At last week’s pitch meeting for our literature week, a series of conversations led us to a relatively large-sized fight. We were talking about cartoons as pieces of art and comics as literature (not a debate; they are), and we were trying to figure out how Family Guy would stand up to literary-style media criticism in 20 years. Then we tried to figure out if people—because of how topical the show can be—would watch Family Guy at all in 20 years.
I thought, “Yes, of course, in a Flintstones sort of way.” Two of our writers—Andrea and Gabe—thought very, very different things. We told them to either take this outside or fight publicly via email and post it on the blog. Thankfully, they’ve decided to do the latter.—Ed.
Andrea Marker: So here’s the question: Will people watch topical cartoons of today (Family Guy; the later-season Simpsons) in 20 years? Or will the jokes just be too dated? And go:
Gabe Pasillas: Well, to classify TV as something that can be outdated is saying that a show is so topical that the references don’t even make sense, which—I will give you—is true for some of the jokes in the Seth MacFarlane Universe. But most of the time the joke is punctuated by the animation and how that reference is used in the scene.
Andrea Marker: But the references don’t actually move the story along. If anything, they bring the episodes to a screeching stop. I feel like if you didn’t grow up in the ‘80s, you won’t get half of the jokes. It’s one thing to riff off different pop culture happenings in service of the overall story, but another to make the pop culture thing the actual joke, if that makes sense.
For example, I was re-watching South Park‘s Trapped in the Closet episode a few weeks back and had completely forgotten that it was making fun of that R Kelly song. But even without knowing what that R Kelly song was I could still enjoy the joke.
Gabe Pasillas: I really disagree, I mean the humor of Family Guy and its referential jokes go back to the first few seasons. Family Guy has not changed much at all, other than the fact they do more and more random references. If anything, it influences people to look up a reference. It’s almost a subculture of Family Guy references. South Park is on another level, for sure. They know how to tell a story, where Family Guy is almost a show of sketches featuring similar characters strung around a loose story.
The humor goes past the references and becomes more of a “Who are these people, and why in God’s name are they doing these things?”
So with that in mind the references are secondary. And if you get the references, it brings the joke to another level.
Andrea Marker: My problem with Family Guy though is that I don’t care about those people. Very rarely is anything done in service to the story to make me care. If you think about why people still read certain books, it’s because they’re able to transcend their time periods. The specific historical references are made in service of the story and development of the characters—not the jokes themselves.
For instance, The Wizard of Oz is a political allegory for the gold standard and subsequent books make fun of the suffragette movement. Even without knowing these added layers, you can still enjoy the story and care about its characters.
There are certain elements of Family Guy that I think do transcend the pop culture jokes—namely Stewie and Brian—but most of its episodes are laden with these parenthetical asides that get in the way.
That’s also the fundamental difference between early Simpsons and later Simpsons: Early Simpsons was more character driven, while later Simpsons seasons are more joke driven. My favorite episodes of The Simpsons—and even of South Park and Futurama—are the ones that focus more on character and story than simple joke generation.
Gabe Pasillas: Truth, and I agree with most of this. But I disagree that people will just not understand Family Guy down the road.
Andrea Marker: They’ll understand the family dynamic, but won’t understand why a giant punch bowl is breaking through walls randomly.
Gabe Pasillas: I think the humor is still there and the cultural relevance of the show is still a presence enough in pop culture, that it will stand the test of time. You don’t need to know that commercial to think that is funny.
Andrea Marker: I just don’t personally feel that the storytelling makes up for it though. Random does not equal funny in my book. I still find South Park’s explanation for their Mad Libs style writing pretty on point. I don’t know if you watch Futurama, but that’s a show that makes a ton of nerdy jokes that you don’t necessarily need to be in on in order to find funny.
Gabe Pasillas: Futurama is great.
Andrea Marker: But even on that show, the jokes I enjoy least are the ones that are too timely, like the episode about the iPhone or the $300 government tax rebate. I’d rather see more episodes about how Fry becomes his own grandfather than one about current fads, especially given we’re talking about the year 3000-and-something.
I’m just saying that whatever you’re going to reference as a joke shouldn’t be the joke itself, but should find something new to say about the thing that’s being referenced.
Gabe Pasillas: Agreed. I enjoy the fuller plot and more relevant story as well—that’s why South park is definitely my favorite animated show of all time. All I’m arguing is the fact that in 20 years, Family Guy will still be around—and maybe even more of a presence than Futurama.
The relevance of the joke and the timeliness of plot will not exist. Just like older shows where we probably don’t get “the rules.” We have a vague idea of what was going on back then, but there are some jokes that just don’t make sense anymore. Like, say the unstated suppression of women, or things that seem racist that aren’t, or the “outrageous” idea that people sleep in the same bed.
Andrea Marker: I just think our kids will wonder why we liked it.
The other key difference with Family Guy vs. other cartoons is that it’s aimed toward an older audience. When you’re a kid, you tend to gloss over things you don’t get, but as a teen or adult, you do care a bit more.
Gabe Pasillas: Right, we are the losers watching cartoons as adults…
(This is where Gabe makes a winking emoticon that we’ve edited out. He was disciplined with a large, wooden stick.—Ed.)
I don’t care. I will always love animation, and I think that’s what it comes down to with shows like Family Guy. Every show is hit or miss on the jokes, but there is a good chance you will laugh a good amount at one thing, and remember it for a while after.
Andrea Marker: And we’re even bigger losers for arguing about cartoons’ cultural relevancy.
Gabe Pasillas: But, hey, that’s why we have the job we do, I guess.