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Peeve Farm
Breeding peeves for show, not just to keep as pets
Brian Tiemann
Silicon Valley-based purveyor of a confusing mixture of Apple punditry and political bile.

btman at grotto11 dot com

Read These Too:

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Little Green Footballs
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Capitalist Lion
Red Letter Day
Eric S. Raymond
Tal G in Jerusalem
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Corsair the Rational Pirate
Ravishing Light
Cartago Delenda Est

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Tuesday, May 25, 2004
12:59 - Please don't kill me

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Okay: I've held off for a year, but I'm afraid I must once again leap into the breach and add more comments about Family Guy. If you're a hard-core fan of the show, I entreat you to please read no further, because I have no wish to antagonize the untold zillions of people who will hear no ill spoken of the show. But speak ill of it I must, and it's either alienate readers, or sit and silently fume until the top of my head pops open and goes fweeeeeeee like that factory whistle that always blows when the tension rises to a climax in Sweeney Todd.

...Still with me? Ho boy. Okay. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Anyway: I've tried to like Family Guy. I really have. I've given it a level chance for well over a year. I've patiently watched it in its slot following Futurama and preceding Aqua Teen Hunger Force (or whatever teen-oriented anime they inexplicably keep seeing fit to run at midnight), giving it all the chance in the world to impress me. There must be something I'm just not getting, right? Everywhere I go, people adore it. They speak of it in tones of awe. People who forswear sitcoms and reality TV as lowbrow and predictable, nonetheless, uniformly love Family Guy. Even a friend of mine in Burbank, who owns his own small animation studio and does professional voice-acting work (and thus can hardly be said not to have a finely tuned sense of comedic timing and quality standards), owns all the DVDs and lets them run at random in his changer.

But... well. I don't know. I just don't.

All I can conclude from watching the recurring episodes several times now is that the writers just... aren't very good. To start with the very conception of the show, you've got a lineup of characters who—and I don't understand who this is supposed to appeal to—are all, without exception, annoying. I mean, what's with that? Why do we have to listen to Peter's dorky, specifically-designed-to-make-you-want-to-club-him-like-a-harp-seal laugh? Why do we have to put up with Lois' banshee-with-laryngitis-scraping-its-long-untrimmed-fingernails-on-a-blackboard voice? How long did Seth McFarlane sit in a sound booth refining the voice of the son (whose name I still can't remember), until settling on something that sounds like a frog on a cocktail of crack and helium? At what point did he leap from his chair, shouting Eureka! upon concluding that he'd developed the perfect voice to flesh out a cast perfectly tuned to rub viewers' brains raw with every line they deliver? It's like watching a show predicated on an Urkel/Jimmy (from South Park)/Orko/Ozmodiar/Snarf/Jakovasaur/The Baby From Dinosaurs ensemble. All the most annoying characters ever conceived for TV, together again for the first time!

(Let's not even get into the bearded-Spock-universe versions of Lenny and Carl, aka Quagmire and Cleveland. The latter dutifully copies the "Token black guy with a voice that sounds, for some reason, absolutely 100% non-Black" thing from Carl; and the less said about Quagmire, the happier I'll be. There's Patrick Warburton as the guy in the wheelchair, the late-90s "Hi! I'm a politically-correct show!" meme that so seldom does anything but piss me off: What, even TV shows are subject to the Americans With Disabilities Act?)

The baby, Stewie, is clearly intended to be the real comic star of the show, and to be fair it's fun to listen to his delivery. But really, I ask you: how long can one expect to drag out this "precocious effeminate baby who wants to kill his mother" schtick before it starts to get, you know, old? Brian, the dog, is supposed to be the straight-man, but the fact that he's the only character who's at all sympathetic makes him the funniest of the lot as far as I'm concerned.

But I've been through all that before. I've got to vent about the timing in this show, which even my Burbank-dwelling friend admitted was inept (he just has more tolerance for bad timing, he says—a strange thing for an animation director to admit, it seems to me). They just don't know when to let a joke die. And even more unforgivably, they could get away with stretching a joke out for the two or three minutes that they sometimes let it soak up—if they made the joke grow consistently funnier as it progressed. But they don't. For my Exhibit A:

When Peter's boss comes over for dinner, the three kids greet him, but then say that they regrettably must retire to bed early. Annnnnd... cue Sound of Music parody scene! The kids line up and do their rendition of "So Long, Farewell" (inasmuch as it can be done with only three kids). Okay, cute; ha-ha. Um... but isn't it supposed to be a parody somehow? No, McFarlane decided, in his infinite wisdom, to play the scene entirely straight. A line-for-line, gesture-for-gesture crib from the source material. "I'd like... to stay... and taste my first champagne! Yes?" "No!" ... and the fact that that one line is slavishly tuned to the original stilted tone is the funniest thing to be forthcoming. The kids recite their lines and whine their way upstairs, and I'm sitting there staring at the screen, wondering when the joke is supposed to come. And there is none! It's just a frickin' straight rip! I sat through three minutes of screen time for that? I may as well watch this; it's got as much originality and joy. Sheesh.

And lest I think this was to be an isolated incident, there's the inevitable "Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory" episode, which premise ought to be recognized as a legitimate shorthand for shark-jumping in any series in which it appears (Futurama, Dexter's Lab...). The whole episode plays as an almost straight play-by-play, but then all such attempts do; all shows' writers that attempt this device get away with it by changing the songs' lyrics and making lots of Oompa-Loompa jokes and making fun of the wavy 70s title-overlays, and it's all good. But then, when the inevitable point comes when Peter and Brian get separated from the group and drink the Fizzy Lifting Beer, the scene is identical to the original. Remember how Willy Wonka in movie form was a comedy? Remember how the comic timing was supposed to give you a jolt of surprise and a thrill of upcoming action of some sort when Charlie looked up and saw the fan blades whirling at the top of the shaft, as he and his Grandpa rose inexorably up toward it? Remember how in the gentle humor of those days, the fact that they got themselves down by burping out the gas was funny, somehow? (Well, okay, bear with me.) So now it's the same damned scene, the same postures, the same composition, the same fan blades, the same danger, and the scene takes just as long to play out as the original did. And how do they get out of it? How do they release the gas and descend away from danger? By farting! Oh ho! Now that's comedy!

Things just draaaaag on. There's the "Entire family in a kung-fu Battle Royale" scene, which wears out its novelty in far less time than the two minutes they devote to it. There's the ever-popular five-minute Peter-vs-Guy-In-Chicken-Costume Fight scene; and in the same Y2K/Guns are Bad episode, there's the bit where they encounter Randy Newman at his piano, plinking out his extemporaneous song about Lois, ponderously lyricizing about her facial expressions as she eats an apple. I'm thinking, Okay, ha-ha, it's a Randy Newman joke. ... Uhhhh, yeahp—it's still a Randy Newman joke. .....Hmm. Maybe I'll go downstairs and get a drink. ...... Ahh, that hit the spot. Huh? It's STILL a Randy Newman joke? I swear, the writers must be deliberately trying to fill up space in a script that keeps ending up being worth about seventeen minutes instead of the usual twenty-two. There's no other way I can explain it, or imagine that all these die-hard fans can possibly put up with it. The episode that aired last night, in which the wheelchair guy goes into the Special Olympics, featured as its impossibly-drawn-out rake-scene a bit where the guy (Joe?) sits at his table in the bar and bawls about not having been able to run down a perp earlier. He bawls. And bawls. And BAWLS! And gradually, eventually, his three friends start to sidle away. First Cleveland stands up, ever so slowly, filling up ever so much film footage, and steps out of frame. Still bawling. Then Quagmire sliiiiiiiiiiides under the table, oozes his way out from under their feet, and sloooooowly, painstakingly, rolls away off the bottom of the screen. Still bawling! Then Peter sloooooooooooooooooowly squirms his way out a window above the table. Still frickin' bawling! And that's it! Not even any payoff to all that waiting! No joke to defuse the tension, no punchline to punctuate the scene—it just ends. Total time elapsed: something like two goddamned minutes, during which I heard Lance in the other room bark out a cry of annoyance and switch his TV to the History Channel, where the comedic timing is much snappier.

I mean, are they trying to alienate viewers? Are they testing their fans to see how much they'll put up with? Are they working from a piece of comedic insight that has made McFarlane a Koresh-style deity among his writers, where he's convinced that the key to real humor is deliberately stretching jokes out way farther than the audience is used to putting up with, because that's the new and groundbreaking stroke of genius that will save prime-time animation from itself? What must the director have told Patrick Warburton during the recording session for this scene? "Don't worry—it'll be funny once it's animated! Just keep bawling until we tell you to stop. Go on, go ahead. We'll keep rolling. Okay, Bill, let's go get a sandwich across the street. Back in a bit, Patrick!"

I'm sure there must be a method to this madness, somewhere, buried deeply in a mountain in Wyoming. The writers must know what they're doing, right? I mean, look at all these fans! They must be doing something right!

But then I see a scene that conveys to me that the answer is No, they don't; they're just flailing. Case in point: the "Gumbel 2 Gumbel" episode, in which someone makes one of those offhand allusions that you know is going to be immediately followed by a flashback to some outlandish remembered scene from the past, itself usually drawn out too long ("Hey, Lois, remember that time I flashed my nuts in public?" <cut to Peter standing with his coat open and a bag of walnuts inside, which he stands and shows off to the camera for the next ninety seconds> ...not a real scene, but it may as well have been, for all the eye-rolling fascination these elegantly crafted flashbacks usually evoke). I don't remember what the lead-in was, but the flashback/cut was to an attempted parody of Good Times. Now, you know that if there's ever going to be a parody of Good Times, there's exactly one thing you can ever make fun of: Jimmy Walker. Right? So yeah, they do. But they do it in the most excruciating way possible, in a way that lets you see into the writers' brainstorming process so clearly they may as well have just cut to live-action footage of the jam session table, FLCL-style, and shown us how it went down:

"Let's do a joke about Good Times!"
"Heh—yeah! Jimmy Walker: Dy-no-miiiite!"
"Well, right, but we need more than that, don't we? What else is funny about Good Times?"
"...Uhhh.... I dunno, really. I never actually saw the show. Did any of you?"
"Oh hell no. That's not really my kind of show, y'know?"
"Huh? What are you saying, you hate black people or something?"
"What? No! I'm just saying, I don't think that kind of... you know, it's just not my style of... shut up!"
"Okay, okay. Let's look it up on IMDB."
<clickety clickety>
"Not much here. Oh! Wait, here we go: the mom's name is Florida! Funny names are always good!"
"Florida—perfect! Can we make a George W. Bush joke about it?"
"Another one? We've already got six this episode."
"Okay, okay. I guess you're right. Though nobody will know how much of an idiot George W. Bush is unless we mention it in every single episode. It's up to us to educate the ignorant American public on this all-important matter."
"Uh... yeah. Well, agreed, but we still need to finish these scene. Don't worry, those Fox-watching morons will laugh at anything we put in here."
"Okay, Florida. Anything else we can use?"

<crickets chirp>

A long pause. Suddenly, one of the writers claps his hands: "Dy-no-miiiite!"

Instead, what we get is the result of that inspired session, a parody scene from Good Times that runs to the best of my recollection like this:

Jimmy: "Dy-no-miiiiite!"
Florida: "My name is Florida! Florida! <breaks down in sobs> Why, oh why, is my name Florida?!"

(pause for three or four beats, while the audience—quite literally, in my case, the very first time I saw this—counts down the seconds: Five... four... three... two... one...)

Jimmy: <claps> "Dy-no-miiiiite!"

I swear, I very nearly threw something at the screen when that happened. I don't like being insulted by my TV, not in the middle of a block of programming specifically intended to lift me out of the doldrums of TV animation that's usually nothing but insulting. It makes me feel like a sucker.

Yes, Family Guy does have its moments. When they can keep the timing down to short, quick gags, they're often quite exquisitely delivered; I enjoy some of the humanism in the characterizations, like Stewie's reaction shot when he realizes he's been trying to nurse from Peter's nipple. (It drags on almost too long, though; just when I was right on the edge of yelling at the TV to please jump-cut, please, PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD JUMP-CUT NOW NOW NOW, they did! Good for them!) But there's just this thread of interminability running through the show, a sense of the writers simply not knowing what the hell they're doing. They telegraph jokes like they're carrying the spool of wire between two running men in Blue from Baltimore to Harpers Ferry; and I don't want to give the impression that I have no attention span, but

Okay, so how many of you are Family Guy fans who have reached this point even after I warned you not to? Bah. Well, if you have, then I guess there isn't any damage I can undo by being all charitable about the show now. So all I can do is close by saying that I'd just like Family Guy to please go away, whenever is most convenient. Thank you, Cartoon Network.

...Except evidently CN has just commissioned a whole new season of Family Guy episodes. Sigh...

UPDATE: This is the most coherent critique of Family Guy that I've seen to date; don't read mine without reading Weinman's too.

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© Brian Tiemann