On the Family Guy Thing

A Star is Burns18

“And if you ever want to visit my show…” – Jay Sherman
“Nah, we’re not gonna be doing that.” – Bart Simpson

Family Guy has been a raw nerved subject for Simpsons fans pretty much since it began.  This owes in part to the fact that no less a person than Harry Shearer has said that it was cooked up by FOX for the express purposes of squeezing the underpaid voice actors on The Simpsons.  (I don’t know if that’s actually true or not, but it certainly sounds like something FOX would do and Shearer is orders of magnitude more trustworthy than they are.)  Whatever the initial motivation, however, the fact remains that Family Guy came on air right as The Simpsons was crumbling, on the same network, and with the same basic setup, and that’s more than enough to put the word “rip-off” on the tip of people’s tongues.

Chasing the white rabbit of “who copied who” and “how closely” can be fun, but questions of creative influence and credit slip down bottomless holes when you try to pin them down.  There’s no doubt that Family Guy wouldn’t have existed without the success of The Simpsons, but there’s also no doubt that Family Guy is a different show with a different sense of humor and a different creative core.  Flame wars and exhausting discussions can rage in the borderlands between those two certainties, but, like most rabbit chases, they rarely produce any tangible insights or results.

Further complicating matters is the way that Family Guy itself has fallen into the same kind of comedic mediocrity as Zombie Simpsons.  It fell from a much (much) lower height, but, like it’s elder, it’s been reduced to going through the motions for years now.

Being cartoons, both shows are immunized against the inevitable aging that kills even successful live action comedies after a few years.  But critical attention and media interest have mostly moved on, and here in 2014, both shows are kept alive by habit and routine, on the part of the audiences and the staffs.  The people watching know what they want to see (Homer get hurt, Stewie say something evil, etc.), and the people making the show know how to meet those minimal expectations.  Both have become rote and safe entertainment, the kind of dull monotone that keeps enough people tuning in not because they want to see something new and exciting, but because they want something familiar and predicable.

That is the context in which the crossover episode must be understood, and the irony that a show long criticized for mindlessly copying The Simpsons has blithely followed it into senility is easily the most amusing thing about its bloated, double-episode runtime.  Family Guy, long a show that will happily acknowledge criticism even as it ignores the substance of said criticism, basically said so itself on Sunday:

Chris: Yay!  A crossover always brings out the best in each show!  It certainly doesn’t smack of desperation.  The priorities are always creative and not driven by marketing or-
Stewie: Okay, that’s enough.

As a one off joke or deflection, that’s not bad.  But the rest of the episode is a long, drawn out exercise in proving Chris’s sarcasm right.  The episode is laden with one-note crossover jokes about how this or that is slightly different on one show or the other.  Each character gets matched up with their rough equivalent (Peter and Homer, Lois and Marge, Lisa and Meg, Bart and Stewie), and things plow forward from there.  Homer and Peter are both irresponsible jerks, so let’s watch them be so in their slightly different ways: animate, rinse, repeat.

When they announced this ploy last summer, my official reaction was “meh“.  Having now sat through the thing, I don’t have much more to add.  The godmother of this kind of crossover is The Jetsons Meet the Flintsones, where, you guessed it, George and company go back in time to Bedrock while Fred and his family go into the future.  Each family member has to deal with living their life in the other time, fish out of water hilarity ensues (<- not really), and then everyone gets back at the end.  “The Simpsons Guy” is pretty much that.

It’ll be a curious little footnote in the history of both shows, but nothing that happened in the episode was particularly memorable or even really risque (at least by Family Guy standards).  Meg cuts herself, there’s a pointless rape threat (shock comedy is weak and often not even comedy), a waste of time music video, cameos from other FOX shows, and then Peter and Homer engage in one of Family Guy‘s trademark “chicken fights” before it ends.

The repetitiveness and lack of imagination on display are the real reason so many people said this was a bad idea.  Both sets of characters are long since played out, and watching them go through their motions with each other isn’t any more entertaining than when they do it a half hour apart.  Mostly, it’s just boring.

32 Responses to “On the Family Guy Thing”

  1. 1 Al Gore Doll
    2 October 2014 at 5:11 pm

    If the show had been more like “A Star is Burns” where the crossover is woven into another plot involving Springfield, it would have been more interesting. Meeting each others’ counterparts and just commenting on it is way lazier.

    • 2 Joe H
      2 October 2014 at 6:26 pm

      Gotta agree there. While my extremely low expectations were slightly exceeded, this crossover played it very safe. They didn’t even make a jab about the show being past its prime, rather it was revered as a “very honorable guest appearance”

      In the “Stewie Kills Louis” episode several years ago, Stewie breaks out in a long song number about people that annoy him, including the verse “The guy who watched ‘The Simpsons’ back in 1994…..And won’t admit the damn thing isn’t funny anymore.” Somewhere along the line it seems that Family Guy lost that bite and by the time this episode came out, they just regulated their “edginess” to a more celebrity roast approach to keep things on a more cordial basis.

      Though I have to admit, seeing Homer bite Peter Griffin’s balls is not something I expected to see. That and seeing zombie Homer “die” a horrible death was unexpectedly enjoyable.

      • 3 Stan
        2 October 2014 at 8:44 pm

        They tried to avoid that kind of reference by a mile, it seems. Not talk about how ZS sucks. But being given that today’s FG also sucks, and it’s hard to tell which sucks more, I’m not surprised here. I think the way they presented Homer at the Kwik-e-Mart pretty much paved the road for what could possibly be mocked, and what couldn’t.
        I’ll never forgive them Bart’s “Later, dude” though.

        • 4 Rick
          4 October 2014 at 12:00 am

          For all of the crossover’s failures, I don’t know where you guys are getting that they didn’t slam Zombie Simpsons. They absolutely did. Peter says it so verbatim at one point, something along the lines of “I think I speak of everybody when I say I’m over The Simpsons!”, immediately after saying how he used to think they were the funniest thing he ever met, but then all went downhill. It’s one of the bright spots in it.

          • 5 Stan
            4 October 2014 at 12:44 am

            Well, that joke is certainly worth something, is it? Saying in the open what hundreds of thousands of viewers think today, I mean. FG used to be that little blowing whistle that said “X sucks” when the vast majority loved X. Today they did pretty much what one very polite neighbor would: mow their part of the lawn, and then, friendlily advise you to mow yours. I mean, this doesn’t stand out a bit. This isn’t mocking. It’s called “adding your gasoline to the fire”. And for that, FG can go fuck themselves down the same road as ZS.

            • 6 Rick
              4 October 2014 at 3:34 am

              Then again, as Charlie Sweatpants has pointed out many times in the past (most recently with the Every Simpsons Ever marathon) people are more than eager to bring up the series only to reminisce about its past, and making nary the slightest acknowledgment of its current status. No one brings up the downfall because to do so would be to admit how horrible things have gotten, and many prefer to stick with the image of the golden years, and ignore the ugly truth. So to see this being expressed so openly and directly was a personal treat for me. Can’t think of many shows out there that have openly taken a dump in The Simpsons’ shark jumping.

              • 7 Stan
                4 October 2014 at 5:28 am

                Ahahah, yes, the stupid deluded grown up children who still think they live in the 90s. Probably because for them, pure Americans and not pathetic cultural hybrids such as myself, the original Simpsons was 100% outstanding. I mean, the humor, the animation and whatnot. I’m not going to go further in that vein because I doubt you’d ever understand my point.
                But FG has always spoken out for me. Believe it or not, when I was 15 back in 2000, I actually liked that show. Up until its untimely cancellation, I liked how it was mocking not the general margin error of the American society (that any society is bound to have anyway), no. But actually, the very core of it – the pop culture. That shitty fucking idiotic stereotyped pop culture. One helluva rebel of a show, it was.
                I honestly think that the crossover episode didn’t change my opinion of ZS. In fact, it did nothing to either glorify or reprimand that carcass of a show. Instead, it was FG slowly dying under all these heavy layers of rotting fandom, that outbreak of today’s social stupidity. And that episode was merely its last breath.

                • 8 Rick
                  4 October 2014 at 5:46 pm

                  I’d actually be interested in seeing what you fully mean by that first part; don’t underestimate me, mate!

                  • 9 Stan
                    5 October 2014 at 1:50 am

                    I follow both cultures: Western and Russian. None that I can completely rule out, and due to their contradictions (which aren’t common, but they happen), I can’t embrace either one completely. I’m stuck in this state when I watch shows like The Simpsons (not Zombie Simpsons), and after 5-6 episodes, I get bored because from the point of view of another culture, some jokes are kind of weird, and some references are misleading. Of course, this is only my personal conflict and I don’t bring it up every time, I’m just saying that maybe were I 100% pro-Western, I’d appreciate that show more.
                    Life makes us what it makes us. Some things we can change, some we can’t. When both cultures spurn you and send you into the other one, though, you’re more bound being an outcast than you might think.
                    Remember, you asked for that one, mate.

          • 10 Joe H
            5 October 2014 at 1:20 am

            Could be that that statement had a double meaning, though I wasn’t sure. Then again, I don’t recall Peter’s statement in its entirety.

            I agree it’s a bright spot.

            I’m also wondering if there are similar jokes that got cut that will show up on DVD later. Probably not anything worth the trouble, but I do appreciate the show including additional scenes or jokes on the DVDs to give their waning fanbase an extra incentive to buy them. That Stewie line I mentioned was only included on the DVD

    • 11 Jack
      2 October 2014 at 6:27 pm

      It’s weird that ‘A Star is Burns’ was considered to be a tacky and embarrassing crossover when it came out, by Matt Groening at least. Compared to ‘The Simpsons Guy’, ‘A Star is Burns’ is like a perfectly normal episode of The Simpsons.

      In fact, I watched ASIB several times and only found out it was a crossover when I listened to the DVD commentary. This is primarily because I was neither American nor an adult, so I just assumed that Jay Sherman was another real American celebrity that I hadn’t heard of, but it still demonstrates that the episode wasn’t just a cynical ad for The Critic. If a viewer who is not already aware of The Critic watches a Simpsons/Critic crossover and still isn’t aware of The Critic at the end of it, then it isn’t really a commercial.

      • 12 Joe H
        2 October 2014 at 7:35 pm

        I think Matt’s cold feet on “A Star is Burns” was understandable given when it came out. Before than episode was written, crossovers were NEVER good and always came with a whiff of desperation. Groening was hedging his bets in case in flopped. Yet ASiB has become the gold standard ever since.

        Much of its success, other than being written during the peak years of The Simpsons, was that The Critic was a far lesser show in terms of popularity and audience awareness that they could simply have Jay Sherman show up in this Simpsons plot about a film festival. They don’t focus on comparing the two shows because (aside from a few throwaway lines and visual references) because the writers knew that wasn’t what the audience wanted.

        The Simpsons Guy, on the other hand, literally uses the Simpsons as a crutch to stay afloat. Without Springfield, there is almost no plot to speak of save for the set-up of Peter being a newspaper cartoonist. A set-up, may I add, that has absolutely nothing to do with the plot thereafter other than to get the Griffins to leave Quohog. It’s much like those Star Wars episodes/spoofs in which the crossover aspect is the beginning and end of all creativity.

        With ASiB, removing Jay Sherman would mostly still leave a good Simpsons episode.

        • 13 torbiecat
          2 October 2014 at 8:48 pm

          While I do agree that some of Groening’s trepidation about “A Star Is Burns” did have basis in how crossovers tended to be crappy, I can’t help but to feel that a lot of it was ire directed at James L. Brooks himself. I’ll admit that it sort of annoys me that Groening didn’t have any objections about “The Simpsons Guy,” but it has been pretty evident that he simply doesn’t give a damn about Zombie Simpsons.

          • 14 Stan
            4 October 2014 at 12:40 am

            Your cat, man. I just… C’mon, change that pic.

            • 15 torbiecat
              13 October 2014 at 6:21 pm

              It bothers you that much, huh? I’ll admit I just slapped it up because I don’t care for a lot of default avatars, but I’m tempted to keep it just to annoy you.

  2. 16 Tom H
    2 October 2014 at 5:56 pm

    We should analyse and pinpoint the moment where Family Guy begins to decline, and call all subsequent episodes Zombie Guy.

    My friends seem confused by my neutral/negative reaction to the crossover, to my frustration.

    • 17 Jack
      2 October 2014 at 6:32 pm

      Its first post-cancellation season?

      • 3 October 2014 at 8:07 pm

        Agreed. Family Guy was never as great as The Simpsons was in its prime, but the third season is probably the strongest – for the first two years, it was basically The Simpsons with “edgier” jokes that weren’t very funny, but by Season 3, it had established its own demented identity and didn’t seem to be trying to imitate something else anymore. Cue Season 4 after three years off the air, and it immediately became a loud obnoxious parody of itself.

        • 19 Charlie Sweatpants
          4 October 2014 at 1:35 pm

          Agreed in general, but I’d draw the line one season later. I thought their first season back was really strong. Even before it got cancelled, Family Guy never had the consistency of Simpsons (or Critic or Futurama), but they produced some really great episodes, and Season 4 (the first one back) has a bunch.

          Just off the top of my head there’s “PTV”, “Don’t Make Me Over”, “Untitled Family Guy History”, “Sibling Rivalry”, and a bunch of others that I’ll happily throw on from time to time. Season 5 was much worse, and I started giving up midway through Season 6. (Though the Star Wars things are pretty solid.) I was actually surprised that the crossover was Season 13(!) of theirs. At this point I think I’ve seen well under half of the total, and I’m pretty happy with that decision. Every once and a while I’ll catch one or part of one, and it’s really bad. Watching this one didn’t change that opinion.

          • 20 Joe H
            5 October 2014 at 1:28 am

            Definitely agree with that assessment. Family Guy S1-4 was a decent enough alternative to fill the void left when The Simpsons went zombie.

            Season 5 onward were pretty bad. I have (sadly) watched them all up to now and can say the downfall has been pretty severe, definitely near current ZS levels. The batting average of the past 3 seasons have been something like 1 good, memorable episode with the other 20-something being either boring or stunningly bad. Still better than ZS if only because the FG staff still have one or two writers that still give a damn about quality. Too bad the rate is about one episode every one or two years.

  3. 25 Tebor
    2 October 2014 at 7:05 pm

    I feel that Family Guy doesn’t get nearly enough flak for plagiarizing very specific Simpsons gags on a regular basis. The media usually gives a nod to how FG borrowed the Simpsons’ general setting and character types, but that’s weak. Any serious student of the Simpsons can turn on any random FG ep and find several jokes that are shamelessly stolen (but made dumber of course). I’ve compiled a loose, very incomplete list with DOZENS of pitiful thefts. Family Guy is a pathetic, unfunny piece of garbage!

  4. 27 Stan
    2 October 2014 at 8:39 pm

    The idea itself wasn’t bad, its production was. Whomever wrote the script didn’t care for The Simpsons the slightest. If they were going to do another “Road to” episode, at least should’ve name it so, have that little fun intro a la Merry Melodies, and do a song instead of the stupid chicken fight. This not being a blog for FG, I’m not going to say more, and am actually surprised, sans sarcasm, that Charlie took time to write about it. The crossover is definitely a FG thing helping to drive another nail through the coffin of Zombie Simpsons (as if THAT was going to stop a zombie…)

    Still, I’d hoped to live through an hour of fun last Sunday… before Ebola takes over.

  5. 29 Karl
    4 October 2014 at 6:49 pm

    I watched the crossover in Youtube, and goddammit, it was fucking awful.

    There was no real setup, no real plot here, just lame excuses to show both families at the same time. Which can be fine for many people, but I was dissapointed.

    And the Simpsons characters were put of their roles, and the crossover played safe by coupling each one with their Family Guy counterpart.

    Why would Bart accept Stewie as his friend, and why is he completely okay with him copying everything he does? Even at the end when Bart realizes Stewie is a psychopatic person who has kidnapped a bunch of his “enemies” he just says “later, dude”. Who’s this kid?

    Lisa trying to help Meg was mostly okay but why was she so upset when Meg played the saxophone better than her? Old Lisa would be just sad and jealous.

    What did Marge do the entire episode? I guess nothing interesting.

    Seeing Homer and Marge fall for Brian and Chris’ lame impersonation of Santa’s Little Helper was pretty sad.

    And why was Homer trying to help Peter all the fucking time? He’s a random dude who appeared at Apu’s store, old Homer would have ignored him. But certainly old Homer would have never drink gasoline or record it for a sex tape.

    And yet the crossover showed both fathers as ” best friends” except I barely saw any moment where they interacted like real people and talked/showed their common interests. And then, the Duff ripoff and suddenly they’re enemies. Why? By the way the Flintstones reference was un-subtle.

    The fucking predictable chicken fight at the end was just garbage. It was extremely gory, and I still don’t believe they came as far as showing both characters obtaining super-natural powers thanks to nuclear waste, destroying half of Springfield, going out ot Earth’s atmosphere, invading Karl and Kodos’ ship, breaking each other’s face in slow motion (I cringed with Homer’s eye) and finally trying to murder each other before Homer died when the ship fall into him… only to find out he didn’t die.

    And the scary Stewie joke at the end.

    I want my stolen 40 minutes back.

    • 30 Stan
      5 October 2014 at 3:12 am

      “I want my stolen 40 minutes back.”
      Write a letter to Larry Page.

    • 31 Frank
      6 October 2014 at 11:21 am

      I did like Bob Belcher appearing in one of the scenes, but overall I also thought it could have been more interesting.

      While the pairing kinda made sense, the stories didn’t.
      Lisa giving Meg advice? They’re 8 years apart and all of a sudden Lisa has the confidence and serenity of a middle-aged adult? Stewie wanting to hang out with Bart? Would have made sense if he paired up with Maggie, if they had a chicken fight or if they teamed up to fight Gerald (or Stewie team up with Gerald to fight Lisa).

      Or they could have been more subversive – Lois taking care of Maggie; Marge giving advice to Meg; Homer with Chris and Peter with Lisa. Bart could have hung out with Brian.

      Liked the Carl/Cleveland joke too.
      Could have been much better, but it wasn’t the most horrible thing I saw.

      I do need to remind myself that this was a Family Guy episode, and the writers seem to really dislike women, which explained a lot as well.

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