So I want to write something about a scene in “A Shot in the Dark”, a recent episode of Family Guy. This is an episode that attempts to tackle racism and gun crime, in the wake of increased media attention on shootings in America such as Michael Brown and Tamir Rice.
The scene I want to talk about is unrelated to this central plot. It’s an unsettling moment, when Peter announces to Lois that he’s going to walk around the community in blackface, and she snaps, berating him, hitting him, then proceeding to beat him while he begs her to stop. Chris and Meg look on, then pull their own hair out in a repeated act of self-abuse brought on by their personal lack of control.
I’m not going to link it here. Throw some obvious search terms into YouTube and you’ll find it.
Domestic abuse isn’t funny. That’s not to say you can’t laugh at humour around or even about domestic abuse, if you’re that way inclined, but actual acts of physical or psychological violence have no inherent humour.
This difference is illustrated rather well by the NSPCC’s 2002 PSA “Real Children Don’t Bounce Back” which sets up a situation of comedy violence, then suddenly and effectively robs the situation of its comedy for the denouement.
A joke around a subject uses it as the context, with the punchline usually being something else entirely. A joke about a subject uses that subject as the punchline. The former can often be used as therapy or catharsis, while the latter is frequently vindictive and intentionally offensive.*
Well this particular Family Guy scene offended me, but much like when Doug Stanhope’s recent UK tour did the same, I think it’s a good thing.
Lois’s domestic abuse of Peter isn’t a joke. Neither is Chris and Meg’s reaction. There is no setup, punchline or bathos, only a series of unsettling moments. The joke, if there is one, is entirely at the expense of the viewing audience.
When Family Guy first hit screens in 1999, it didn’t set out to provide a comfortable, syndicated, mature version of The Simpsons, populated with catchphrases, chicken fights, pop culture references and celebrity guest voices. Early Family Guy episodes pushed boundaries, stretching what it was acceptable to say on television, using humour as a means of investigating current or contentious issues.
The show went out of its way to make the viewing audience uncomfortable, to make (usually Conservative) detractors irate, and provoke what Stephen Armstrong and many since have referred to as “the best kind of laugh” – one where the initial, autonomous burst of laughter is followed by a sharp guilty intake of air, not in shock at the text or the performer, but at the self for laughing.
This scene, with its difficult content and lack of humour, seems clearly intended to shake up the audience, to remind them just how much contentious content they’ve been comfortably sitting through, to make them realise that with each rerun and repetition, the impact of what was once shocking lessens.
Edgy or offensive humour has become such a major part of popular culture that it is no longer confined to the fringes of low-budget short-run sitcoms, late night magazine shows, or small under-lit comedy clubs. Shows like Family Guy have become the agents of their own complacency, pushing the boundaries so far and frequently that all culture now seems to be within those boundaries.
Alternative comedy doesn’t “make you think” any more, it makes you comfortable.
There is some value in passive media. Predictable narratives provide reassurance and support. Harmless, fantastical concepts feed a need for escapism, while simple structures, images and concepts provide release, letting audiences unplug and not worry about having to act or think.
Yet the best art is that which asks questions, and the best questions are those asked through art. Buried in a culture where everything is acceptable for parody, and the boundaries of taste are limited to who can “take a joke” and who can’t, shows like Family Guy are required to do something different, like dropping unsettling non-comedy scenes like this into the middle of an episode, to remind the audience that the issues raised in the material are still causes for concern, in need of attention, discussion and tackling with something more than a quiet chuckle.
So. Twenty seconds of a comedy cartoon deeply unsettled me in a moment when I wanted to switch off and “chill” with what is a usually familiar TV show, and I’m glad for that. I’m glad that I was reminded that at the centre of these jokes there are issues, and the issues are vital, contemporary, and worth thinking about.
Lucky there’s a Family Guy.