Having a Sense of Humor Doesn't Automatically Mean You're Funny
Sep 17, 2009
Seth Macfarlane. In recent years he has become the highest paid writer in television history. Most of you know him as the creator of Family Guy. But Seth has done quite a bit more than that. But since it is mostly Family Guy and American Dad that he's well known for (aside from maybe his politics) we'll probably spend the most time on him with those particular things.
On the other hand, I must confess that early episodes of Family Guy were actually very good and very hilarious. I still enjoy the majority of them on DVD. On the other hand, the later episodes aren't all that stellar. For more of what I mean, you can check out my review of the show itself. It's a little alarming that after the show got cancelled and came back... much of its spark was already gone. Is it possible that a show could become stale after such a short time? Technically Family Guy has been around for ten years, but since it had that moment of cancelation for a time it's actually been officially airing for a bit shorter than that. But I digress. This isn't just about Family Guy. This is also about Seth MacFarlane. He's an animator, writer, producer, voice actor, song writer and much more. I wonder if Seth actually has any time to sleep given all that he does. He's head of two shows already, with a third one on the way, and also does comedy shorts which go straight to youtube. He also lends his voice to Robot Chicken on Cartoon Network. No wonder Seth gets paid so much... because he does so much.
At the center of it all, however, Seth MacFarlane is a comedian and this is perhaps where talking about the man gets a little rough. He definitely has a sense of humor. That cannot be argued. But having a sense of humor doesn't always make you funny. That's not to say MacFarlane isn't a funny guy. In some instances he is. His shows have an essence of humor about them that makes them unique to watch. Watching older episodes of Family Guy you can see this. While the laughs are few and far between in newer Family Guy episodes, it's still there. But as I said just having a sense of humor doesn't always make you funny. And indeed, a lot of what you see in Family Guy isn't guaranteed to make you smile. It's not because it's shocking or offensive, most of the time it's just because it isn't that funny. Peter accidently slitting a cat's throat when trying to shave it doesn't really illicit a lot of laughs. In fact, it might illicit horror more than anything. When shocking humor fails to make us laugh that's really bad.
But perhaps the worst thing about much of MacFarlane's failed attempts at a joke is that many of them aren't really there for the sake of saying anything. This is bad given that MacFarlane tries really hard to say something in the two shows he has now. The WORST jokes MacFarlane has are always politically based. It isn't because they're offensive jokes, it's because they're not funny, and because they get lost in what is already crazy, randomness that if it's meant to say something, it goes over our heads. Other times MacFarlane is a little slow on the uptake. In a Family Guy episode titled "Baby Not on Board" the family visits Ground Zero where MacFarlane uses it as a moment to criticize Bush for taking us to war in Iraq. It's hard to tell if it's supposed to be funny:
But the biggest problem? The episode aired in 2008. Five years after we invaded Iraq... and after the number of jokes about it were exhausted. Worse is that the moment is just sort of thrown in there for the sake of MacFarlane having his say... not because it has ANYTHING else to do with the rest of the episode. The reason that Classic Simpsons and South Park work so well with their bits of political humor is because the episodes where the political commetary is there seem to have a drivving force for it to be there. In a Simpsons episode where Sideshow Bob runs for Mayor the show pokes fun at both political parties, but there's actually a reason for it being there. Since the episode is centered around Bob running for mayor there's reason for it. In this particular Family Guy episode, the plot of it is that they left Stewie home alone and don't realize it (how they get all the way to Ground Zero and fail to realize Stewie isn't in the car is beyond me). But they stick a little joke in there about 9-11 and the Invasion of Iraq that isn't really a joke, but just a moment for Seth to biitch for two seconds. As Family Guy progresses, MacFarlane does this more and more and more.
MacFarlane often defends his random humor by saying "It's just supposed to be funny." I salute him for that. At times it is funny, but since Family Guy has reduced itself to being a show whiich is quite literally about nothing, it's a little hard to laugh. Believe it or not, a comedy actually needs context. Most times it's funnier with context. Seth misses that a lot in his comedy. Even in shows like American Dad it just isn't there. American Dad, at least, is more linear and each episode actually seems to have focus. But much of MacFarlane's comedy feels as though it was just thrown out there. Can he be funny? Sure. But let's put it this way: Let's say an episode of Family Guy has 100 gags in it and only three make me laugh. That, for a comedy, would be considered a bad episode. Sometimes it's a wonder if MacFarlane is telling jokes or just trying his damn hardest to show us just how much he knows about pop culture.
There's something about pop culture that Seth MacFarlane is almost godly about. He seems to have encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture. Many of the cutaways and whatnot you see in Family Guy are made to be pop culture references and gags. In particular MacFarlane seems completely obsessed with the 80's. Some younger viewers just might not get the references, though. If you were born say... after 1990, many of them will go over your head. MacFarlane hasn't mastered the ability of making pop culture gags funny for those unfamiliar with them. By that I mean that unless you've seen the movie which the pop culture gag comes from (or music video, internet meme etc.) you just might not get the joke... and if you HAVE seen them you might wonder if the gag really works where it is. Nevertheless, when you see a pop culture reference and understand it, it does feel like we're in some sort of club. Unfortunately MacFarlane doesn't invite others in. When The Simpsons spoofs pop culture or has their gags, they at least do it in a way which is very inviting. We don't have to know who Ayn Rand is to understand that the "Ayn Rand School for Tots" is a place where babies have to learn to fend for themselves without even the hope of a pacifier. The subplot is still funny even if we don't know shit about Ayn Rand. MacFarlane hasn't mastered this quite yet. In fact, MacFarlane hasn't mastered how to accurately splice in some of his pop culture knowledge. When we're watching an episode of Family Guy and it cuts to a three minute long clip of Conway Twitty singing--BUT HAS NO DISCERNABLE REASON TO BE THERE--it makes you wonder just what in the hell MacFarlane is getting at with his show.
As I said, he can be funny, but most times these random moments come off as just well... random. Some of the biggest WTF moments I've had in my life have been from watching Family Guy, only because I've been trying to figure out if MacFarlane is trying to be funny or not in some of these instances. What I'm getting at is that MacFarlane is not exactly some kind of comedic genius. Rather he's a guy who seemed to get lucky in his creations. Family Guy and American Dad also just happen to be the same show. Same basic setup. In interviews MacFarlane doesn't hide this. You have a dumb father in both shows. A smart wife who has to put up with a sexist husband. A reject daughter, a gay family member who won't admit to being gay (Stewie for Family Guy, Roger for American Dad) and a talking pet in both shows. Only the son in both families happens to be different (because Steve is a nerd and Chris is just... well... ummm.... does Chris even do anything in Family Guy anymore?). Now we've got The Cleveland Show coming soon... but it actually looks like it'll be the same old thing:
What kind of jokes do you think MacFarlane has cooked up for The Cleveland Show? Probably the same he's got with Family Guy and American Dad. A lot of comedians have very similar jokes time and time again. If there are any two sets of jokes that MacFarlane has for his safety it would definitely be race jokes and gay jokes. Without these two things it's a wonder if MacFarlane would even have a career. This would be okay to rely on a lot if he were doing stand up.... but three TV shows? You need something greater. MacFarlane is certainly not racist and he definitely isn't homophobic, but it certainly is boring when the punchline of the majority of his jokes is, "Get it? It's a black stereotype and it's a black guy!" or "Get it? It's a gay stereotype and that's a gay guy!" Most times, however, you just have characters who can't help themselves but comment on specific ethnicities or lifestyles. There's a question as to when are there too many race and gay jokes. They're hardly offensive... they're actually just really repetitive.
MacFarlane also has a short on Youtube. His Cavalcade of Comedy. It's got the same old kind of humor you see from Family Guy. Imagine, if you will, if you took some of Family Guy's longest cutaway gags and made them shorts for youtube instead and that's basically what you get from this particular show. And just like most of those cutaways in Family Guy they're not particularly funny. Some are amusing (the one where Mario simply wants a kiss from the Princess, for example) but many times while the humor is there it just isn't enough to make you laugh.
Finally, Seth MacFarlane is a big political activists. This is great... when it doesn't seep into his shows. Political discussion is what is for Seth MacFarlane. When he's doing interviews on shows like Countdown with Keith Olbermann or Real Time With Bill Maher it's fine... but when he does shows like American Dad or sticks in his own "two cents" in Family Guy it's really a waste. Why waste perfectly good jokes just to have your own political say? Political commentary and discussion MacFarlane can do. Political comedy? Well... the words Epic Fail come to mind. When Family Guy gets political... the results are nasty. American Dad was only born out of MacFarlane's own frustration at Bush's re-election. This is perhaps where MacFarlane gets a little over the top with his own political comedy. It's one thing when you're simply criticizing and making fun of the President and perhaps some of the craziest of crazy people out there... but when you start getting into the realm of "Anybody who thinks this is a retarded sheep," kind of thinking then it gets pretty bad. If a Republican actually watched and enjoyed Family Guy or American Dad I'd be surprised... MacFarlane is almost always shoving in their faces that they're pretty damn stupid.
MacFarlane also goes to greater lengths when speaking of Christians. MacFarlane is a devout Atheist but doesn't seem to act any different than the Christians he so readily and strongly criticizes. I can understand that some people go crazy with religion, but what I can't understand is the idea that anyone who believes in God is a retarded sheep. I don't understand that. And MacFarlane expressed on Real Time with Bill Maher that the only reason he's an atheist is because the Bush Administration was wrong on so much that perhaps they might be wrong about there being a God.... ummm.... what? And again, everyone is entitled to their beliefs, but there is something strange about MacFarlane being in this boat of, "Anyone who believes in God is a dumbass." Because... you know... how smart you are is totally dependent on whether or not you believe in God.
When these forms of expression come out in MacFarlane's shows... he's no longer being a comedian. If he could somehow make it funny we'd all go along and laugh... in spite of him telling us we're retarded. But for whatever reason when expressing his political and religous views Seth MacFarlane seems to forget that he IS a comedian. In short, the political satire is probably best left to Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, The Simpsons and the boys on South Park. The reason he should leave it to them is that at least the aforementioned aren't sacrificing the comedy to do it. MacFarlane often does. Brian in particular, has basically become MacFarlane's own political hand puppet. In short, MacFarlane may actually has something of an ego problem. This sort of, "I'm way smarter than any of you will ever be!" This is despite MacFarlane lacking A LOT of wit in his shows.
As I've been saying, however... he can be funny. Often times he can be. When Family Guy first began it was truly one of the funniest shows. But consider WHY it was funny. There was focus and a drive to actually be funny. As MacFarlane has carried on with his shows, though, they've become less humorous because they're missing what they had before. Even a Family Guy episode in which Peter is jealous of his son's enormous penis had something that made it amusing to watch. Nowadays the show has devolved into being about throwing shit at a wall and seeing what sticks. If there are 100 gags and only 3 bring about any laughs... something is wrong.