Family Guy doesn’t need to “phase out” gay jokes – it just needs to end

It’s had a good run, but the whole show is premised on causing offence. Attempts to modernise it are doomed.

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Later this month, Family Guy, Fox’s cartoon-for-adults, celebrates its 20th anniversary. Historically, the show has operated from the default position that no subject is off-limits – even rape, paedophilia and domestic violence – and where minority groups have claimed to have been targeted, its response has usually been that it targets everyone at some point or another.

But, against the backdrop of more sensitive or respectful audiences – depending on how you look at it – Family Guy's bravado appears to be waning. The show’s latest episode, “Trump Guy”, included a fourth wall-breaking revelation from main character Peter Griffin that Family Guy is trying to “phase out” gay jokes.

In the episode, which aired on 13 January, Peter is hired as Donald Trump’s press secretary. But when Trump sexually assaults his daughter Meg, Peter confronts the president of the United States, and a fist fight follows. At one point during the scrap, Trump shouts at Peter: “Many children have learned their favourite Jewish, black, and gay jokes by watching your show over the years!” Peter replies: “In fairness, we’ve been trying to phase out the gay stuff. But you know what? We’re a cartoon. You’re the president.”

The exchange, presumably meant to demonstrate self-awareness, has had the opposite effect. The writers of Family Guy are right to point out that the president shouldn’t make jokes at minority groups’ expense – but their own case for immunity is shaky at best.

Created by Seth MacFarlane, who also provides the voices of several of the show’s characters, Family Guy centres around the lives of the dysfunctional Griffin family and their neighbours in the fictional city of Quahog. Known for its quick-fire, cut-away gags, controversial choices of subject matter, and long list of parodic musical numbers, Family Guy is a mainstay in the debate surrounding the politics of offence.

The animated sitcom has a library of over 300 episodes spanning 17 seasons, and has overcome two previous cancellations thanks to strong DVD sales and high viewership figures on reruns. Alongside its totemic rival The Simpsons – which has also found itself the focus of controversy recently over its depiction of an Indian character, ApuFamily Guy is now one of the Fox network’s longest running TV programmes.

Family Guy might be a cartoon, but since it averages millions of viewers a week in both the US and the UK, it must accept that the reach and influence of the jokes it makes on air are significant.

After the latest episode aired, executive producers Rich Appel and Alec Sulkin gave an interview to TV Line, explaining that the show was trying to become more compliant with modern social standards. Sulkin said: “If you look at a show from 2005 or 2006 and put it side by side with a show from 2018 or 2019, they're going to have a few differences. Some of the things we felt comfortable saying and joking about back then, we now understand is not acceptable.”

Appel added: “The climate is different, the culture is different and our views are different. They’ve been shaped by the reality around us, so I think the show has to shift and evolve in a lot of different ways.”

But why is Family Guy, a brand literally built on backlash, suddenly worried about what people think? Moreover, why are only gay jokes being phased out? Are jokes about race, disability and mental health still fair game?

A cynic might suspect that Family Guy’s change of tact is all part of a plan to stay on the air longer. Phasing out gay jokes is a token gesture to the times we live in, but in reality, looking back and looking forward, the show has never been, and will never be, a vehicle for progressiveness.

Does it need to be? Family Guy actively relies on humour that is deliberately offensive. To be fair to the show, it really doesn’t discriminate in its discrimination – most social groups have been mocked in Quahog – and the thresholds of different individuals and audiences for what causes offence are always variable.

While some of the show’s jokes and songs push those boundaries more than others – consider the season three episode “When you wish upon a Weinstein” that peddles numerous anti-Semitic tropes, or season eight’s “Quagmire’s Dad” that stigmatises transsexuality – the whole Family Guy shtick hinges on shock value. That sort of humour, however risky or offensive to some, is legitimate. There’s an appetite out there for it – clearly – or Family Guy would not have lasted as long as it has done.

So is there any appetite for Family Guy without gay jokes? Is there a demand for a Family Guy that is, as Appel put it, “shaped by the reality around us”? No. Family Guy doesn’t need to phase out gay jokes as much as it simply needs to end. 

It’s fair to say that the show has made many jokes over the years that it probably shouldn’t have – some that have actively undermined the social progress its creative team profess to be in favour of – but it’s also fair to say that it has made plenty of jokes that people found hilarious, too.

So rather than try to turn Family Guy into something that it isn’t, it would be better for the show to bow out, own what it has done well and what it has done badly with perspective. The Simpsons made the mistake of clinging on for too long and didn't adapt because it couldn't. Family Guy turns 20 this month. It needn’t turn 21.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.