I’m sure Seth MacFarlane works long hours with his collaborators to create the wacky characters and fart jokes that inflate Family Guy and now American Dad!, whose first 13 episodes are being released on DVD. Nevertheless, MacFarlane and company are guilty of aesthetic laziness: Both Family Guy and American Dad! are larded with cheap, mean humor that panders to audiences, letting them off the hook by implying that this is a parody of cheap, mean humor.

Take, for example, last year’s DVD-only release Family Guy Presents Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story, with its ”Jew Man Group”: Hasidic Jews performing with their faces painted blue. Or when the talking baby, Stewie, selling lemonade, yells at a pregnant woman passing him by, ”Hey, preg-o! I’m talking to you, tubby!” Or, in a fantasy sequence, when Ella Fitzgerald sings a high note that shatters a glass and the shards fly into the eyes of her heretofore-sighted pianist, Ray Charles, blinding him. (Ooh, a Memorex spoof — how cutting-edge!) I should mention that Untold Story also features Stewie snapping the neck of an Entertainment Weekly writer, a victim MacFarlane has implied in interviews is yours truly. And that was the one gag I had high hopes would be really funny — instead, it’s just typically awkward, and meaningless unless you know that I gave Family Guy a bad review when it premiered.

I came to American Dad! Vol. 1 with higher hopes. It’s intended to be a satire of extreme conservatism as embodied by government agent Stan Smith. Here again, though, self-congratulation passes as humor. In one episode, Stan is angry with his liberal daughter, referring to her as ”our darling little Squeaky Fromme” who ”decides to assassinate my career.” The series’ talking fish, Klaus, says, ”You know, I wasn’t sure about the Squeaky Fromme reference, but it’s a smart joke and the fans have come to expect that from us.” Invoking the pathetically brainwashed Manson family member who tried to assassinate President Ford — stop me before I laugh to death.

Alas for MacFarlane, he’s trained his audience too well with Family Guy to accept everything thrown at them as one big derisive hoot. Few viewers have picked up on (or even cottoned to, judging from its mediocre ratings) the true undercurrent of Dad! — which is, as one producer remarks in a making-of, ”a manifestation of our political frustration” with the current administration. That suggests a higher ambition than anything Dad! or Family Guy has yet evinced: a desire to make its audience question its own beliefs and cultural ideals.

To assert that everything is equally ridiculous — or as South Park‘s Cartman put it on that show’s April 5 evisceration of Family Guy, to make ”one random, interchangeable joke after another” — is to deny any distinction between good and bad pop culture. The result insults…all of us.

American Dad!
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