Anyone who had the misfortune of suffering through the latest hour-long Family Guy special “Something Something Something Dark Side” already knows what’s coming in the form of a diatribe. The same critiques of the animated show that the South Park creators so poignantly nailed to their irreverent crosshairs continue to ring true. Family Guy is nothing more than painfully unfunny interchangeable jokes strung together by the most meager excuses for plots. American Idol has more of a story arc. And show creator Seth MacFarlane attempts to bolster his sputtering two-stroke style of faux-kward-pause joke-telling in his latest feature by using the framework of the classic film The Empire Strikes Back as a framework. By framework, we don’t mean outline either. He lifted the plot directly and replaced the well-loved live action with Peter, Lois and company. Of course, to trim a two-hour plus film into an hour, he cut scenes that would do silly things like provide pacing and atmosphere, but who needs that when making jokes, right?
Let’s take a moment and comment on the ubiquitous nature of Star Wars references in this day and age, or in less pretentious terms, the past year. Let’s not even mention how Kevin Smith’s career wouldn’t even exist. Then we have TV shows like Chuck and 30 Rock, with endless in-jokes and references to the stellar series. There was the random light-saber duel involving the gay guy from I Love You, Man and Zac Efron in 17 Again. How about the even less-funny and equally random light-saber duel in I Love You, Beth Cooper? And the 90-minute tribute/in-joke that was Fanboys (basically Galaxy Quest, but full of barrel-scraping stupidity and Kristen Bell in the Princess Leia bikini instead of satire)?
The point is: Quoting and spoofing Star Wars isn’t limited to 1987’s Spaceballs. It still occurs regularly, even well into 2010.The space-opera saga by George Lucas, despite his alleged attempts to destroy his own legacy with a Jar Jar Binks-shaped IED, has become a cultural touchstone to span generations. The films have inspired so many of us to believe we can escape our twin-sunned desert home-worlds (or whatever) to become Jedi Knights and save the world (or become “that guy/girl” and make our dorm floor carbon neutral, again … whatever). The mythology of Star Wars has influenced everything American after 1977. Of course it shows up in film and television as reference, at the least, if not also books or Reagan-era Cold War doctrine.
Family Guy pays no attention, and although credit is due to the animators recreating the series’ groundbreaking cinematography in “Something” and the predecessor feature, “Blue Harvest,” the plots are lifted from Empire and A New Hope, respectively. A point of comparison is the obvious contender late-night adult animated sketch show, Robot Chicken. That show set the bar with a Star Wars-themed double episode a few years back. Chicken creator Seth Green, a Family Guy collaborator and voice actor, has been partial mastermind to all animated projects mentioned, and even makes a cute in-joke reference to Chicken at the end of both Family Guy features. However, despite this overly “meta” mindfuck, the fact remains that Robot Chicken’s jokes revealed a slight detachment from the source material in poking fun, and yet a deep fan-boy’s love in the painstaking detail put into cheekily dissecting the plot holes in the cultural touchstones. My favorite joke was the one involving Jar Jar tormenting Anakin Skywalker even after his transformation to Darth Vader (I weep if what I just wrote was actually a spoiler for anyone), a detail the films seem to avoid.
The Family Guy jokes don’t work for the same reasons the show doesn’t work. It’s a sketch comedy show masquerading as a family drama/sitcom. Without funny sketches (the Kool-Aid joke from the first episode is not and never was funny … I’m tired of seeing a hundred versions of the same clip on YouTube). Robot Chicken is nothing but hilarious bursts of sketch, with almost no pause for awkward silence (which only works in mockumentaries). Some of the sketches (rhino humping a safari van) only last for 5 seconds or less. It works. Family Guy does not. And Star Wars suffers with its dignity.
The Simpsons remains the longest-running primetime show on TV. Despite accusations of decline (which can be substantiated depending on how much you actually care), the show has lasted for 20 years because it takes its family drama/sitcom premise seriously. The difference between The Simpsons, and Family Guy is that its protagonist, Homer Simpson, cares about his family. After all of his stupidity and shenanigans, there is a believable character with heart who resonates. Peter Griffin is in constant search of a punch line, and he regularly performs AT his straight-man family members. He is contemptible and irredeemable.
The other difference is that Family Guy has no equivalent of Apu. But I digress. Different theory.
Irony only works in small doses. We all know Star Wars is silly, but we love it anyway. Gentle jibing is permissible, as would be among friends. Outright irreverent mocking is unappreciated. And we can only watch irony and nihilism for so long. Unless there is a heart beneath the meta reference, in-jokes and condescension, we will eventually stop caring. So I hated "Something Something Something Not Funny".
There are exceptions. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia works as a sitcom even though all its characters are competing for Asshole of the Century award with Paris Hilton and Hitler (last century’s winner). And we laugh uproariously, but I wonder how many of us care deeply for Mac or Dennis or even Charlie. They have moments of sympathy that their ironic pursuit of selfishness negates. The characters on Community are similarly ironic, well-read and offensively “meta,” but we can peel back onion layers and feel Jeff or Abed’s beating heart under their ogre-like behavior, and, conversely, their selfishness subsides, even as Jeff tears off his tighty-whiteys in a primal scream during an absurd game of testosterone-fueled billiards. Irony can be sharp, but it sharpens to a double-edged sword that rusts if not maintained.
And sometimes, glorious gems from the 90’s, like the movie Good Burger, prove that not having any irony at all (cue the choreographed dance scene with Kel Mitchell and George Clinton in the psych ward to “Not Just Knee Deep”) gives the audience a chance to provide it for itself.