The Curious Absence of Humor in Primetime Animation

Are The Simpsons and Family Guy creatively bankrupt? Is the Pope Catholic? The New York Sun‘s David Blum wrote a sharp commentary about this topic earlier this month:

Is it genuinely funny to see an animated, overweight, middle-aged dude on a living room couch, waiting for the chorus of the “Maude” theme song to kick in? To me it’s mildly amusing, but I don’t think I’m supposed to be the target audience for Fox’s “The Family Guy,” where that reference turned up on a recent episode. Very few 12-year-olds have a working knowledge of theme songs from 1970s sitcoms, and those who do need to get into something more useful, like stamp collecting. But this is what happens when you entrust the writing of prime-time cartoons to adults. They write what they know. And if you’ve ever met a Hollywood television comedy writer, you know that most of them grew up with baby sitters named Sony and Panavision.

I don’t think there’s all that much entertainment value in a television version of Trivial Pursuit, and that’s what television cartoons have largely become — a catalog of lines from old movies, theme songs from 1960s sitcoms, and mentions of actors like David Hasselhoff. I’m probably the only person in my ZIP code to catch the “Simpsons” reference to Fox’s 1991 sitcom trainwreck “Herman’s Head,” and that’s not a proud moment.

(again, via Michael Sporn’s Splog)


  • Chris Sobieniak

    Of course this guy writes it like he expects cartoons to be made for children rather than adults, but I can understand what he’s talking about in regards to what we’ve been seeing lately in these shows when they do make references to things of my time or before that. I often think FG in particular is trying to be aimed at my demographic, but often gets those half my age to watch as well, despite them not having the same experiences or interests to know these things as the older set will.

    I often think the big problem with shows like FG is when they do run out of any real creativity in how to tell a story or move the characters along, and have to resort to the constant stream of pop culture/history garbage we see today. They sorta loose the purpose of why they make a show anymore since it’s already been ordained to be what it is, and can never break free from that definition no matter what.

    This is probably why I hardly watch television these days, I don’t see a point in it.

  • http://www.travisgentry.com Travis Gentry

    I’ve caught most of the Simpsons this season. While it’s not on par with the heyday seasons, they still can come up with some really good stuff. No matter how good the writing is, after closing in on 20 seasons you just can’t help like you’ve seen it before. I think that’s the only downfall of the current Simpsons. As for Family Guy, I watched it last night and laughed maybe twice. I think I’ll go back to my regular routine of not watching it at all.

  • http://coldhardflash.com Aaron Simpson

    I absolutely love The Simpsons (even the bad years), and not just because we share the same last name. Family Guy has its moments, and like Chris points out above, they’re aiming that show at 18-34 year olds. I’m sure 12 year olds plop down once mom and dad flip it on, but that would just be gravy for Fox.

    Sigh – when will America wise up and regard animation as an adult-worthy medium?

  • Brent Stirrett

    I have to agree with the previous poster. I believe that the “real” demo for these shows is 16+, and more specifically 20+.

    Animation is just as much (if not more) of an art form as the current shows on TV today. Animation allows you to create stories that could never be directed in reality.

    I think the blogger makes the mistake of assuming that all cartoons are directed at children, and as such the producer is missing the target audience. Although I do not like either of these shows, I think that the writer is missing the point. The new demographic for these shows, are the people they are trying to woo to this medium.

    Keep this in mind when you knock the sources and inspiration for this humour.

  • http://www.autodaddy.blogspot.com tom

    It’s not fair to compare The Simpsons with Seth McFarlane’s terrible shows. The Family Dad duo rarely have anything close to funny in them, instead relying on shock, cruelty (which regardless of what anyone says is rarely funny) and nostalgia to entertain. I cringed when I saw the sequence last year when Stewie danced the Jerry the Mouse dance along with Gene Kelly- the entire dance!- and the only thing I felt was that it was an expensive ego stroke for McFarlane to force his staff to animate such a stupid non-gag.

    The new Simpsons last night was rock solid in my opinion, and I watched it with a trio of friends who all thought the same.

  • http://ryuuseipro.deviantart.com John Paul Cassidy

    I’d really hate to say it, but the Kevin Smith fanboy generation is partly to blame for this “trivial pursuit” mess. It’s not limited to the “stand-up comedians turned TV executive/writers” that Anibator ranted about.

    I can somewhat tolerate FAMILY GUY (even though I haven’t watched it much lately). I mean, I don’t mind having it on behind me while I’m doing something else (drawing, computer activities, etc.), but I get rather annoyed when the characters go into blatant pop-culture references. In fact, the show was specifically built around pop-culture references. It’s more like glorified remakes or fan-fiction of stuff Seth McFarlane loved as a kid, and it’s amazing he didn’t get sued for it! He got away with it. (At least ROBOT CHICKEN never had delusions of what it was!)

    It’s not so much as a lack of originality that bothers me, so much as a gross lack of inspiration. I see animated shows/sitcoms that are specifically MADE to wax pop-culture references. It’s like the umpteenth CLERKS ripoff, where characters randomly discuss STAR WARS, GI JOE, etc. It’s one thing to be inspired by fond childhood TV memories to do something similar/original, maybe even a nod or two to them, but when characters blatantly start bringing up STAR WARS and GI JOE, I zone out.

  • Ted

    [[I cringed when I saw the sequence last year when Stewie danced the Jerry the Mouse dance along with Gene Kelly- the entire dance!- and the only thing I felt was that it was an expensive ego stroke for McFarlane to force his staff to animate such a stupid non-gag.]]

    Oh man, it’s nice to find people who actually feel the same way about FG. I remember seeing a bit some time ago when, during a power shortage, one of the newscasters had “just received this message from the electric company…’HEY YOU GUYS!’” Okay, fine. There’s the joke. But then it goes from that to a 20-second animated version of the opening sequence from The Electric Company. Why? You either got the silly little “Hey You Guys!” reference or you didn’t. How does animating the opening sequence of this show make that reference any funnier?

  • http://highlyrecommended.blogspot.com Satorical

    The Herman’s Head reference was fair game, because Yeardley Smith was in it.

  • http://www.honoluludogfight.com George Pfromm

    Since when is Herman’s Head considered a “trainwreck”? Sheesh!

  • Chris Sobieniak

    Pretty much the usual demographic FOX is aimed at would be the 18-34 crowd otherwise. Those beyond 34 could probably go “ugh!” or “eh, it’s better than nothing!”, while the pre-teen/teenage crowd will go “WTF” as well. It’s just one of those things about life we can never explain!

    In the case of the Stewie/Gene Kelly thing, that would’ve been the kind of thing that could’ve been done much shorter, and they could then get onto the next scene without having to bother copycatting the entire sequence just to show off IMO. The Electric Company gag though is one of those where they must’ve felt just saying “Hey You Guys!” by itself might only clue in one or two guys out there unless they draw it out into the 20 second bit that followed (not even the full length of the original opening mind you). I didn’t have much thought about that personally but thought it was nice they bothered digging that up just to compliment the joke.

    The problem I often sight about the use of pop culture in FG is it’s validity outside North America were nearly 3/4′s of the gags may never translate well for those foreign fans of the show that will gobble it down none the less. The Electric Company on itself would be one of those things they’ll just pass off and not get the real reason for it being there unless someone out of Europe didn’t happen to find out about the show via YouTube or elsewhere online. It’s kinda similar to a lot of British shows that get released in the US like “Look Around You” with it’s clever mocking of the kind of British television that was around 20-30 years ago that is still in the minds of many Brits today, yet people like me could never relate to it off-hand besides doing the research (again via the net) to figure out these things. The same obviously goes for anime and the hint to Japanese culture often contained.

    Of course, making pop culture references doesn’t equal a good show. It’s the writing and characters you’re dealing with and how you go about doing so in a manner suited. Of course FG is like a broken record, it’ll just repeat the same mistakes over and over.

    Getting terribly off-topic, a type of 2D fighting game engine developed and programmed by fans, “M.U.G.E.N.”, allows the viewers to play as their favorite video game/cartoon character in a typical Street Fighter II-esque fashion. Most of the sprites and animation had to be made in order to show through the graphics on any PC, but I couldn’t help but noticed this vid of Homer Simpsons vs. Peter Griffen that impressed me how far they got in it.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pkynTqDPak

  • http://geritopia.blogspot.com Geritopia

    Anyone who critiques Simpsons & Family Guy on the grounds that they have no relevance to a 12-year-old is himself coming from an antiquated premise. It’s the most annoying and narrow assumption commonly attributed to the art form, especially in America. –TV animation is for children! Well, hey then there should be government committees regulating the stuff! Let’s water it down and reintroduce the horrible dead climate of animation in the 70s/ early 80s!

    Again, if you’re going to seriously discuss popular cultural matters, you really should know better.

    I recall when I was 12 and I’d watch old Warner Bros. cartoons or catch a black and white Betty Boop, I couldn’t have been more intrigued (and no, I didn’t grow up in the 30s). WWII references, along with caricatures of Cab Calloway, Bogey, Gable and Joe E Brown had no direct meaning to me but these thing were nonetheless oddly vivid and very funny. You can’t always presume to lower the bar with children. If anything, children can suss out what is sincerely funny from the sincerely phoney.

  • Mr. Woah

    Judging from what little I’ve watched of the current season, The Simpsons seems to be improving. Not back to its glory days, but definately getting somewhat better.
    Family Guy… well, people are going to argue about its sense of humor, but its not really something people should be expecting to be fantastic; it’s simply an average show that’s fun to watch when you turn your brain off.
    But nobody bash American Dad. That one is fantastic.

  • Tory

    I think the author of the article did not see that this was a very cleverly disguised ad for the Maude sitcom which was released on DVD at about the same time that episode of Family Guy aired. Maude has been out of the public consciousness for a very long time and the DVD needs any boost it can get. Family Guy reminded the adult audience of the show, hopefully inspiring them to look and see if Maude was available and it is.

    There I said Family Guy was clever, are you happy? I know it doesn’t happen often but it did happen.

    Simpsons is more fun as it gets self referential, it is more rewarding for the long time devotee.

  • http://www.thexbridge.com Jeff Harris

    Something I don’t quite get from Mr. Blum’s article. Maybe it’s just flying over my head or something:

    ::I don’t think there’s all that much entertainment value in a television version of Trivial Pursuit, and that’s what television cartoons have largely become — a catalog of lines from old movies, theme songs from 1960s sitcoms, and mentions of actors like David Hasselhoff. I’m probably the only person in my ZIP code to catch the “Simpsonsâ€? reference to Fox’s 1991 sitcom trainwreck “Herman’s Head,â€? and that’s not a proud moment.::

    Mighty high horse he’s standing on, I’m sure. Call me crazy, but doesn’t animation have a long history of being a “version of Trivial Pursuit?” Lines from old movies, popular songs from movies, and mentions of popular actors has been a staple in animation for ages (see any Looney Tunes from the 30s, 40s, and 50s for examples of these), so what The Simpsons, Family Guy, and just about every modern cartoon under the sun is doing is hardly anything new.

    I’m pushing 30, and I’m pretty much in the demo that Family Guy is targeted towards, so that’s probably why I do laugh on occasion at the series. Is it a perfect show? Hell no! But it does entertain me when I watch it. It’s a diversion.

    It’s not ambrosia from the gods at Pixar or Spumco, but rather burgers and fries. And I’m a burgers and fries kind of guy.

  • bobservo

    The last line confused me, because the Herman’s Head reference was made by The Simpsons when the show (The Simpsons, of course) was really good. It was intended to poke fun at Hank Azaria and Yeardley Smith, who were on that show.

  • Quiet_Desperation

    FG pwns you all. :) Deal with it. It’s just a form of chaotic humor you don’t like, but no one person is the end of all opinion on comedy.

    In all seriousness, people cringed at the Stewie dance? CRINGED? What did you folks do when 9/11 was happening on our TV screens? Sheesh. *shrug* I thought it was cute. Cringers? What is this? He-Man? Get some of the power of grayskull, folks.

    And cruelty is OFTEN funny, tom, although it might have something to do with my 33rd level misanthropy.

  • Chris Sobieniak

    At least the same guy has a point there (of course I at least have a slight memory of Maude from back in the late 80′s/early 90′s when a station in town aired it).

    Thinking about the more cruel things done in FG, the one I often have to keep watching now and then happens to be the one clip of Stewie nearly killing Brian for not paying him his debt. Whomever boarded that episode must’ve had a field day coming up with the many ways Brian got toasted in that scene (of course most of it was probably scripted beforehand, so it null and voids my original thought most of that came out in the storyboards). Personally I wish FG was more like that often than leaning towards the referential spoofs they otherwise wade in. I might even bother to watch it for once outside of YouTube clips to put me up to speed.

  • http://danieljwinclechter.blogspot.com Daniel J. Winclechter

    Er, I really don’t think Aqua Teen Hunger Force, either the show or the movie, is targeted towards “people who don’t shave.” If the target market was 12 year olds, I think they would have aimed for something other than an R rating.

    Also, I think I was around 10 years old when the Treehouse of Horror V episode aired, and although I hadn’t yet seen The Shining, I found the episode hilarious. That stuff was funny even if you didn’t know the precise reference. It stood perfectly well on its own. On the other hand, most Family Guy references only operate on the level of ‘ha ha, I recognize that!’ and are devoid of inherent comedy.

  • http://ryuuseipro.deviantart.com John Paul Cassidy

    Tory,

    You can like FAMILY GUY all you like. I’m not saying you shouldn’t, and I’m pretty sure nobody’s going to lynch you for it, either. For me, FG has its moments, but they’re few and far in between.

    I’m not much of a SIMPSONS fan, either (I’m more of a SOUTH PARK person), but you know what? I have a great appreciation for THE SIMPSONS. I realize that this series, at a time when cartoons were strictly aimed for children (and the animation community was struggling that time), was a godsend to animation, in both the community and the TV medium, even if TV executives have an appalling lack of understanding what made it successful.

  • Soos

    The original article and apparently everyone who posted so far seems to have missed the point. Family Guy and The Simpsons have drowned in nonstop unfunny pop-culture references only because pop-culture references are the easiest way to get a laugh out of an audience when you’re a shitty writer.

    When people don’t get a reference, they’ll often laugh awkwardly just to pretend they’re in on the joke – when people do get the reference, they’ll force out loud chuckles so everyone else can see that they understand the punchline. All the references are just to cover up the fact that those shows have been creatively dead for years.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWKVmCX6SKY Hasdrubal

    Actually the Hasselhoff jokes are funny if you’ve ever visited Germany. When I visited in 91′ his face was on giant posters pasted on every street corner and train stations. Although a mediocre celebrity by American standards, he really is as big as Elvis over there. There’s no figuring it.

    I always wondered how Jerry Lewis became so big with the French.

  • Matt Wilson

    Amazing how shows that have no humor as you claim, are the most popular cartoons on television.

    Just because artists watch these shows to punish themselves doesn’t mean everyone does. Some people find them funny. Actually, most people do. But then I guess this is where we branch off into the “the public has no taste, except for me” argument..

  • http://www.frankpanucci.com FP

    I don’t get the FAMILY GUY hate. I watch it Sunday, laugh like crazy, and then by Monday “animation fans” online are trashing it. The very gags people pick out to criticize are the ones that make me laugh. ?

  • Tory

    John Paul Cassidy,

    I kind of think I would get lynched but that is besides the point. I am not a huge fan of the show and barely watch it but when I do watch it I appreciate nods to things I like and am angered by their lack of representation today. Still Family Guy pushes things too far both in the pop culture refrences and in some uncomfortable issues such as that creepy old guy in love with Chris(? I think that is the oldest male child’s name) or the hated daughter being in love with the dog that is in love with the mother but I think that is what makes the creators laugh, the fact that it is overdone and going too far. I think I remember a line from the show about a canker sore in his mouth and the guy said he would keep poking it with his tongue and he knew he shouldn’t because it wouldn’t get better but he kept doing it anyway. This is the perfect description for the series.

    I rarely watch this show but sometimes catch bits when channel surfing and I did really laugh at the one particular Maude thing knowing about the DVD coming out. They were trying to do something there that the owners of Maude have not been doing, remind people it exists. Also that theme song was really long and it was good to see the experience represented in such a manner.

  • http://lunarworks.ca Jacob

    “Very few 12-year-olds have a working knowledge of … But this is what happens when you entrust the writing of prime-time cartoons to adults.”

    This is where I stopped reading.

    We get it. “Cartoons are for kids.” (Sigh…)

  • http://www.bigblurdesign.com Jay

    I think there are two different audiences we’re hearing from here.

    One crowd is the sort of viewer who watches TV as a sort of pleasant hazy coddling thing to make you smile. They’re probably watching it as they do other things — eat, clean, check email, whatever — and are probably talking with their friends or families while they watch. I think the vast majority of people fall into this category. Shows like FAMILY GUY are perfect for this — they’re a handy humorous low-involvement background buzz to make you chuckle.

    Then there’s the Serious Viewer who demands something a little deeper than pop culture giggles. FAMILY GUY is not for them. ATHF is not for them.

    I think that’s why FG is so “popular” but also so loathed. The people writing about it are *watching* it, not leaving it on the TV for background noise like you’re apparently supposed to.

  • Andre

    Here is what I wanna know. Is it really that difficult to develop an animated series in which the humor is derived from the personalities of the character instead of constantly falling back on old tv shows and movie references for gags?? Watching Family Guy and it’s many pop culture references left me shaking my head in disbelief. And as much of a Simpsons fan that I am even I have to admit the pop culture parodies are getting out of hand.

  • Kevin Wollenweber

    Folks, please! Can’t we just get along?

    Seriously, I think that the disenchanted among us with any prime time animation are indeed disenchanted because animation is continuously summed up as having *ONLY* this or that demographic. I’m not taking surveys and I don’t believe in them because they tend to help the medium narrow its possibilities. I have no problem with animation and what it has done in its truly wonderful golden age or what it has morphed into in its sometimes questionably twisted modern age, but don’t narrow its possibilities.

    I’ve said the same thing about music; it isn’t that I totally loathe what music has become, so neatly categorized, so structured and studio perfect, even in live performance–I just loathe the fact that complacent people strive only to keep things that way!! How do we know that other ideas to reacquaint viewers with interesting artifacs of the past won’t work unless we try it? The point of that now old song, “57 Channels With Nothing On” was that we have all this space on our TV dial and no one is eager and anxious to really create some interesting channel concepts and genuinely advertise it and let viewers know that there *ARE* those alternatives!!

    Animation is like that: Don’t pigeonhole it all. There are animation ideas that haven’t ever been given a chance and that is what I think most posters here are asking for, not to obliterate what a good portion of the public now enjoys.

  • bobservo

    One note: The writer of this article refers to “Family Guy” as “The Family Guy.” The latter sounds like what my grandma would call the show.

  • Brian

    “I don’t think there’s all that much entertainment value in a television version of Trivial Pursuit”

    He’s obviously never seen “MST3k”, although I suppose he has a point so far as animation goes.

  • http://www.frankpanucci.com FP

    Re:
    –I think the vast majority of people fall into this category. Shows like FAMILY GUY are perfect for this — they’re a handy humorous low-involvement background buzz to make you chuckle.–

    Nope. I drop everthing and watch it intently, just like I did with FUTURAMA and still do with SOUTH PARK and new AQUA TEENs and DRAWN TOGETHERS and ROBOT CHICKENs and etc. FAMILY GUY is usually genuinely hilarious – although, I must admit to an inexplicable affection for transgressive humor even when it isn’t classically “funny”. It just feels warm and nice when cute little cartoon characters curse and insult and brutalize each other. The FG child molester is maybe the funniest running gag ever in a TV cartoon. The main character in the wonderful CITY OF ROTT resembles him slightly.

  • http://pediatristsplayground.blogspot.com Kevin W. Martinez a.k.a. Leviathan

    I can’t fully distance myself from Seth MacFarlane’s megalomania; Cetain Pre-Cencellation Family guy Episodes like Road to Rhode island were geniuinely entertaining. But I can safely say that pretty much every episode since the shows’s revival has been crap.

    My biggest beef with Family Guy show is the long, drawn-out, scenes that are excruciating and stretched to the breaking point without any timing, commentary, or attempt at humor whatsoever, but listening to the show’s fans, you’d think that these are some kind of new, postmodern, dadaist humor.

    Elmer snapping Bugs’ neck, Stewie trashing Brian within an inch of his life, and the recurring “Giant Chicken Fights” are perfect examples of this. At least Herman and Katnip handled flinch-inducing violence with flair, here it’s just a bunch of hack-writers trying to fill up a 22-minute timeslot, and pander to a demographic with no sense of taste.

  • steve

    I feel like chiming in, I don’t know why.

    It wasn’t long before the Simpsons became a sitcom about sitcoms, or more broadly, about television. You could argue that it was from the start, since The Simpsons is drawn mostly from sitcom stock, but it’s certainly become more true as the show continues. Somewhere four or five seasons in, allusions and references became the primary focus of the show’s comedy and drama. Even the formerly heartfelt episode conclusions became parodic mimicries of the convention.

    And Family Guy is, in a way, a show about The Simpsons.

    That kind of heavily referential comedy works best–in my opinion–when the references enrich or add a dimension to the story. When they become the sole focus, you’re drifting into incomprehensibility.

    @Kevin Martinez: Family Guy is postmodern humor. It’s not exactly new, but that’s exactly what it is.