Family Guy: A History of Controversy
Believe it or not, cartoons are able to get away with a lot based solely on their animated nature. Even when a character does something especially raunchy or offensive, you can’t really get all that worked up about it. After all, it’s not like the controversial subject matter is coming out of the mouth of an actual person (OK, technically it is, but we don’t see it). Now, it’s a little easier to cast blame when it comes to a show like “South Park,” which has been written and voiced by the same two men since its inception, but when it comes to rival series “Family Guy,” the line is more blurred due to the sheer amount of writers the show has had (50 and counting, with a number of different showrunners, too). That said, it’s still seen plenty of public outcry through the years, which we plan to tackle in broad strokes. However, because of the show’s use of non-sequitur cutaways, we can’t hit on every joke that has offended someone or this page would be a mile long. We’ll simply focus on some of the most notorious examples.
Anyone who has seen even one episode of “Family Guy” shouldn’t be surprised that it is one of the Parent Television Council’s most hated shows. In fact, they have filed numerous indecency complaints to the FCC since the series premiered, and even launched one against the Season 4 episode “PTV” that heavily skewed the FCC itself in a musical number which the PTC encouraged members to formally complain about due to its sexually explicit humor. The song has since gone on to be considered one of the show’s most catchy numbers, and was rehashed into the opening of the 2007 Emmy Awards. Just because the FCC is required to take every complaint seriously, however, that doesn’t mean that watchdog groups automatically get their way. In fact, they rarely do. But that hasn’t stopped them from trying over and over again, taking on episodes such as “Family Gay,” “Brian & Stewie,” and most recently the Season 13 episode “Quagmire’s Mom” which centers on a character who gets charged with the statutory rape of a minor.
Rape and Domestic Violence
“Tactful” would probably not be the best word to describe how “Family Guy” handles sensitive material. Piggybacking off of our last category, when it comes to topics such as rape, which is already taboo, the show often tries and fails to make light of the situation. Unless you possess the dark sense of humor required to find cutaways like this Aquaman bit funny instead of appalling, more newsworthy instances of poorly executed rape jokes like Stewie’s prank phone call in the “The Simpsons Guy” will no doubt offend you as they did numerous media outlets. Along those very same lines, domestic violence has never been a strong suit for “Family Guy” either, with the Season 10 episode “Screams of Silence: The Story of Brenda Q” standing out the most. Many critics bashed it for not only being unfunny, but hardly even satirical in the way it conveyed a woman in an abusive relationship. Random cutaways tackling said issue rarely do much better.
Disease and Other Physical Handicaps
By now, we imagine you are beginning to get the picture. “Family Guy” will make fun of just about anything and almost prides itself on it. We’re not judging one way or another, as that is not the point of this article, but it has certainly made them plenty of enemies along the way. Memorable instances of the show poking fun at serious ailments include their many shots at Parkinson’s disease (particularly at the expense of actor Michael J. Fox), Down Syndrome, and of course, AIDS. The latter drew heavy protest from organizations such as ActionAIDS for its cavalier approach to the subject matter in the Season 4 episode “The Cleveland-Loretta Quagmire,” which featured a barbershop quartet delivering a positive diagnosis to a terminal patient with a now infamous song and dance number (listen to it here). Considering one of its main recurring characters is a paraplegic, the series probably skewers wheelchair-bound disabilities most. It does this by simply using him as the mouthpiece for these jokes in an attempt to soften the blow. This goes back to what we mentioned earlier concerning whose mouth certain lines come out of when it comes to animation. Still, episodes like Season 5’s “No Meals on Wheels” can take this tactic to the extreme.
As someone who was nearly a victim of the events of September 11th himself, you would think Seth MacFarlane would be a little more sensitive towards the 9/11 jokes used on “Family Guy.” Alas, he seemingly couldn’t care less, even when his characters anger thousands by, for example, high-fiving each other after deciding to let the tragic event take place rather than stopping it (Note: the plot of the episode in question, “Road to the Pilot,” involved the use of time travel). But if the old adage of “Tragedy plus time equals comedy” is true, then perhaps those offended after more than 10 years are the ones in the wrong. Still, one can never be too careful, even when making jokes that involve a hypothetical tragedy. In the Season 11 episode “Turban Cowboy,” two separate gags depicting a character running over dozens of Boston Marathon participants and accidentally setting off bombs in the street with a cell phone, respectively, wound up being quite foreboding of the Boston Marathon bombing which took place less than a month later. Had someone not edited the clips together to make them seem like they predicted the event, perhaps the episode wouldn’t have been viewed as quite so controversial.
Religion and Politics
“Family Guy” has been considered a liberal mouthpiece for Seth MacFarlane’s own political agenda for years, which anyone who doesn’t share his opinions is sure to find annoying. However, this only causes more of a stir when the show, for instance, compares presidential candidate John McCain and running mate Sarah Palin to Nazis (again, through the use of time travel in this particular instance). While political issues are about the hottest button besides religion, the show certainly shows no restraint in that category either. It has depicted Jesus Christ as a recurring character on several occasions, but most recently in a Christmas-themed episode titled “The 2,000-Year-Old Virgin” which saw him on a quest to get laid. This offended Christians worldwide even by the usual “Family Guy” standards. Then again, the show is no stranger to mocking other faiths, occasionally extending its reach to those who don’t even necessarily watch the show like it did in 2012 with a highly offensive Emmy campaign mailer which used the terminology “…bloated, overprivileged Brentwood Jews…” as a means to win award votes.
More Touchy Subject Matter
The list goes on an on. “Family Guy” regularly takes racial stereotypes and makes them into cutaways, features characters who are implied to be pedophiles and tries to make them funny, and was seriously criticized by organizations such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) for their portrayal of transgender people in the Season 8 episode “Quagmire’s Dad.” While the episode itself wasn’t overly critical of transgender individuals themselves, it was the extended vomiting sequence after a character unknowingly had sex with one such individual that angered the LGBT community. Along with this and countless other examples, the series continues to take on any controversial subject it can work into an episode with arguably less subtlety each time, which can be seen as good or bad depending on your sense of humor.
Banned from TV
Despite all the controversial material “Family Guy” has been able to get away with over the course of its 16 years on television, there have still been a few episodes which FOX has refused to air (at least initially). The first case was the Season 3 finale “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein.” While tame by the standards of the show now, it was pulled back in 2002 because it was thought to illicit an anti-Semitic response. And with it featuring a song titled “I Need a Jew,” FOX could hardly be blamed for its decision. It later aired in 2004 on the network after Adult Swim put it on television a year prior. Then there’s the Season 8 finale “Partial Terms of Endearment” in which a character becomes a surrogate for a couple who winds up dying and is faced with the decision of whether or not to then have an abortion. Considering the show’s incredibly lax attitude towards matters such as this, it’s no wonder the network has still never aired it to this day, citing both sensitive subject matter and advertiser concerns for its decision.
On a lighter note, the Season 7 episode “420” which dealt with the legalization of marijuana was never aired in Venezuela. However, it had no problem passing inspection here in the U.S.
Originality and Quality
Closing our list out is an issue of plagiarism and merit. Right out of the gate, it was hard not to compare “Family Guy” to “The Simpsons,” especially when it premiered right after the long-running series following Super Bowl XXXIII. Coupling this with both shows centering on working-class families with three kids and the inevitable jokes which were strikingly similar to each other, it was only a matter of time before other popular cartoons including “The Simpsons,” “Futurama” and, of course, “South Park” began taking shots at it for both mimicking shows that came before it and its overuse of cutaways (or manatee jokes if you prefer).
In the end, like all comedy, everything boils down to opinion. What offends one person or group of people won’t necessarily offend another. The real issue here comes down to whether you find a series like “Family Guy” of a quality that deserves to offend the masses. Has it earned the right to do so through biting social commentary such as that seen on “South Park,” or is it just a poor excuse to try and get a rise out of people as lazily as possible? Regardless, one thing should now be abundantly clear: if you can’t take a joke that unapologetically push the envelope, stay out of Seth MacFarlane’s kitchen.