You know, Brian, it’s times like these that it makes me sad to think that you’ll die 50 years before I will.
Peter (Seth MacFarlane), “The Thin White Line”
Lois (Alex Borstein): “‘Baby Smokes-A-Lot’? Peter, this baby doll is smoking a cigarette!”
Chris (Seth Green): “That’s inimitable!”
“Mr. Griffith Goes to Washington”
Enjoying The Family Guy is akin to laughing at a nasty joke in church: it may be screamingly funny, but you’re pretty sure you’re going to Hell for thinking so. Likened to Comedy Central’s South Park because of its often outlandishly offensive content coupled with biting social satire, The Family Guy sat squarely in Fox’s cartoon-laden primetime lineup, competing for space with other animated and claymation offerings (The PJs, Futurama) bent on repeating the success of The Simpsons.
Such overcrowding didn’t prohibit rabid viewer loyalty. This even though Seth MacFarlane’s twisted brainchild apparently baffled studio execs. When Fox pulled the plug the first time, the network was bombarded with angry letters and diapers (presumably in homage to baby Stewie), demanding its reinstatement. Fox caved, and the show went on for a third season. Yielding to viewer pressure but aware of the show’s controversial potential, the network employed a kind of shell game: the show aired as demanded, but was shifted week-to-week across a variety of timeslots.
While The Family Guy‘s humor often obliterates the boundaries of good taste, it also espouses faith in the American Family, however mutated. As the theme song declares, The Family Guy is about “good old-fashioned values.” The Griffiths are a motley crew, constantly at each other’s throats: neurotic and occasionally redeemed parents Peter (Seth MacFarlane) and Lois (Alex Borstein); Chris (Seth Green), oldest child with the youngest mind; Meg (Mila Kunis), middle child and pink-swathed misfit; Stewie (MacFarlane), articulate toddler bent on world domination; and Brian (MacFarlane), erudite talking dog with an addictive personality.
The characters do reflect those “good old-fashioned values,” but outside of traditional social norms. In “Mr. Griffith Goes to Washington,” of Season 3, baby Stewie’s cigarette addiction spurs Peter into turning on his tobacco-and-toy company employer in to Congressional hearings, getting them fined $10 million. In “The Thin White Line,” the family sacrifices a planned cruise to put Brian in rehab after he becomes a cocaine addict in the line of duty as a drug-sniffing dog. In each case, the imagery is wonky (Stewie smokes on screen; Brian brings home a prostitute), but the family remains intact, even stronger for having survived that episode’s disasters.
This simultaneous reinforcement of and challenge to conventional “values” is thrown into further relief through network behavior around the series. Both in terms of forced edits and “banned” episodes, Fox’s behavior is a case study in political hot buttons. Fox’s DVD release of the third and final season of The Family Guy includes the “banned” episode, “When You Wish Upon A Weinstein,” which never aired on network TV. Featuring “Jew-aimed humor,” it revolves around Peter’s notion that Jewish people are inherently smarter and better with money. Suddenly faced with losing a large sum of money, Peter “wishes” for a Jew (via the catchy Disney-esque song, “I need a Jew”) and is “delivered” one when a car breaks down in front of his house. The ensuing relationship prompts Peter to try to convert Chris to Judaism to make him smarter. Sensitive to the show’s likely inflammatory impact, MacFarlane sent screening copies to “qualified” Jewish scholars (he isn’t specific in his commentary track) and received a “thumbs up.” “Peter learns the right lesson in the end,” one scholar noted. But even so, the network refused to air it.
Though it is clear that “When You Wish Upon a Wienstein” might offend some, it goes no further and, in some cases, not as far as other episodes. In “And the Weiner Is…,” Peter worries about his own masculinity when he glimpses Chris’ gargantuan “manhood,” so he buys an overtly phallic sports car. He supplies a running commentary when approaching a tunnel: “It’s big, right, baby? Don’t worry, I’ll be gentle.” Apparently, no objection was raised to this sexual explicitness. In “Brian Wallows and Peter Swallows,” Brian begins a “virtual” affair (via VR headsets) with a woman on her deathbed, and in “The Thin White Line,” Stewie outs himself in a musical vignette by visually punning on “sea-men.” Again, it appears that no one objected to the implied bestiality or infant homosexuality in these episodes. Other “sensitive” topics—including disability, race, gender, sexuality, and religion (particularly Catholicism)—provide plenty of fodder for anxiety. That the episode dealing explicitly with Jewishness was shelved suggests a possible hierarchy of political correctness that borders on censorship.
Outrage over the network’s decision to censor unifies this third season DVD set. Generally, the commentary tracks are snapshots of what it must be like to live in Seth MacFarlane’s basement: the cast and crew chat and crack inside jokes, often getting engrossed in the episode they’re watching and leaving gaping silences in the track. The most interesting moments have cast and crew talking about forced edits or the problems they caused. In one episode, the censors took issue with a suggested hanging suicide, but overlooked bestiality; in another, humor aimed at African Americans passed muster whereas Jewish jokes did not. The inclusion of “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein” is the crown jewel in this set, which also features an “uncensored featurette.” Predictably, these offerings are bracketed by the obligatory parental warnings.
The show’s genius is that it challenges censorship codes while also providing material that appear to justify their existence: given the chance, the creators did try to “go too far,” pushing the codes until they snapped. Laced with laugh-out-loud one-liners and sight gags, pop culture references and critiques, The Family Guy was underappreciated and underrated during its tv run, but on DVD beckons to another set of viewers, who might have missed it the first time around.