#1 The Simpsons vs. #4 The Family Guy
A disclaimer before we begin: I am not a Family Guy fan. I have seen my share of episodes, usually through accident or friends or channel-surfing. And while I haven’t watched The Simpsons since I was in college, I was and remain a HUGE fan of that show.
Right now, Family Guy is probably more-watched and more talked-about. The show was constantly referenced for a while, roughly between 2004 and 2008. I thought at one point that only a certain type of person watched it (male, intelligent or believing themselves to be intelligent, obsessed with pop culture, a dork or someone with dork-like qualities), but I’ve been surprised more than once by some person who doesn’t fit the profile at all making a reference to the “You’ve Got Full-Blown Aids (Not HIV)” musical number, or the endless battle scene between Peter and the chicken. For a certain group of middle-class college-educated-generation-X/Y yuppy, Family Guy is the cartoon universe they identify with. If, for reasons no one can quite explain, any college dorm in America during the late ‘90s was more likely to be playing a mid-afternoon rerun of Saved By the Bell than anything else, then the same is probably true of Family Guy and any college dorm in the mid-2000s. That shit was everywhere.
I’m not sure The Simpsons was ever quite as ubiquitous for college students, but it certainly can lay claim to both broader and longer appeal. It was my favorite show in middle school, and I kept watching through college. I remember the communal TV in my freshman dorm was always packed on Sunday nights when a new episode came out. The Simpsons is the longest-running primetime television show in history, debuting all the way back in 1989 and now entering its twenty-second season. I don’t know anyone who still watches it, but I occasionally tune in for a couple of minutes, and the show, if admittedly aged to the point where any kind of innovation seems impossible, is still cleverly put together. The writing remains sharp, if completely predictable in its rhythms.
Strength of nostalgia
I’m not sure we’ve entered the period yet where Family Guy can be said to inspire nostalgia in people. But I doubt it will ever do so to the extent of The Simpsons franchise, which made $527 million worldwide off a well-meant but completely unfunny movie in 2007. The opening sequence, the theme music, the clouds parting to the swelling angelic choral sound of “The Siiiimpsooons…,” Maggie disappearing into a paper bag at the checkout line, the variations of meeting on the couch–all of it’s pretty unforgettable.
Quality of Programming
Simpsons was the first show on Fox to become a genuine hit, regularly ranking in the Top 30 of the Nielsens. I don’t think any of the three older networks would have even entertained the thought of picking up a primetime cartoon aimed primarily at adults in 1989, when Fox picked it up. By stretching the very established limits of television, Simpsons paved the way for so many comedic styles which followed, it’s impossible to list them all: cartoons like Family Guy obviously. But every show which uses quick flashback or fantasy sequences which take you out of the moment, before immediately depositing you back in it, like Ally McBeal or Scrubs or The Office or Modern Family or Arrested Development or a dozen others, all owe something to the hectic, centrifugal style of Simpsons. The entrenched pace of “setup-punchline” dialogue which was basically the only way comedies on television operated for 40 years was also disturbed, in The Simpson’s ability to use visual cues as substitutes for verbal jokes. The show was genuinely revolutionary.
The Family Guy is controversial for lots of reasons, but artistically its supporters and detractors fall out on one point—is it a mark of brilliance or a lazy cop-out for writers to insert jokes which connect only tangentially or not at all to the immediate story? On one hand it seems terribly unfair for a naysayer (I am one myself) to pick on a comedy for too many digressions. Isn’t all of comedy basically a digression from reality? We don’t trash Groucho Marx for inserting non-sequiturs and elaborate puns into his routine; why demand better from Seth MacFarlane?
And really, if Family Guy is guilty of inserting random jokes, then Simpsons can be accused of the same thing. In some ways Family Guy has only intensified the propensity which was always there in the first place. Cartoons offer an entire visual realm of possibility which three cameras pointed at the couch in someone’s living room cannot.
I guess my criticism of Family Guy is of the Uncle Ben talking to Peter Parker variety: with the ability to draw in any joke you want, comes great responsibility. One thing which was always remarkable about The Simpsons was the way the show managed to create real feeling and real emotional stakes in crudely drawn yellow people with four fingers, no eyelids or chins, who wore the exact same clothes every day. Producer Matt Groening played with the possibilities of the medium to give us a style of humor we hadn’t yet experienced, but also reined in the possible excesses of the form. And because there seemed to be some kind of continuity in character, physical space, and moral development, we could also appreciate certain social or character-driven jokes which you would assume to be rather pointless when dealing with cartoons.
Family Guy relies heavily on jarring contrast for its jokes to work. Almost every convention we deal with on a daily basis is quickly turned on its head, paddled on its backside, and sent scurrying away in tears. The speed of this head-turning is dizzying. When you are properly caught up in the silliness, the jokes land at a highly successful rate. And if it gets you in just the right mood, one of the absurd interjections can have you rolling on the floor. But before anything happens you have to be willing to submit to it. Family Guy throws everything but the kitchen sink at you, then pulls out the sink and flings that, too, but some of us will always just watch in horror, wondering why such maniacal destruction is necessary. The Simpsons, like any great performer, seduces us.
Appeal of main characters—
This is actually very close, because one of the great weaknesses in cartoons is the inability to properly delineate the protagonists, lacking an actor’s physical memory and presence. Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin are enormously entertaining buffoons, but at a certain level they’re just props. They are given purely archetypal attributes of slovenly, stupid, lazy, ridiculous American fathers, because that archetype is most conducive to funny cartoon sitcom plots.
Simpsons tries harder to create real personalities for its main characters, especially Lisa and Bart. But it never quite escapes the sense that what we feel about them, as genuine as the feelings may be, are more what we feel about things in general, and not Lisa and Bart in particular.
If it were just a comparison of the parents and the children I would pick Simpsons just because they’re more popular. But Family Guy adds two more central characters in Stewie the baby and Brian the dog, each interesting in his own way. The writers use Stewie’s monomaniacal genius and Brian’s sensibleness to create comic situations in all sorts of ingenious ways, occasionally defying their own throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks philosophy.
Appeal of secondary characters
For Family Guy: You have Quagmire, a hilarious sexual deviant, Mayor Adam West who is actually Adam West and sounds funny no matter what he happens to be saying, Cleveland Brown who also has a funny voice but I never really understood (he has his own show now for some reason), a couple of funny gag characters like the Evil Monkey and Giant Chicken, and then a slew of minor ones I can’t remember very well. Again, much of the humor has to be put into the situation, rather than developed from what we know about the characters.
Simpsons has a cast of hundreds of secondary characters, and each is memorable and each has traits which generate humor on their own. I’ll just list a few so we get an idea: Krusty the Klown, Sideshow Bob, Ned Flanders, Montgomery Burns, the disgusting but snotty Comic Book Guy, Itchy and Scratchy, Dr. Nick Riviera, Troy McClure, Mayo Quimby, the Bouvier sisters, Bumblebee Man, Edna Krabappel, Snake, Cletus the yokel, Apu, Moe….it goes on and on. And every celebrity on earth has, it seems, made an appearance at one time or another.
Full realization of universe
Maybe I’m biased, but I think Springfield feels like a more lived-in place than Quahog. But Family Guy can boast that its cosmos follows its own particular rules religiously—at any point some bit of ‘80s trivia may intrude into the story.
Just the fact that the Simpsons can accommodate so many characters, each with their own individual space and purpose, gives it the slight edge.
An annihilation: Simpsons takes five of six categories. It moves on to face the winner of Muppets/South Park, which I will cover next.