Seth MacFarlane’s animated comedy once scandalised audiences with its barrage of bad-taste jokes. As the show’s 20th season arrives on Disney Plus, Louis Chilton wonders how ‘Family Guy’ has managed to remain ‘un-cancelled’ in a world where offensive humour is increasingly a thing of the past
Remember Family Guy? Fifteen-odd years ago, the Seth MacFarlane-created animated sitcom seemed to be everywhere. After The Simpsons had revolutionised the possibilities of TV animation in the 1990s, Family Guy went one step further. This was The Simpsons’ grubby little brother. The animation was cheap-looking, the storytelling flimsy and artless, and the jokes were loudly, proudly crass. Racist jokes, homophobic jokes, transphobic jokes, ablist jokes, jokes about rape, about paedophilia; nothing was off the table. It won plenty of fans – especially within the young male demographic – but plenty of detractors, too, inciting numerous controversies with its shock-factor material. In many ways, Family Guy represented the worst impulses of an era when pushing back against “PC culture” was considered a cutting-edge comic sensibility.
But there comes a time when every provocateur must meet a reckoning, when every enfant terrible must face trial as a terrible adult. The needle of consensus swings, and jokes that once were hailed as edgy, or outspoken, are found to be, on closer reinspection, offensive, or ill-informed, or simply unfunny. Some series get off with a rap on the knuckles – Friends’ penchant for homophobia hasn’t put a dent in its popularity – while others have been yeeted into total exile, such as Family Guy’s erstwhile bad-taste contemporary Little Britain. And yet, next Wednesday, on Disney Plus in the UK, Family Guy begins its 20th season, with a 21st already in the pipeline. You can’t help but ask: how has it managed to survive so long in an era of supposedly enforced political correctness?
Well, to some extent, Family Guy has changed with the times, making certain concessions to our changing social standards of acceptability. The role of Peter Griffin’s Black friend Cleveland Brown was recently recast, for instance, with Arif Zahir stepping in to replace white actor Mike Henry. The character of Quagmire, depicted throughout much of the show’s run as a lascivious sex offender, was tweaked in recent seasons, accentuating his other, somewhat less problematic characteristics. The 2019 episode “Trump Guy” made headlines not just for its bullish attack on then-president Donald Trump – featuring a scene in which he sexually assaults the Griffins’ daughter, Meg – but also for the suggestion that it was dialling back homophobic jokes. “Many children have learnt their favourite Jewish, Black, and gay jokes by watching your show over the years,” the cartoon Trump tells Peter in the episode. “In fairness, we’ve been trying to phase out the gay stuff,” he replies, an utterance that was celebrated in the press as a statement of tolerant intent.
Family Guy didn’t “phase out the gay stuff”, not really (Peter even admits in a later episode: “That quote was taken out of context and widely misunderstood”). Nor did it particularly phase out the racism, ableism, and sexism that make up such a large part of the show. But it’d be wrong to suggest it has learnt nothing. Exec-producer Alec Sulkin told TV Line two years ago: “If you look at a show from 2005 or 2006 and put it side-by-side with a show from 2018 or 2019, they’re going to have a few differences. Some of the things we felt comfortable saying and joking about back then, we now understand is not acceptable.”
Still, some of the jokes that the show feels “comfortable” about making now still feel like reactionary outrage-baiting. The 2019 episode “Bri-da” featured a number of crass jokes about transgender people; the 2017 episode “Trans-fat”, which saw Peter Griffin pretend to be trans to gain social advantages, contained similarly objectionable jokes.
One of the arguments used to defend the politically incorrect humour in Family Guy, and in other bad taste comedies, is that it is satirical: “depiction is not endorsement”. Of course, this argument never really holds up in Family Guy’s case; the “satire” here is usually paper-thin. Even if the character of Mort Goldstein is in fact “satirising antisemitism”, the satire is indistinguishable from antisemitism itself. Besides, even if the show itself isn’t fundamentally approaching its material from a right-wing viewpoint – MacFarlane is a major donor to the Democratic Party, and some of the show’s writers are vocally liberal – a good amount of its viewers are. When “Trans-fat” first aired, a subset of Family Guy fans lambasted the series on social media for supposedly capitulating to PC culture, thanks to an ending in which Peter Griffin apologises for mocking trans people.
Family Guy’s enduring survival could be down to a gradual maturation in other areas. The animation, a full-blown eyesore in its early days, has improved ten-fold. Increasingly, the humour has scaled back the frenzied, puerile cutaway gags, and increasingly takes a more self-aware tone. More risks are taken, too, with its format, such as an entire episode devoted to a fake in-universe DVD commentary, or a triptych emulating the filmmaking aesthetics of Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson and Michael Bay. This long-term creative stamina is nothing to be scoffed at: by its own 20th season, The Simpsons was over a decade past its peak and had already lost all trace of what made it such a monumental piece of TV. Regardless, Family Guy’s viewing figures have declined substantially over the years, at least on traditional TV. In 2000, and 2002, Family Guy was twice cancelled by Fox for low viewership ratings, before being revived due to high DVD sales and the popularity of Adult Swim re-runs. Now, it draws less than half of what it did at its lowest pre-cancellation ebb. Maybe there just aren’t enough people still watching to really cultivate much offence.
All of these factors may be overlooking the obvious answer. Family Guy hasn’t been hogtied by the PC police, run out of town on a rail, because the PC brigade doesn’t really exist. For all the talk of being “unable to say anything anymore”, the fact is that you can, by and large, say whatever the hell you want. Dave Chappelle complains about being “cancelled” for his jokes about trans people, but he’s still given high-profile Netflix specials. There’s a place in the market for bad-taste comedy, and Family Guy is dutifully filling that hole. It’s a show that prides itself on saying the unsayable. Thankfully for most people, what it’s really saying is the easily ignorable.
‘Family Guy’ season 20 begins on Disney Plus in the UK and Ireland on 3 November