Recently I started watching Family Guy, the animated Fox show that for a long time I assumed was sort of an vulgarized take on The Simpsons, with the jokes made dumber to appeal to the Maxim-reading frat crowd. That assumption was wrong; though there are plenty of surface similarities between the shows, Family Guy represents an entirely different kind of humor—mainly it’s a matter of arbitrary references piled up. Kind of like Mystery Science Theater, these are random stabs, meant to seem spontaneously generated as a reaction to events and seemingly designed to gratify the audience for its ability to recognize the allusions. It’s pleasant to know trivia; Family Guy works on the theory that remembering pointless pop culture tidbits is funny in and of itself. Just remembering there was such a cultural creation as Mrs. Garrett from The Facts of Life is the essence of the joke. It cuts both ways—it’s flattering to get what the show has dredged up, but at the same time that makes us the butt of joke for having remembered.
There’s no attempt at coherent satire, like The Simpsons frequently presents, or clever plot architectonics, as in Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm, where disparate plot threads are implausibly tied together. Family Guy defiantly rejects any kind of thematic unity, along with the rest of the Aristotelian rules. Its form is more that of a website like Fark.com than a sitcom. It’s anchored in an aesthetic that has probably never made it this close to the mainstream before in the history of mass culture: wrongness.
It’s probably best to define wrongness by what strikes me as the most notorious example, the extended sequences in which Peter, the dad character, fights a giant chicken. These are elaborate parodies of the fights in blockbuster action movies, but that is only part of what is meant to make them funny—that’s just the shallow surface premise. Their complete gratuity, highlighted by the complete absence of relation to the episode’s plot, is also part of the joke, but the core principle on which these scenes are based is their interminableness. They go on well beyond what the audience expects, well beyond the moment at which every possible person will have gotten the joke’s surface premise, and enter a realm of annoyance and discomfort. They seemed designed to provoke the viewer’s anger, to make us shout at the screen, “Enough already!”
One might protest that these are lazy ideas deployed to fill time when the show’s writers’ invention fails them, but these sorts of messed-up scenes are in virtually every episode. They are not accidental. They have their analogues, too, in several other aspects of the show, completing a sort of holistic spirit of wrongness. These moments, when Stewie (the diabolical baby) goes on and on about Brian (the family dog who, in a Snoopy-derived reductio ad absurdem, is the most intelligent and mature family member) and his procrastination about his novel, or when Peter deliberates over stupid Trivial Pursuit non-questions, provoke the same creeped-out feeling that is the basis for the character of Quagmire, the hypersexed neighbor who perpetually takes his advances too far with inappropriate people and derives sexual pleasure from things that are too bizarre. Herbert, the bitter old molester, prompts a similar feeling, as the moment we start to laugh at his skeevy advances, he becomes contemptuous and spews unfunny, ominous insults and threats.
And the show’s lack of a plot works this way too—ordinary markers of the “acts” of a sitcom episode are ignored, conflicts are introduced and then forgotten, unresolved. The show will end abruptly on an off beat, or introduce a digression that takes over as the main storyline. Traditional TV conventions are gestured toward and then suspended, not so much subverted as exposed, taken too literally, pushed too far to the point where they can’t be allowed to function as the shorthand they serve as in other contexts but become instead strange. This makes Family Guy weirdly Brechtian. It often tries to alienate us, as though that were now understood to be a cutting-edge form of humor.
The show’s writers seemed to purposely build in a moment to every episode where they make the equivalent of chanting “not funny, not funny, not funny” into something funny through sheer persistence. The scenes of wrongness refuse to let us sit back and passively tally the orchestrated moments when we are supposed to laugh (which sitcoms customarily choreograph with laugh tracks). Instead we are forced by frustration into a different sort of emotional engagement. It’s a pretty audacious approach, and it’s no wonder the show has been canceled several times. What puzzles me is that there are enough devotees of wrongness to keep getting the show resurrected.