Sunday, July 20, 2008

a little more hope

"Family Guy" may be less a show than it is a reward for pop culture junkies who have accumulated a great deal of useless knowledge, but it should be noted that this animated series often references arcane source material with high regard and intellect.

Creator Seth MacFarlane has a peculiar affinity for the song and dance antics of vaudeville and the cinema it inspired. The demise of yuksters Vern and Johnny (pictured below), shot down by Stewie in Season 5, Episode 4, may indicate that a fair number of viewers were perplexed by McFarlane's frequent homages to vaudeville. This is only conjecture, but I can't shake the feeling that negative audience feedback on internet message boards may have influenced the writers' decision to retire these obscure gags.

On the other hand, the three "Road" episodes, which playfully recreate the formula of the old Hope & Crosby pictures, seem to have struck a chord with viewers. It helps that these episodes feature Brian and Stewie, whose chemistry is popular with fans, but the exactness with which MacFarlane and his writers translate material from the original "Road" movies suggests that the formula still works in a contemporary context.

It's not particularly surprising that the sensibility of these films from the 1940's and 50's continues to appeal; the humor in the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby pictures, like that of the "Family Guy" program, is irreverent and self aware. Of course, "Family Guy" is often as crass as it is sophisticated, but this also serves to make the "Road" gags work. When Brian and Stewie dance around the censors in their musical numbers (just as their cinematic counterparts did all those years ago), they also sidestep our expectations because we know that they are just as likely to follow through with a dirty joke.

It may be worth investigating whether or not audiences are backwards compatible. That is to say, would contemporary viewers who enjoy "Family Guy" be entertained by the Hope & Crosby films, or would they find the humor too benign and the references too outdated? (Perhaps an informal study and a future post will follow). For the time being, I am content in knowing that at least one forum remains, in these (post)modern times, for this rare brand of madcap comedy.

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