Cathy's World: Family Guy

By CATHERINE SEIPP  |  Jan. 2, 2002 at 11:00 AM
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LOS ANGELES, Jan. 2 (UPI) -- Call me sick, call me twisted, but for me one antidote to the winter rerun doldrums are fresh episodes of Fox's "Family Guy," the animated comedy about a family so dysfunctional they make "The Simpsons" look like "Father Knows Best."

If you didn't know this struggling cult favorite was still on the air, you've got plenty of company. For months at a time "Family Guy" has seemed quite dead, but was apparently just cryogenically frozen. Fox last yanked it in May of 2000, but began airing new episodes for the fall 2001 new season (which for most Fox shows began in December.)

"Family Guy" first went on indefinite leave in fall, 1999, a few months after its debut, only to return for a special Y2K episode called "Da Boom" and a mid-season relaunch. I can't think of any other show that's survived so much reversal of fortune.

The animated comedy got a lot of hype when it premiered in April 1999, partly because its creator, cartoonist Seth MacFarlane, was just 25 and the youngest executive producer in history.

The show was originally given pride-of-place in the post-"Simpsons" Sunday evening timeslot, much to the displeasure of "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening, who wanted Sunday night at 8:30 for his new show, "Futurama."

But then Fox moved "Family Guy" to Thursdays, hoping to steal the young male audience from NBC's hard-to-beat Thursday night line-up. That backfired when the beer can-on-the-forehead crowd was lured instead by UPN's even more puerile and testosterone-fueled WWF's "Smackdown."

Then, of course, came the huge competition of CBS's "Survivor," not to mention NBC's "Friends," which is more of a ratings juggernaut than ever. As a "Family Guy" fan Web site puts it: "Friends don't let friends watch 'Friends.'"

"Family Guy" has been dogged by strange turns of fate. Seth MacFarlane's old prep school headmaster launched a bizarre one-man letter-writing campaign against the show when it originally premiered. That didn't kill the show, but Sept. 11 almost did: MacFarlane was supposed to be on the doomed Boston-to-Los Angeles flight, but missed it because his itinerary mistakenly listed the 7:45 a.m. departure time as 8:15 a.m.

The standard complaint about "Family Guy" is that it's derivative, but this seems like complaining about Bugs Bunny not acting like a real rabbit. "Family Guy" takes the concept of derivative to surreal heights and turns it into something sublime.

Just in the first season, "Family Guy" had gags about "All in the Family," "Joanie Loves Chachi," "One Day at a Time," "CHiPs," "Star Trek," Calvin Klein perfume commercials, "Speed Racer," "Happy Days," Kool-Aid ads, and, as they used to say on "Rocky and Bullwinkle," (to throw in a gratuitous pop culture reference myself) a host of others.

Perhaps because the show's writers by now assume that nobody's watching, the inside TV gags have become especially edgy lately. This season, the "Family Guy" TV set featured a courtroom clip from its version of "Touched By an Angel." A lawyer, holding a doll, interrogates a child witness: "Now, where, exactly, did the angel touch you?"

In the recent "Special People's Games," episode, dad Peter Griffin surreptitiously helps his paraplegic policeman neighbor, officer Joe Swanson, win a wheelchair race by dissolving steroids in a glass of water.

"Gee, Peter, this water tastes kind of funny," says straight-arrow Joe.

"You mean like hah-hah Jerry Seinfeld funny?" asks Peter. "Or Elaine Boosler-God-bless-her-she's-trying-funny?"

The heroic policeman's subsequent win is naturally turned into a movie-of-the-week. "'The Joe Swanson Story,' Friday on ABC!" announces the always switched-on "Family Guy" living room TV set. "Followed by 'Dharma and Greg!' (But you don't have to watch that.)"

Brian, the Griffin family's world-weary talking dog, seems inspired by Mr. Peabody on the old "Rocky and Bullwinkle" show, although MacFarlane says not.

"There's a Sherman and Peabody episode on 'Family Guy' coming up," he notes. Really? "No, but we'll send you five bucks if we do it. Will that cover it?"

Stewie, the family's erudite, evil baby reminds me of Sideshow Bob on "The Simpsons." But MacFarlane, who himself voices the baby Stewie, Brian the dog and dad Peter characters, said he actually based Stewie's condescending tone on Rex Harrison's in "My Fair Lady."

"Sideshow Bob sounds a lot like Frasier, in case you haven't noticed," he says.

The "Family Guy" family watches a lot of TV, even more so than "The Simpsons" with their glassy-eyed devotion to "Itchy and Scratchy." So Peter Griffin is quick to figure out that the "Go _Uck Yourself" clue on "Wheel of Fortune" means "Go Tuck Yourself In."

When Peter gets angry, his TV references approach turbo-mode.

"I hate these guys even more than the last few years of 'MASH,' when Alan Alda got control of the camera," he yells. "It's worse than ... than copyright infringement," he exclaims later, his face morphing furiously into Mickey Mouse's head.

But even in a cartoon pandering to that young male demographic, there are limits to how far the envelope can be pushed. In one "Family Guy" episode, everyone finds fun new activities after the town's TV reception stopped working. The script originally included this dialogue:

"I'm gonna go masturbate!" announces one character, joyfully stepping out onto a sunny street. "I'll go with you!" exclaims a second.

That bit was cut, much to the disappointment of its writers. After all, notes MacFarlane, somewhat sulkily, "we never told you how to do it."

MacFarlane, the wunderkind animator, and his co-executive producer, "King of the Hill" veteran David Zuckerman, are remarkably tuned in to the charm of contemporary speech. "We were both basically sat in front of TVs and neglected by our parents," explains Zuckerman.

In one episode, Peter is annoyed when his teenaged son begins hero-worshiping policeman Joe Swanson, who lives next door.

"He killed a man!" says the son in awe. "Well, technically he was killed by the state," says Dudley Doright-esque Officer Joe, with unctuous, fake modesty. "But -- funny story! -- He did curse my name just before the injection."

Nor do MacFarlane and Zuckerman miss any opportunity to twist a cliché. The effect is sometimes brilliantly surreal.

"When you guys fall, does it make a sound?" a hallucinating Peter, lost in the forest, asks a tree. "Are you kidding?" the tree answers. "Scott fell last week and he hasn't shut up about it since."

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