The Hi/Lo Country

Family Guy's madcap suburban Dada slips on more serious subjects

Entertainment Weekly, America's preferred companion for a half-hour on the StairMaster, ran a typically gutsy pro-and-con a few weeks back on a subject that surely divides the nation: the humor of yesterday versus that of today. Yesterday, so the argument went, favored witty by-play and a roster of classics but was hampered by wheezing gags and a stubborn determination to stick with every joke, no matter how thin the returns. Today, on the other hand, we're stranded among herds of lowbrows but also rewarded by a cultural fluidity both physical and intellectual that enables the best comedy to leap tall genres in a single punch line.

Both positions have merit: Though I love S.J. Perelman, the students I teach have induced me to behold Adam Sandler with something more than resigned horror. But as the happy example of Fox's deranged animated series Family Guy proves, sometimes both styles can inhabit the same universe.

Appearing the traditional sitcom family on first glance, middle-class Rhode Islanders Peter and Lois Griffin, sons Chris and Stewie, daughter Meg, and dog Brian seem as bland and white-bread as they come, but the dog and baby are the smartest members of the cast, the father the least reliable, and the kids the most mature. Which isn't to mention the barrage of in-jokes, mass-cult references, and just plain weirdness--madcap suburban Dada, if you will. An emblematic postmodern hybrid (one could imagine grad students mapping its range of allusions for a Routledge anthology on cultural hierarchy), the show bridges eras, styles, and frames of reference with astonishing ease, doing that hi/lo shuffle as if to the sampler born. In fact Family Guy (airing Sundays at 7:30 p.m. on WFTC, Channel 29) is so darned emblematic that one's response to it leads inevitably to deeper questions about contemporary American culture as a whole.

Meet the feebles: The bland clan of Fox's Family Guy
Meet the feebles: The bland clan of Fox's Family Guy

Consider its determinedly TV-smitten take on the world. The opening of the pilot brought out the brutalizing impulse that The Brady Bunch's moony good nature surely elicits in most viewers--the Griffin family watches Jan, having tattled on Greg, get sent to "the room of fire"--and then proceeded to an All in the Family tribute/rip-off theme song that presented the show's more-or-less functional nuclear family as an antidote to "violence in movies/sex on TV."

That beginning proved entirely typical: Following the golden rule engraved by Quentin T. hisself, creator Seth MacFarlane prepared for his own program by thoroughly steeping himself in and then bouncing his art off of everyone else's. (For an emblematic hi/lo moment of my own, I'll point out that this is precisely the course that noted mass-culture foe T.S. Eliot recommended to would-be poets in "Tradition and the Individual Talent.") So where Tarantino had his famed video-store matriculation, MacFarlane riffs deadpan on everything from Chuck Wagon commercials and Kool-Aid to Diff'rent Strokes. Indeed, boldly going where everyone has gone before, Family Guy milks abundant laughs from the mass-cult unconscious--all the fantasies we cherished and emotional investments we made while beholding Star Trek and The Dukes of Hazzard.

Hit or miss isn't the point. Though extrinsic to the plot (and easier to draw than describe), the cumulative loopiness of these parodies eventually coalesces into a worldview that we could call, for want of a better term, rec-room surrealism. My favorite example: When protagonist Peter Griffin (played by MacFarlane himself) suggests a family trip, Brian the dog--a sardonic biped who sips martinis and gets most of the best lines--reminds him what happened when he took "that trip to the Southwest." Accidentally running down the Roadrunner, Peter worries that he should stop the car and discover what happened. "It's nothing," assures Wile E. Coyote from the passenger seat. Do you find that funny? Or are you saddened by a world in which common culture has diminished to cartoons and old advertising copy? Either way, parody is most of what this show offers, so you'd better learn to live with it; as in much contemporary entertainment, success more often means the ability to evoke something old than to create something new.

But what makes Family Guy worthwhile is that its substance extends beyond riffs. "Where are all those old-fashioned values/On which we used to rely?" wonders the theme song. Don't look to rotund blowhard Peter, whose outsize ego and ludicrous self-regard are matched only by his capacity to deceive his family when that shaky eminence is threatened. (After an especially implausible excuse by Peter to the long-suffering Lois, Brian lionizes him as "the Spalding Gray of crap.")

Sure, Peter's the title character, but he's undercut so frequently that viewers understand both why he clings to the remnants of his authority and why he's unfit to exert it any longer. In an ironic and underappreciated reversal, while "men's" magazines like Esquire and the wildly successful Maxim sell millions by servicing a cartoonish guy-stuff demographic, cartoons themselves are delving deeper and deeper into the hearts of men. Want to get off on T&A and crotch-grabbing? Pick up the re-sexed Details, or feast your eyes on UPN's upcoming wrestling extravaganza, WWF Smackdown! Want to see men coming to terms with the crumbling of patriarchy? Learn from The Simpsons, King of the Hill, or Family Guy.

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