With The Simpsons, Bob's Burgers, and Family Guy all taking a break this week, it's a down week for the Fox animation, especially as those are the three most interesting shows to write about. The two tonight can generally be summed up as a bunch of crazy stuff happening, and on American Dad, that stuff is good, but on The Cleveland Show, that stuff is bad. But, given that both sprang from the same font of Seth MacFarlane/Family Guy, why does American Dad work so well while The Cleveland Show fails so miserably? Tonight's two episodes illustrate the divide in quality quite nicely. American Dad was solid: consistently funny, if rarely extraordinarily so. The Cleveland Show was, as ever, generally dull with occasional forays into affable mediocrity.
The key difference between tonight's two episodes (and the shows more generally) is that on American Dad the comedy springs naturally from the characters and situations. On Cleveland, the characters get into odd situations, but most of the jokes—I hesitate to call it comedy, because they almost always fail—are commentary on those situations. For example, late in tonight's Cleveland, the titular main character appears at the local bar in order to give a speech to the men gathered there for him to follow them. As they cheer and rush out, Lester comments “Yep, there it is. We will literally do anything this guy tells us.” That's the entirety of the joke—the other guys don't do much of anything else for the rest of the episode. The point is that Cleveland is the star of his own show, and the other characters will follow him. That's pretty much it.
Compare that to American Dad. Some jokes do step outside the conventional roles of dialogue. Early on in the episode, Roger is playing with a doll for some reason. He announces that he has an exam for nursing school, and then tells the doll, “Bertram, I have some bad news. The test results came back, and... it looks like you're dying of cuteness. Yizaaaaah!” Both of these jokes are meta-commentary to some extent, and both are telegraphed by their situations. Yet Roger's works because Roger throws himself into the weirdness.
Cleveland fails because it's merely a comment on weirdness. Such winking at the audience has its place, as The Simpsons has demonstrated repeatedly. Yet that's all that Cleveland does. The “live show” parody is the most egregious example of this, but there is a constant reliance on jokes that point at something else for their comedy. The guest star on Cleveland (playing a character named Patty) tells him that her love of balloons is dorky. Cleveland responds by saying “Then I guess the movie Up is a dork! Not. It was a very successful motion picture.” The joke here, such as it is, is that Cleveland's response is so unfunny and obvious that it requires not one but two reminders that hey, they were joking. First with the “not!” and second with the literal “It was a very successful motion picture.” The joke isn't funny, and neither are the two bet-hedging moments. So why does it exist at all? What's the fucking point of this style of comedy? Exactly the same thing happens when Donna makes a crack about Patty—whom she remembers as Fatty Patty—liking food. The joke isn't funny, but it's followed by a screen crawl of Kendra on her scooter celebrating the 100th fat joke of the season. Which would be all well and good if any of those fat jokes had actually been funny. Congratulating yourself on how lazy your comedy is really doesn't count as a joke.
A second, related difference is in pacing. American Dad keeps its jokes coming quickly, since they're integrated with the show and characters as-is. Cleveland relies on the “aint-I-a-stinker?” meta-commentary, which slows things down, since a joke can't simply be exist, it has to be commented-upon and labeled as a joke. On tonight's American Dad, when Stan goes golfing incompetently with a senator, there are three quick sight gags in a row: The groundskeeper shakes his head slowly and sadly at Stan; Stan pulls up his shirt to reveal his concealed weapon; the groundskeeper goes back to work and is promptly devoured by a sand worm. These jokes don't all work—the sand worm did nothing for me, but I liked the head-shaking—but the scene only really needs one of the jokes to work. A similar gag on The Cleveland Show would probably start with the groundskeeper shaking his head, then Rallo popping his head into the screen saying “Crazy groundskeeper be trippin', y'all!”
The stream of jokes requires that fast pace, and that's something that American Dad inherits from the best of Family Guy: a manic, anything-goes pacing. Seth MacFarlane shows work when their audacity leads to shocked laughter, forcing you to try to catch your breath or choke on “did-they-really-just-do-that??” laughter. And, like The Cleveland Show, they fail when they're just a bunch of crazy stuff that happens with nothing more than “Isn't this weird? Aren't we crazy?” to fall back on.
American Dad: B+, The Cleveland Show, D+
- “My tomatoes did really well.”
- “Waves are FUN!”
- “How could asbestos hurt you? It's got 'best' right in it.”
- “That money could cover a whole Iraqi family in white phosphorus!”
- “It's just that he's so bad at moving his body.”
- “I was joking!” “He was joking!” “What! Don't joke about that!”
- “A round of golf. Like a set of tennis or a game of checkers.”
- “I don't wanna see the blue jay.”
- “Cocaine, and stuff.” “Yaaaaay!”
- “The one... with the straightest hair.”
- “Either way, I'm eating dessert. I've been very good this week.”
- “Really? Just like the city?”
- “Stupid fathead thinks he's an astronaut or cosmonaut. Shoot!”
- “Bad bear!”
- “You didn't tell me to pop'n'lock out of here.”
- “I'm just tied naked to a stranger's bed!”
- “Which is perfect for deviant sex acts.” “We'll take it!”
- “I didn't do anything wrong.” “You didn't have to.”