Whatever happened to the primetime TV cartoon sitcom? Once the domain of family-friendly fun and frivolities, shows like The Flintstones, The Jetsons, and Top Cat spearheaded the Hanna-Barbera boom of the ’60s. Then there was pretty much nothing—until The Simpsons arrived in the late ’80s. Since then, this genre, while still mostly following the family sitcom template, has become a whole different beast.
Narrowing target demographics from its prior kids-to-grandparents reach, post-Simpsons cartoon sitcoms—despite often landing in primetime on mainstream channels—have largely sought the much-prized (by advertisers) 18-30 aged audience. Be it a cause or effect, the consequence of this has been a shift in style and content. No longer beholden to producing innocuous content guaranteed not to offend any of the entire family, many post-Simpsons cartoons have introduced new, sometimes controversial subjects, addressing them with a brand of black humor foreign not only to the genre but to television in general.
Religion is one such topic, and as Mark Pinsky observes, one of The Simpsons’ primary contributions to the form has been “to make it safe for other animated shows to deal with religion in a comic way” (The Gospel According to The Simpsons. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007. p.227). Compared to The Simpsons, however, these cartoon peers, adds Pinsky, “have taken a more harsh, less subtle, and largely unsympathetic approach to faith and organized religion” (p.227).
Fitting this profile is Family Guy, a program less preoccupied with religion than its revered forerunner, but one less restrained and ambiguous in its attitudes towards it. Whereas The Simpsons makes an effort to present multiple points-of-view and to balance its religious satire with pro-spiritual representations, Family Guy largely regards organized faith as wholly corrupt and its believers as dupes and dopes.
With 11 seasons and over 200 episodes under its belt, for the past decade Family Guy has been the most extreme and controversial program airing in primetime on mainstream TV. A staple of Fox’s Sunday night “animation domination” today, Family Guy’s acceptance was initially slow-coming—from both network and viewers. Creator Seth McFarlane was just 25 when the debut episode, “Death Has a Shadow”, aired in 1999 right after the Super Bowl. Featuring a cutaway gag mocking the doctrine of transubstantiation and portraying Jesus as a drunk, the show immediately laid down its marker for the kind of content it would address and comedic tone it would adopt.
Equally intoxicated was Fox, which turned a blind eye to the controversial bit on discovering that 13 million viewers had tuned in to watch that first episode. Sobriety soon set in, though, as ratings plummeted thereafter and the show was canceled in 2002. A resurrection occurred, however, thanks to Comedy Central’s Adult Swim channel, which incorporated Family Guy episodes as re-runs into its late night animation block. This syndication was immediately successful, and thanks, too, to simultaneously soaring DVD sales, the show was soon back on the radar of Fox executives, who promptly re-introduced it to its Sunday night slot, where it has remained since.
With its flippant jokes about rape, child abuse, Hitler, and the holocaust, Family Guy has, not surprisingly, elicited its share of negative criticism. And most of the harshest condemnation has concerned the show’s treatments of religious matters. Pinsky, a staunch defender of The Simpsons’ representations of faith, finds the frequently Catholic-targeted comedy on Family Guy to be particularly offensive, calling it “savage” and “blasphemy by any definition” (253), while Ken Tucker, of Entertainment Weekly, sees an “anti-Semitic” strain in the material (“The Worst/TV: 1999”, 24 December 1999)
Especially perturbed at the show’s persistent mockery of religion has been the conservative watchdog group, the Parents Television Council. Its lead dog, L. Brent Bozell III, has waged a sustained war of protests and letter-writing campaigns against what he calls this “unbelievably foul” show (qtd. in J. Jeremy Wisnewski. ed. Family Guy and Philosophy: A Cure for the Petarded. p.16). The habitually harsh generalizations of religious characters as closed-minded zealots have particularly irked Bozell. Pointing to the character of Francis Griffin, Peter’s fire-and-brimstone Catholic father, Bozell says, “to suggest that [Francis Griffin] is indicative of anything ‘Christian’ is an insult, a deliberate, bigoted anti-Christian insult.” Whatever one feels about the validity of Bozell’s objections, he does raise common concerns about the use of stereotypes in the practice of parody as a comedic methodology.
Professor of Moral Philosophy, Andrew Terjeson, considers the ethics of such wit in his essay, “Exploring the Humor of Family Guy”. He zones in on the controversial “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein” episode that elicited the charge of anti-Semitism from Ken Tucker and others—and which was ultimately cut by Fox just prior to its intended airing. Playing fast and loose with certain conventional stereotypes of Jews, most notably that they are smart and good with money, the center-piece song, sung by Peter Griffin, also alludes to Jews as being Christ-killers. Terjeson argues that although we can never fully ascertain authorial intent, the context of who makes a potentially offending statement and the exaggeration of its sentiment should indicate to us whether we are expected to laugh with or at that character.
When Peter says, “Women are not people—they are devices built by the Lord Jesus Christ for our entertainment”, the comment fits the caricature of the speaker as a sexist ignoramus; thus, the preferred reading here is clearly that we should be laughing at the Peter “type” rather than at the expense of women. Terjeson explains: “With a parody of mean-spirited humor, we laugh at mean-spirited people, instead of laughing mean-spiritedly” (Family Guy and Philosphy. p.131). By laughing with ridicule (known as Superiority humor) at Peter for his sexism and generalizations about Jews, we are essentially offering our social condemnation of his prejudices. He is obviously not our role model for values, so why would Tucker and Rozell not distinguish between the point-of-view of the writers and of the characters? Cleveland, a voice of reason within the episode, even provides a corrective rebuttal to Peter’s presumptions, saying, “Peter, not every Jewish person is good with money.” Peter, true to his “idiot” caricature, ironically responds by saying that that statement is insulting to Jews.
Oppositional readings to the parodies of songwriter Randy Newman and to Norman Lear’s All in the Family sitcom indicate that such humor can be misconstrued through the ears and eyes of less-than-perceptive audiences, but should the artist-creators be blamed for those mis-readings? By mocking stereotypes, stereotyping and, by extension, the self-seriousness of (sometimes ideologically-driven) critics unwilling to consider the artistic purposes of using stereotypes, the “Weinstein” episode demonstrates the power and scope of parody as a comedic weapon—but also its potential for (sometimes willful) misinterpretation.
Besides Family Guy’s forays into Judaism and Jewish identity, the show mostly draws from the conventions of Christianity, particularly Catholicism, for its satire and parody. As noted, some of this emphasis is circumstantial to characters, as the Peter Griffin stereotype (like his father’s) is rooted in his traditional working-class, Irish-American, Catholic distinctions. With wife Lois coming from an upper-class Protestant family (the Peuterschmidts), a situation is established from which the writers can mine various levels of conflict (and insult) humor. This usually comes via Peter’s father, who periodically refers to Lois as a “Protestant whore”. Visits from the intolerant and intransigent Francis provide the basis for two of the show’s more religion-centered episodes, both written by Danny Smith, who, in one of the DVD commentaries, deadpans that he is “still working through some issues” with his own Catholic upbringing.
From the first season, “Holy Crap”, picks up where the anti-Catholic gags of the debut “Death Has a Shadow” leave off. Here, Family Guy, as in many Simpsons episodes, explores issues of fanaticism and inflexibility, with Francis caricatured as a combination of Rev. Lovejoy and Ned Flanders and then some. On retiring from work, Francis goes to live with his son’s family, where he proceeds to unleash a reign of terror on one and all. Lois is repeatedly told that she is going to hell for “all [her] un-baptized babies”; Meg is called a “harlot” for walking home from school with a boy; Chris’s visits to the bathroom prompt accusations that he is masturbating and thus heading to damnation; and Brian (who serves as a Lisa Simpson-type voice of reason) is physically assaulted for questioning the morality of Francis’s theological absolutes.
The diabolical baby Stewie, conversely, takes delight in the bedtime readings Francis gives him from the Old Testament. “I rather like this God fellow”, says Stewie. “A… pestilence here and a plague there. Omnipotence. Got to get me some of that”. On the surface, these scenes specifically call attention to the mockery of a stereotypical overbearing zealot, but Raymond J. Vanarragon, Philosophy of Religion professor at Bethel University, sees another potential purpose for such humor. He suggests that viewers rarely question the massacres and acts of vengeance in the Old Testament, and that Stewie’s enjoyment of these “deliciously evil” stories should provoke us to contemplate more about the Gods we worship and the texts we regard as holy (See “Family Guy and God: Should Believers Take Offense”. Family Guy and Philosophy).
Francis Griffin later reappears as a central player in the controversial episode, “The Father, The Son, and the Holy Fonz”, which aired in December 2005. Again, a visit from Francis creates a whirlwind of tumult in the Griffin household as his bullying abuse and insistence that the kids be baptized drive Peter to opt out of Catholicism altogether and to form his own religion. Taking his father’s advice to look to his heart’s desires in order to find religious inspiration, Peter creates the Church of the Holy Fonz, complete with a chapel customized with Happy Days-inspired stain-glass windows. Punning on standard ceremonial rituals, Peter tells his congregation to “Sit on it” and “Let us hey” before proceeding to spread the gospel according to Fonz. Francis, after attending the first service, says to his family with disgust, “What I saw today wasn’t religion. It was just a bunch of sheep singing songs and listening to ridiculous tall tales”. This, in turn, sets up Brian for the “take-back gag” retort: “Actually, that is religion”.
David Kyle Johnson, Professor of Philosophy of Religion at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, sees a legitimate question at the heart of the Fonzie farce: How do we distinguish “real” religions from “unreal” ones? With five major religions in the world (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism), each with its own scriptures, historical traditions, and religious experiences, which is the “true” one? Johnson has some fun with this conundrum, but his main point is that Francis and other “exclusivists” lack “adequate justification” to argue for their faith as the “correct” one, and they have zero justification in forcing their beliefs on others or demeaning those who disagree (“Francis Griffin and The Church of the Holy Fonz: Religious Exclusivism and ‘Real’ Religion”. Family Guy and Philosophy. p.38). Without any objective criteria to dismiss “Fonzieism” as a true religion, Johnson stresses that we should be humbled by—and pay heed to—the moral embedded in this cartoon satire: “What we need to be concerned with is our own attitude toward religion and the religious acceptance of others” (p.45).
Family Guy has shown much creativity in its satire of religion, and though more disapproving in its point-of-view than The Simpsons, its themes are neither as baseless nor as infantile as its harsher critics charge. Two episodes in particular take viewers into thought-provoking territories. “Road to the Multiverse”, the first episode of Season 8, sets up a scenario many have no doubt contemplated, in imagining what the world would look like had religion (in this instance, Christianity) never existed. Here, a TV remote control transports us to a dynamic parallel universe where, we learn, “The Dark Ages of scientific repression never occurred and thus humanity is a thousand times more advanced”.
“North by North Quahog” stays closer to home, examining issues of superstition and bigotry by riffing on the controversy that surrounded the movie, The Passion of the Christ. On its release, some critics perceived the film as anti-Semitic and accordingly, director Mel Gibson is here portrayed as a right-wing extremist, Nazi paraphernalia hanging alongside a gold crucifix over his bed. Of more concern to Peter Griffin, though, is the discovery that Gibson is planning on releasing an action-comedy sequel to The Passion. Stealing the master tape in order to spare the world from “another two hours of Mel Gibson Jesus mumbo-jumbo”, Peter adds, “We’ve gotta get rid of this for the sake of Jesus and Snoopy and all the other beloved children’s characters”. A chase ensues, with Gibson ultimately falling to his death from Mount Rushmore because, according to Peter, “Christians don’t believe in gravity”. The whole saga is a rip-roaring rollercoaster of a ride, the dramedy of which, in its own way, helps temper the steady stream of sacrilegious stabs that litter the script throughout.
Although never reluctant to satirize institutional failings and personal hypocrisy, The Simpsons generally draws demarcation lines when it comes to other issues of faith. Family Guy, on the other hand, imposes no such self-restraints, openly lampooning any and all doctrines and icons, practitioners and practices. Professor Vanarragon contends that the show “goes beyond almost anything else found on broadcast television” and asks in his essay subtitle, “Should believers take offense?” Not only does the show ridicule rituals that many believers take seriously and feel should be treated with respect, but he argues that this mockery is intended to provoke and offend.
Nevertheless, rather than advocating the kind of outrage and anger that the likes of the PTC resort to, Vanarragon proposes that people of faith can benefit and grow from considering some of the worthwhile critical points that the show makes about God and faith. And regarding the ubiquitous insults and abuse, he concedes that “sometimes we… deserve it”, concluding that one need not necessarily agree with the show’s assertions, but a believer should have sufficient strength of faith to be able to question and scrutinize that faith (p.23). If nothing else, Family Guy offers ample opportunities for such valuable (self)-reflection.