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Image: "Family Guy"
“Family Guy” pushes boundaries and finds humor in the absurd, which helps propel the show beyond it’s FOX sibling, “The Simpsons.”
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/5/2007 9:53:06 AM ET 2007-11-05T14:53:06

Someone watching "Family Guy" for the first time might mistake it for a cheap knockoff of another animated series.

That show, "The Simpsons," also airs Sunday evenings on FOX, and also follows an absurdly dysfunctional yet relatable family, with a father who's rude, insensitive, clueless and dumb; a mother who's in control but painfully alone in her groundedness; and a daughter who's smarter than anyone else. Both series have bars where their main characters hang out after working at their menial jobs, and both are known for their pop-culture references.

There are some major differences in the two shows: "Family Guy" features brighter, rounder line drawings; a nearly human talking dog who's fond of martinis; and a matricidal, violent, scheming baby with a British accent and ambiguous sexuality.

Still, "The Simpsons" (which debuted in 1989) has directly accused "Family Guy" (which debuted in 1999) of plagiarism in its own episodes. Whatever inspired its creation, "Family Guy" really stands apart because of its flashbacks, cutaways and throwaway references. They have made "Family Guy," which just aired its 100th episode, the altogether better series.

Its signature devices tend to lack anything more than a tangential connection to the central narrative, but those moments are where the show finds its life. If you don't get these jokes, you don't get "Family Guy."

During one moment of the most recent episode, the Kool-Aid man made yet another appearance on the series. After a courtroom full of people declare "oh no!" the marketing character breaks through a wall and says his catchphrase, "Oh yeah!" Confronted with stunned silence, and with a horrified look on his face, he steps backward slowly. "Can I ask everyone to please stop saying 'oh no' in this courtroom, because the f-----g Kool-Aid guy's gonna keep showing up," the judge says. "Thank you."

These sorts of references to popular culture are sometimes witty, sometimes completely pointless and sometimes nearly impenetrable because they're so obscure, but they're nearly always laugh-out-loud funny for those exact reasons.

Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings The 100th episode, for example, ended with a "To be continued..." title card written in the font of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," and it was accompanied by the aggressive musical cue echoing "Trek"'s tendency to over dramatize the continuing nature of two-part episodes.

Throwaway references aside, "Family Guy's" satire is at once sharper and more obvious than "The Simpsons," and because of its more aggressive approach, the series is often accused of being unreasonably stupid, pointlessly irreverent or unnecessarily offensive.

That it pushes against boundaries is indisputable. What other show, animated or not, would attempt a musical number with a song titled "You have AIDS," or feature its main character recounting, in detail, his wife's failed attempt to get an abortion?

During the most recent episode, baby Stewie sneaks up to a cruise ship James Bond-style, produces an automatic weapon and guns down his mother, having spent many of the previous 99 episodes plotting, attempting and fantasizing about her death. He first explains his actions, telling his mother, "You drove me here, Lois, with all the indignities I've been forced to suffer day in and day out under your matriarchal tyranny."

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Moments later, there's a not-uncommon self-referential moment.

Running away, Stewie trips, and before he realizes what he's saying, cries out, "Mommy! Mommy! Oh yeah, that's right." Besides finding humor in the absurd, that moment illustrates how the series often makes fun of its own absurdity.

The humor in "Family Guy" is also about making the audience uncomfortable, and these cutaway sequences are more frequent and linger longer than expected.

As a result, they hold their subjects up and ask why they're so awkward, playing with our ideas about boundaries, appropriateness and restraint. A string of other series that target 20- and 30-something viewers and their sensibilities do the exact same thing: "The Office," "South Park" and "The Colbert Report," to name a few.

"Family Guy's" diversions often parody a film, TV show, celebrity or politician, or satirize something using a piece of pop culture. Significantly, these references do not seek to destroy that which they mock. Instead, they're actually somewhat reverent. These moments make fun of popular culture by acknowledging its importance, even as just a long-forgotten memory.

Some of the references have no point other than to offer nostalgia — and remind people in their 20s and 30s of the popular culture from their childhoods, and how ridiculous, meaningful and hysterical those things were.

The Kool-Aid man, for example, is an utterly ridiculous character, but became iconic despite its inherent stupidity. A talking pitcher of Kool-Aid carrying a facsimile of itself crashes through walls for no particular reason and everyone is thrilled? Seriously? In another one of his appearances on "Family Guy," the Kool-Aid man comes to realize that his habit of smashing through walls is annoying after someone drives a car through his wall.

That he did not learn a lesson or grow is characteristic of the series, which has seen little character development over time.

Some stories do advance, like Stewie killing his mother, but like most animated series, the show will inevitably reset and return to its baseline, the perfect jumping-off point for more references and the absurd story of the week.

"The Simpsons" had a strong run, and occasionally still has its moments. It has also influenced popular culture in a way that "Family Guy" may never do. Still, while "The Simpsons" has aired four times as many episodes as "Family Guy," and while "Family Guy" has been canceled twice by FOX only to be resuscitated, the younger show has managed to eclipse the show it appears to borrow from.

"The Simpsons" now feels like it never really dragged itself out of the early 1990s, leaving "Family Guy" to become "The Simpsons" of the 2000s.

Andy Dehnart is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.

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