Family Guy's Palin Lampoon: Not Funny

From the din of the 24-hour news cycle, a rule has taken shape: if it's a bare-knuckle, low-down tussle you're after, the best bet is to pick on Sarah Palin. Palin has made an art of umbrage, and as her political future hinges on maintaining maximum visibility, no slight, real or perceived, is going to escape the Barracuda's wrath. Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane knew this when he approved a joke in a recent episode in which Chris dates a girl with Down syndrome named Ellen (played by Andrea Fay Friedman.) Over dinner, Chris asks Ellen what her parents do for a living. "My dad is an accountant, and my mom is the former governor of Alaska," says Ellen, an obvious reference to the fact that Palin has a son with Down syndrome. At that moment, a frantic call probably came in on the Palin Phone. There was defamation afoot, and it must be stopped at all costs.

In the week since the episode aired, Palin has taken to the airwaves to slam Family Guy and its writers, a natural extension of her too-lengthy feud with David Letterman, as well as the offensive she waged against Rahm Emanuel based on his characterization of liberal groups as "f---ing retarded." Then, MacFarlane weighed in on Real Time with Bill Maher, playing simultaneous defense and offense as he defended his show's satirical license and accused Palin of "inspiring phony pity" for people with Down syndrome who neither want nor need it. Two people on opposite paths, only having in common the damp-browed effort with which they approach provoking and being provoked; watching them bicker is like a nature documentary about the beautiful symbiosis that happens in nature, except that it's hard to tell whether Palin is the clownfish and MacFarlane the sea anemone, or vice versa. But while both Palin and MacFarlane seem to benefit from the controversy they're generating, there is a loser in this fight, and it's MacFarlane. Why? Because the joke wasn't funny.

The problem with the conversation surrounding the Family Guy episode is that it presupposes that people fall into one of two categories: those who think the joke was funny because they weren't offended by it, and those who think the joke wasn't funny because they were. I didn't find the joke funny, not because it was insensitive to people with Down syndrome or to Sarah Palin, but because it just wasn't funny. Like, as a joke. Plenty of criticisms have been lobbed at Family Guy, from the quality of the animation, to its reliance on interchangeable, inorganic cutaway gags (see South Park's two-part take down, "Cartoon Wars") but the Palin joke is a perfect example of the show's major shortcoming. The MacFarlane sensibility puts a premium on being offensive, and that's fine when the jokes are soundly constructed, but too often Family Guy jokes aren't clever or well written, they're just shocking. To some people (me included, at times) the shock value is enough to inspire some uncomfortable tittering, but jokes like that don't stand up to scrutiny. If you take two seconds to think about them, you realize it wasn't that funny to begin with, and it certainly doesn't work on a subsequent viewing, when you're expecting it.

It's overgenerous to call what Family Guy does satire because it's not terribly smart. It only passes for satire for people who don't have enough interest in the news to watch Jon Stewart or Steven Colbert. The Palin joke is the laziest kind of topical humor, the kind that trades on obvious, surface information: "So, Clinton had to have heart surgery again. Maybe he should lay off all those greasy hamburgers he enjoys so much!" Simply restating a fact in a different context, like the fact that Palin has a child with Down syndrome, isn't funny, even if you dislike Palin or disagree with her politics. There's a lot to like about Family Guy; the arcane pop-culture references kill me, as does anything that features a talking baby. But if MacFarlane is going to climb into Palin's sandbox, he's going to have to equip himself with much sharper material.