Family Guy: How the hell did Seth MacFarlane’s cartoon survive 20 seasons in the era of “political correctness”?


Rremember family guy? About fifteen years ago, the animated sitcom created by Seth MacFarlane seemed to be everywhere. After The simpsons revolutionized the possibilities of television animation in the 1990s, family guy went a step further. It was The simpsons‘filthy little brother. The animation looked cheap, the storytelling frail and naive, and the jokes were loudly, proudly crude. Racist jokes, homophobic jokes, transphobic jokes, ablist jokes, jokes about rape, about pedophilia; nothing was off the table. He won many fans – especially among the young male population – but also many detractors, sparking much controversy with his shocking material. In many ways, family guy represented the worst impulses of an era when pushing back “PC culture” was seen as cutting-edge comedic sensibility.

But there comes a time when every provocateur has to make his accounts, when everything enfant terrible must be judged as a terrible adult. The needle of consensus swings and jokes that were once hailed as edgy or outspoken turn out, upon closer inspection, to be offensive, or misinformed, or just not funny. Some series get away with a hit on the fingers – Friends‘The penchant for homophobia has not dented its popularity – while others have been in total exile, such as family guyis once in contemporary bad taste Little Brittany. And yet, next Wednesday, on Disney Plus in the UK, family guy is entering its 20th season, with a 21st already in the works. One cannot help but wonder: how did he manage to survive for so long in an era of supposedly imposed political correctness?

Well, to some extent Family Guy has changed over time, making certain concessions to our changing social norms of acceptability. The role of Peter Griffin’s black friend Cleveland Brown was recently recast, for example, with Arif Zahir replacing white actor Mike Henry. The character of Quagmire, portrayed for much of the series as a lustful sex offender, has been altered in recent seasons, accentuating his other, somewhat less problematic characteristics. The 2019 episode “Trump Guy” made headlines not only for its bullish attack on then-President Donald Trump – featuring a scene in which he sexually assaults the Griffins’ daughter, Meg – but also for the suggestion that it was reminiscent of homophobic jokes. “A lot of kids have learned their favorite Jewish, black, and gay jokes by watching your show over the years,” the Trump cartoon told Peter in the episode. “In all fairness, we’ve been trying to phase out gay stuff,” he replies, a statement that has been celebrated in the press as a tolerant statement of intent.

family guy didn’t “phase out homosexual stuff”, not really (Peter even admits in a later episode: “This quote was taken out of context and largely misunderstood”). It also didn’t do away with the racism, ableism, and sexism that make up so much of the show. But it would be wrong to claim that he did not learn anything. Executive producer Alec Sulkin said TV line two years ago: “If you watch a show from 2005 or 2006 and put it side by side with a show from 2018 or 2019, they’re going to have some differences. Some of the things we felt comfortable saying and joking about back in the day, we now understand are not acceptable.

Yet some of the jokes the show feels “comfortable” making now still sound like reactionary indignation bait. The 2019 episode “Bri-da” featured a number of crass jokes about transgender people; the 2017 episode “Trans-fat,” which saw Peter Griffin pretend to be trans for benefits, contained equally reprehensible jokes.

One of the arguments used to defend the politically incorrect humor in family guy, and in other bad taste comedies, it is that it is satirical: “representation is not an endorsement”. Of course, this argument never really holds family guythe case ; the “satire” here is generally paper thin. Even though the character of Mort Goldstein is in fact “satirical anti-Semitism,” the satire is indistinguishable from the anti-Semitism itself. Also, while the show itself doesn’t fundamentally approach its material from a right-wing perspective – MacFarlane is a major donor to the Democratic Party, and some of the show’s writers are vocally liberal – a good one. part of its viewers are. When “Trans-fat” first aired, a subset of family guy Fans have slammed the series on social media for supposedly capitulating to PC culture, thanks to an ending in which Peter Griffin apologizes for making fun of trans people.

family guyThe lasting survival of ‘s could be due to gradual maturation in other areas. Animation, a real horror in its infancy, has increased tenfold. Increasingly, humor has cut frenetic, childish gags in cut, and increasingly takes on a more self-aware tone. More risks are also taken with its format, such as an entire episode devoted to a fake DVD commentary in the universe, or a triptych mimicking the cinematic aesthetic of Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson and Michael Bay. This long-term creative endurance is not to be sneezed at: through its own 20th season, The simpsons was over a decade past its prime and had already lost all trace of what made it such a monumental piece of television. Independently, family guyaudience numbers have declined dramatically over the years, at least on traditional television. In 2000 and 2002, family guy was canceled twice by Fox for low viewership ratings, before being relaunched due to high DVD sales and the popularity of Adult Swim reruns. Now he’s pulling less than half of what he did at his lowest pre-cancel ebb. Maybe there just aren’t enough people watching to really cultivate the offense.

Glenn Quagmire’s transgender parent Ida has been the subject of many offensive jokes on the show

(Fox / Disney)

All of these factors can overlook the obvious answer. family guy was not tied up by the CP police, pulled out of town on a rail, because the CP brigade does not really exist. Despite all the talk about not being able to say anything, the point is, you can basically say whatever you want. Dave Chappelle complains that he was “canceled” for his trans jokes, but he still receives high-profile Netflix specials. There’s a place in the market for tacky comedy, and family guy conscientiously fills this hole. It’s a show that prides itself on saying the unspeakable. Fortunately for most people, what he really says is easily ignored.

“Family Guy” Season 20 premieres on Disney Plus in UK and Ireland November 3

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