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The Hi/Lo Country

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

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.

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.

Yet the last of these becomes most troubling, when its humor bends at the edges: Can everything get crammed into the picture? MacFarlane, you see, has a weak spot for Nazi jokes, which he tosses in with no sense that they might require special handling. On the first episode, Lois offers her daughter the traditional bland TV-mom counseling that "most of the world's problems stem from poor self-image." Cut to Hitler at a gym, scrawny and puffing as he tries in vain to build his tiny biceps, scowling at an enormous bodybuilder with a beard, a Star of David on his chest, and girls at his side. A brief bit on a later episode featured a Hitler-mustached bratwurst vendor at a carnival, invading the booth occupied by the neighboring Polish-sausage vendor and then placing his own sign on the front. And most recently, evil-genius baby Stewie, asked to make a wish and blow out the candles at his first birthday party, fantasized about crowds chanting "Sieg Heil!" before settling for Seventies disco-dancing instead.

Now, far be it from me to blame Littleton on this program, or on any single inlet of contemporary culture for that matter. Nor do I intend to sanctimoniously run down the list of my distant relatives whose brutally abbreviated lives have now been disgraced by a cartoon. But it feels necessary at least to protest against the sense that absolutely anything is just another reference to be lobbed into the blender. Can we, should we, declare a free-for-all and frolic among the ruins of what used to be unspeakable? To my mind, not so fast; I was laughing along just fine on Stewie's birthday until he dreamed of massed storm troopers. At which point my wife and I turned toward each other with did-we-just-hear-that? bewilderment, and my laughter suddenly felt sour, hollow--most unsettling, possibly complicit with all sorts of things I detest.

Can you draw some boundaries and still retain the appealing essential nuttiness that makes contemporary humor worthwhile? Or does one police officer invariably attract others? I'd like to think not; surely drawing a line or two doesn't obligate you to draw them everywhere. But watching Family Guy makes me wonder: What price do we pay for comedy that ranges unhesitatingly through time and history to amuse us? Could it be costing us more than we might think?


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