Tuesday, January 10, 2006

AMERICAN IDIOTS

by NANCY FRANKLIN
Seth MacFarlane’s animated empire.
Issue of 2006-01-16
Posted 2006-01-09
New Yorker

Animated television shows and the economy of the United States have something in common—they both depend on a precious natural resource. But, while the oil the country relies on will run out someday, the fuel that keeps TV cartoons going, natural gas, is endlessly renewable. As long as there are human beings—particularly boys and overgrown boys—around to fart, and make fart jokes, there will be cartoons. Of that you can be sure. This is not at all a criticism of boys or what they turn into; it just happens to be a fact, and a diamond-hard one, that boys aren’t subject to the depredations of the Four Horsemen of Appropriateness—Received Notions About Femininity, Fear of Not Being Perceived as Nice, No Boy Will Ever Want You If You Act / Look / Talk Like That, and Caring Too Much What Other People Think of You. These soul killers, having been loosed on the world by all the manufacturers of pink toys and spaghetti-strap toddlerwear, and sometimes by well-meaning, anxious mothers, come after girls before they even start elementary school and turn them into polite (if sometimes mean) little beings. So it’s easier for boys not to lose sight of the important facts of life: that bathroom humor is hilarious (if you don’t believe me, call an ancient Greek playwright), and that “butt” really is the funniest word in the world. It’s a place from which all manner and degree of embarrassment, shame, and humiliation emanate—a quality it shares with the body parts that are its neighbors down there, though mention should also be made of those parts’ pleasurable aspects, since they, too, provide so much opportunity for comedy. Adults, if they’re honest with themselves, know that this is true, and if they’ve forgotten it they’ll certainly get a reminder when they have children. (There is a series of Japanese children’s books about the bodily functions that children tend to become preoccupied with; the most famous volumes in the series—“Everyone Poops” and “The Gas We Pass: The Story of Farts”—got that way because adults buy them as gag presents for other adults. At least, they do in one family I know.) For better or for worse, though, girls are encouraged to be dignified and self-contained, and while women play a role in TV animation (voicing characters, writing, and, sometimes, producing), all but one of the high-profile cartoons that have aired since “The Simpsons” débuted, in 1989, were created by men—and watched mostly by teen-age boys. (“Daria,” whose protagonist is a smart, sardonic teen-age girl, was co-created by Susie Lewis Lynn.) Even the three little dynamos in “The Powerpuff Girls” were brought to life by a dude.

Currently, the blue ribbon for pull-my-finger comedy goes to Fox’s “Family Guy,” on the basis of both ribaldry and popularity; it’s the most watched show among teen-age boys and college-age men. It can’t be said—not by me, anyway—that “Family Guy” has surpassed “The Simpsons” in terms of quality and reach, but the show is definitely having a moment in the sun. And it isn’t only a fartfest, of course. It’s also a slapstick sitcom about a middle-class suburban Rhode Island family, headed by Lois and Peter Griffin, she a standard-issue loving housewife who married down and he a hugely fat happy idiot. The show, which was created by Seth MacFarlane, a now thirty-two-year-old graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, débuted in 1999, and didn’t do well in the ratings, though it did last for fifty episodes before it was cancelled, in 2002. Reruns began airing on the Cartoon Network, during the block of programming called “Adult Swim,” which runs late at night six nights a week. “Adult Swim” features three dozen or so shows aimed at post-pubescent viewers, including odd, arty, anime-inspired shows, series that are familiar from their network runs, such as “Futurama,” and ones that throw the history of TV cartoons into a blender and serve up pastiche on wry bread, such as “Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law,” which brings an old Hanna-Barbera character into a contemporary setting. (Comedy Central has done something similar, but much more wicked, in “Drawn Together,” an animated “reality” show featuring cartoon archetypes—a musclebound superhero, a Betty Boop look-alike, a Pikachu wannabe—living together in a house and displaying the undiscriminating libidos and tiny minds that seem to be prerequisites for most reality shows. It’s filthy, and sometimes it’s even funny.)

“Family Guy,” which had never had a consistent time slot when it was on Fox, became a hit on the Cartoon Network, and then it became a hit all over again when it was released on a series of DVDs: the first volume was the best-selling TV series in 2003, and it’s the all-time best-selling DVD of any animated show. In 2004, Fox announced that it was bringing “Family Guy” back; it was the first time that DVD sales had driven a show’s return to the airwaves. Then, to capitalize on the show’s success, MacFarlane was asked to come up with an additional package of three linked episodes that were released on DVD last fall, before airing on TV; if you do the math, you’ll see that you pay much more per episode for this set—and they’re episodes that you can later see for free—than you did for the previous collections. To make a long story short, when it comes to “Family Guy” Fox is rolling in it.

Several characters on the show have become stars—they’re on T-shirts and mugs, and can be bought in ringtone form. There’s Stewie Griffin, the one-year-old baby of the family, whose voice is modelled on Rex Harrison’s in “My Fair Lady”; he’s foppish and maniacal, and creepily pansexual, and he’s always plotting to kill his mother. Brian, the dog (an overfed Mr. Peabody), is the smartest member of the family, though he is a little too fond of Martinis. But describing cartoon characters is a losing business—so much depends on the voices. “Family Guy” is almost like a radio show, and that’s one of its pleasures. (As it happens, MacFarlane himself voices Peter, Stewie, and Brian. His real voice, low and resonant, sounds like Brian’s.)

MacFarlane and his writers deserve every penny they make—except maybe some of the pennies they pocket from their new series, “American Dad!,” a satirical take on the bland family shows of the fifties, when father knew best and mother stayed home, which premièred on Fox last year. Here the dad, Stan Smith, is a C.I.A. agent (and also not all that bright), emotionally vacant, unreflective, and cheerfully overbearing—the personification of America and its actions on the world stage. One problem with “American Dad!” is that it comes on right after “Family Guy,” and the effect is of both too much and not enough of a good thing. The two shows have a lot in common in terms of look and sound and sensibility, and yet “American Dad!,” six years younger than “Family Guy,” seems stale already. Watching a cartoon sendup of American values and establishment attitudes makes us restless now; the comedy is too broad. (The exclamation point in the title virtually announces that.) We want to know what the real lies and the real facts are, and for that we’ve got Jon Stewart.

“Family Guy” is laugh-out-loud, timelessly loopy—it’s a Dadaesque vaudeville turn, often literally. Peter will be talking about something, anything, and all of a sudden the show cuts to a song-and-dance team in straw boaters and red-and-white striped jackets capering in response. And then they’re gone. “Family Guy” takes so much from “The Simpsons” that it’s impossible to count all the ways, though it’s very easy to spot them—the dim-witted dad, the (mostly) sensible housewife, an obsession with TV and celebrity, preening local newscasters, musical production numbers, and on and on. The show’s signature is its constant cutaways to scenes packed with inspired non sequiturs and references to everything that was thought up by Hollywood and Madison Avenue in the past hundred years—from Fatty Arbuckle to the DuMont Network, Mister Rogers, “Laugh-In,” and the Hope-Crosby “Road” pictures. The show pokes fun at every race, color, creed, interest group, and nationality, and throws in physical disabilities, too. In an episode a couple of months ago, Brian got a job at The New Yorker. On his first day, he found out that there were no toilets in the bathrooms; the people who worked there, he was told, didn’t need them, because they didn’t have anuses. Later that day, Brian was fired when the editor discovered that he hadn’t graduated from college. We’re all terribly sorry that Brian had such a bad experience, and we’d like him to know that he can come back anytime. There will always be a toilet here for him.