This week, I’m going to try and look at Family Guy in a different way from the usual Simpsons-lite angle that I normally hold on the show. A while ago, someone in the comments – I can’t remember precisely who, so speak up if it was you – mentioned that they look at Family Guy as an animated comic strip. That intrigued me, and tonight was a pretty good episode to use that lens, since there were plenty of cutaways, and a lot of scenes in the main plot only lasted around a minute. That seemed the perfect length for a couple panels of a comic strip, with a usual setup, complication, and punch line dynamic.
First, I have a note on my personal interests in newspaper comics. I love Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, and I get a kick out of Zits. I dressed up as Hobbes for Halloween several years, even acting out several of the strips with my oldest friend from elementary school, and somewhere in my childhood home is the outline of a screenplay based on Zits from when I was about twelve. Foxtrot makes me chuckle every now and again; Doonesbury always reminds me of my father, in a good way; Boondocks always strikes me as trying too hard; Garfield is the mindless Top 40 of the funny pages; Peanuts isn’t really for me, but I appreciate its pastoral nature, and think of it as the Robert Frost of comic strips. There’s a general summary of some major comics that I enjoy, but Family Guy as a comic strip would, in my mind, be something like a more vulgar mix of Garfield and Dilbert.
So how is watching Family Guy different if you look at it as a series of comic strips? First, I’d think about in terms of how you treat a comic strip. I can remember cutting out daily strips that I particularly enjoyed, but that happened very rarely. If I didn’t think the funnies lived up to their nickname, I did what everyone does with a newspaper. I threw it away. Well, recycled it, but still. Then I read the strip again the next day, as if the previous one hadn’t existed. That’s how I tried to watch this episode, paying some attention to the Griffins in Amish country, but mostly isolating each joke setup, figuring out what I liked, and then moving on to the next one. Family Guy isn’t the kind of comedy that keeps throwing joke after joke on top of each other in consecutive lines It mostly constructs situations that last about a minute, which is a strength if those jokes are thought out, but dangerous if they’re lazy and sloppy. Tonight, I was surprised by just how well the comic strip approach helped my outlook on the show. It was easier to ignore the jokes that didn’t work, and a few good setups buoyed this episode enough to keep it above everything else this season aside from the Brian/Stewie pilot time-traveling from a few weeks ago.
The main plot actually did quite a good job of mirroring the usual Simpsons trope of starting in one place, going to another, and then taking a left turn into the actual central plot of the episode. First, Peter finds himself too heavy to ride roller coasters at Six Flags, so he uses a girdle to make himself appear thin, but causes a coaster disaster. That could be an episode right there, but instead that turns into Peter deciding to go on a diet. The rice cake bit seemed over-the-top already thanks to Peter’s horrific retching in response to very little taste, but after that overlong joke finished, we got the requisite racist joke of the night. The ancient Asian stereotype and “ricey ricey rice no one likes rice cakes” line in the cutaway stacked racism on top of a bad joke in the worst way.
Strangely, the high mark of comic-strip length setups came right after that low point. Quagmire tries to help Peter learn self-restraint with food using a pie on a windowsill. He comments on the animated trope of steam from delicious-smelling food taking the form of curling fingers or wafting into nostrils, but warns Peter to resist. The ensuing gag of the steam getting way too violent in its attempts to entice Peter and forcing Quagmire to watch was a great commentary on the trope of the steam, and some good physical humor to boot. There were several other sequences that worked well in the same way, like Peter at a youth hostel and his call to the Swanson residence when he got Bonnie instead of Joe, and they were among the handful of cutaways this whole season that weren’t entirely groan inducing.
The left turn into the main plot happened after Peter’s girdle incident at Six Flags, as the Griffins’ car breaks down in Amish country, and the family has to stick around because nobody can fix the modern machine. Meg falls in love with Eli, the son of the owners of the inn the family stays in, and terrible Amish puns ensue (“Buy Mennen-ites” and “something is a-mish”). Brian and Stewie were again shunted into the background, but Peter didn’t take over the episode with selfishness and Lois didn’t become a screeching harpy. For the most part, Meg got to have a small central plot around a constant stream of smaller comic bits, and the normally frustrating aspects of Family Guy stayed out of the way.
Having said that, when the best thing I can say is that a Family Guy plot didn’t completely fall on its face, it’s just about the faintest praise I can give. The worst extended joke of the episode involved a horse defecating on Meg for an entire minute. None of it was shown, but the Amish guy passing by with the horse narrated the whole thing, letting loose a few episodes’ worth of scatological humor in one tangent. Aside from that one instance of Family Guy taking a huge dump on Meg, her sitcom-length romantic plot with Eli worked nicely, and Peter stayed out of the way for most of it. When he had to intervene, he did it in a typically self-centered fashion. Pulling out the boom box in a strange Footloose-based attempt to introduce the Amish to rock n’ roll with AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” belongs in the “lame” pile for the night.
The third act went with the usual approach of abandoning tangential jokes in favor of an action climax, with Peter in an escalating war with Eli’s father Ezekiel over the Amish man breaking up the kids’ romance. This was mildly funny, but it was an expected over-the-top direction that didn’t have many jokes that worked. Sure, the Amish raising a barn to successive machine gun, grenade, and rocket launcher attacks was nice, but it felt like the writers merely remembered there were a bunch of obvious Amish jokes they hadn’t used yet, and then built an entire episode around it.
- Unofficial cutaway counter: Cutaway counter: 6
- The giraffe at a baseball game and Wright Brothers cutaway gags also fell on the lame side of the scale for me. I got the feeling they had been done before, which is something I could say for about 80% of the jokes on this show now.
- Amish graffiti: YE SUCK!
- This episode did have some unfortunate timing after the beard-cutting crimes that happened recently.