All the Things That Make Us Laugh and Cry

Image courtesy FoxThere was a time about six years ago when it seemed I was the only person in the entire world who liked Family Guy. During the show's 1999-2002 run on Fox, my fellow Americans didn't simply not like it; they actively, loudly despised it. The one thing conservatives and hippies could agree on was that Family Guy sucked serious ass. It was routinely cited as an example of the sorry state of modern TV, and in 2001 Entertainment Weekly ranked it No. 5 on their list of the Top 10 worst shows. The Simpsons repeatedly singled it out for abuse, dismissing it as “crude, lowbrow programming” and including Family Guy's fat, drunken patriarch Peter Griffin in a group of Homer Simpson clones. Fox itself treated the show with little respect, constantly changing its time slot and canceling it several times. I didn't consider myself a fan, but I enjoyed Family Guy's surreal, rapid-fire comedy and couldn't fathom their loathing.

When Cartoon Network started rerunning the show in its late-night Adult Swim block, I discovered something strange: episodes that were amusing the first time somehow became funnier on a second viewing and muscle-pullingly hilarious on a third. I also came to appreciate how astonishingly fearless the show had been. There were jokes about race and religion that would have given South Park pause, there was the sinister old man who tried to coax teenage boys into his basement by offering them Popsicles, there was that episode where the Griffin clan engaged in an epic living room fistfight—with husband turned against wife, sister beating the hell out of brother, and baby and dog going at it like Ali and Foreman. There were spooge jokes, shit jokes, drug jokes, incest jokes, jokes about AIDS and the disabled. Most of Adult Swim's original lineup (Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Sealab 2021, etc.) seemed created by bitter potheads for bitter potheads: it could be quite funny in short doses, but it could also be nonsensical to the point of tedium, and often cruel. Family Guy was shocking, especially for a show that began on a network, but it was never nihilistic or mean. This was wonderfully stupid comedy for smart grown-ups, and it seemed criminal that this show had died young while The Simpsons will still be airing long after most of us are dead.

Fortunately, I wasn't the only one who rediscovered Family Guyin reruns. DVD sales were so strong that Fox actually brought it back this season, airing new episodes Sunday nights alongside American Dad!, a new show from Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. At first fans and critics hailed MacFarlane as a returning hero—before grumbling that the showisn't as funny as it used to be. American Dad!, meanwhile, reeks. I suppose it's pointless to remind these people that they had to see the original run of Family Guy three or four times before they fell in love with it.

MacFarlane's comedy is as sharp as ever, with a new political edge: American Dad! depicts Karl Rove as a hooded, satanic figure who can't enter a church without his skin smoking; Family Guy portrays W. as, literally, an infantile idiot. In an age when lefty satire should be thriving, we've been stuck with The Simpsons, SNL and The Daily Show; their creators plainly despise Bush but constantly hedge their bets and make a big show of going after both sides. Family Guyand American Dad! make no pretense of being even-handed, and God bless them for it. With their violence, their AIDS jokes, their spooge and their Bush-bashing, both shows are too good to last. Family Guy has already returned from the dead; if it goes once more, we shall not soon see its like again. Any day the FCC will find some excuse to yank both shows off the air. So treasure them while you've got them.


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