarious belly full of gratuitous pratfalls (generally off mile-high cliffs) or anvil-induced head trauma. You could almost smell the singed fur when Tom the cat was fried by a Jerry-wielded toaster wire. At the end of each cartoon, mayhem forgotten, the unharmed adversaries would walk off into the sunset. But then some know-it-all decided kids were too stupid to distinguish cartoons from real life. And the Smurfs were born. Yuck.
Each time a Family Guy character flies through a plate glass window, takes a header off a skyscraper, brains a spouse with a frying pan or indulges in cannibalism, the screen is filled with gore. By the next scene—just like the cartoons of my childhood—the gore is gone, the nibbled limb is back in place.
I knew I was hooked on Family Guy when I started laughing at random places, random times when a line from the show would pop into my head. I won’t repeat any of them here, because taking a line out of context to demonstrate its guffawability is like trying to explain a dream. It can’t be done. It’s almost as hard to explain how a thirteen-year-old boy’s sense of humor gets trapped in a bluestocking’s body. My own private rebellion? A reaction formation to too much political correctness? Who cares! As Peter Griffin would say, “whaddya lookin at? It’s a CARTOON!”