Why Is Family Guy Okay When Imus Wasn’t?

Don Imus is back on the radio, brimming with apology and announcing a new cast that includes two African-American comedians. He was run off the air a few months ago for calling the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy headed ho’s.”

I understand why he was canned. I understand why he is back. I understand that our culture loves the whole hero-sins/is-sent-into exile/then-is-redeemed cycle. It seems to perfectly embody the Christian ideals on which much of our culture operates.

What I don’t understand is why Imus got fired for his sins, albeit temporarily, while Family Guy rolls merrily along. I am not saying that Family Guy should be canned, or that Imus shouldn’t have been, but it’s a pretty curious situation.

I haven’t seen Family Guy all that much, but whenever I do I am pretty surprised that it’s allowed on the airwaves right there during prime time on broadcast TV (not cable). It’s a cartoon comedy that packs more gags per minute about race, sex, incest, bestiality, etc. than any other show I can think of. (It may have been beaten by South Park and a dozen others for all I know, but I can’t think of anything that comes close on broadcast TV.) Its characters include a father whose cartoon chin is drawn as a pair of testicles, a masochistic toddler, and a talking dog who, I believe, is both homosexual and an alcoholic. Let me put it this way: if you have or had a mother, any sort of mother, it is the kind of show you would not dare watch while sitting beside her.

Keep in mind that PBS was forced to clean up Ken Burns‘s World War II documentary because some of the soldiers had the temerity to swear. Keep in mind that Santa Clauses in Australia are no longer allowed to say “Ho ho ho” since it has been deemed offensive to women (I wonder if they have Don Imus to thank for that?); instead, they are encouraged to say “Ha ha ha.” Keep in mind, too, that Family Guy is broadcast on Fox, which was recently charged with censoring the notoriously rough language at the Emmy Awards.

Now read this simple but elegantly illustrative line from a Family Guy episode I saw not long ago, a repeat from last year I believe:

Stewie (the evil toddler): What kind of a man would I be if I ran off now?

Brian (the dog): Well, you’d be a black man.

This and many other clips used to live on YouTube, but have been taken down because of copyright issues. There’s still a lot of Family Guy stuff there, however; though the clips probably don’t last long. For a longer discussion of this episode, and a nice piece of writing on the very Imus point I’m trying to make here, see this National Review article by Mark Goldbatt.

FWIW, also keep in mind that the show is currently being produced without its creator, Seth McFarlane, because of the writers’ strike. And finally, especially if you are a media-conspiracy-theorist type, keep in mind that one recent episode was super pro-Al Gore — which might not mean much except that Fox is part of News Corp., the realm of the putatively uber-conservative Rupert Murdoch.

So, keeping all that in mind, let me ask you this: Why is Family Guy okay when Imus wasn’t?

Here are a few thoughts that come to mind; I’m eager to hear from you too.

1. Imus is human and Family Guy is a cartoon.

2. Imus is non-fiction and Family Guy is fiction (although it often has non-fiction elements).

3. Imus aspires to some level of intellectual sophistication while Family Guy is brazenly juvenile.

4. Imus is live talk while Family Guy is taped entertainment.

5. There is no real difference between the two, but the kind of big public storm that resulted in Imus being fired is essentially a random event, unpredictable and nearly inexplicable, and it typically arises when political, social, and media pressures all align just right. It can’t be concocted, or controlled. It happened to Imus because it happened; and it hasn’t happened to Family Guy just because it hasn’t.


Dr. Yogi

Well, it might be because Family Guy isn't funny.

Family Guy is Wrong, Kyle, IT'S WRONG!!!!
-Cartman in South Park's Family Guy episode last year.

Miniver

5. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson don't watch The Family Guy?

Melanie

Yes, Stewie is sadistic, but I think Brian might be confused, because he obviously emits some homosexual vibes, but he clearly is attracted to Lois.

I've had my share of watching Family Guy and I seem to remember somewhere an episode of where they made fun of Imus' verbal misstep. Did I imagine that? If it hasn't already aired yet, expect to see something like it soon.

Eric

Because Imus earned the perception that he was a borderline unapologetic racist.

Family Guy, despite its crude language, is an intelligent parody of people who hold the views that they portray. It has earned the reputation of being sympathetic (if in a backhanded way) where Imus was known for just being a jerk.

Doctor Gonzo

#1 is a big part of it, but more important is that Imus is serious about his prejudices, while cartoons like Family Guy and The Simpsons are not. The over-the-topness that is Family Guy shows how stupid prejudice is, it doesn't glorify it. In this way, it is somewhat like "All in the Family".

Tucker

You got the story about the dog wrong. He's alcoholic and heavily prejudiced, although guilty about it, not gay. Stewie might be gay. I believe the follow up to that exchange is:
Stewie-Woah.
Brian- I know, I know, that was my father talking.
But that might be a different, similar scene. In another scene he just starts barking and growling at a black man, then tries to apologize. I think that it is useful to have a prejudiced character who displays guilt over it. It is better to display the racism that happens in society than to pretend it doesn't exist. Imus didn't realize he had done something wrong.

zb

I'd add #6: Family Guy is merely offensive in a general sense. Imus insulted real people--the basketball players.

erg

brian (dog) is not gay. he dates a character voiced be drew barrymore at one point.

Charles

It basically all comes down to money. The Rutgers comments weren't anything until Al Sharpton made something out of them. He then went on to live in the spotlight for awhile and many people learned he actually had his own talk show. He stood to gain publicity because the comment was sexist and against very upstanding citizens. I still don't find it racist, seeing as the slang "nappy headed" does not denote race and neither does "ho" but thats for another argument.

Sharpton knew Imus could not stand up and defend himself, he could only lay down and take it. Family Guy and South Park will not simply take it and roll over. Much like how a people will pick on those that don't fight back, Sharpton knows not to fight anything but a one sided battle. South Park has even shown that it will offend its own staff before curbing its message which ultimately led to Chef leaving.

Brian

6. Family guy is hilarious, Imus stopped being funny years ago.

shaun

how can you write about a topic when you barely know anything about it..you even say you rarely have seen the show and that is evident when you say the dog is a homosexual, when he's not...you rush right away to condemn a show without proper research and it sickens me that drivvle like this is even published. i know nothing about azerbaijan except that its a country so why would i go about writing an article on it and use the internet for examples.

Adrian

Am I the only one that sees a huge difference between the genuine racism of a bigot like Imus and the parody of racism (and sexism and homophobia and everything else) in Family Guy?

How could you possibly list five alternatives and not once seem to understand that Family Guy is a parody?

Ed

I think that it is the difference between a tactfully choreographed script of tactless comments and the impromptu racist remarks of a live show.

Family Guy has a goal of pushing the ethical limit by its ridiculously inappropriate dialogue - it's a slap in the face of our hyper-sensitive p.c. society that is loaded with hypocrisy. Don Imus gives the writers of Family Guy everything that they look for in an awkwardly accurate reflection of our society and its skin deep values.

Jeb Adams

#8: Comparing Family Guy to All In The Family should be illegal.

I have seen about five minutes of this show. In it, the father character said that if someone said "When's a good time to come [to the party]?" He would reply: "7:00, then I would laugh because they said 'Come.'" That was enough for me. That's not the kind of humor I desire in primetime on an FCC-regulated channel. Take it to cable, and have your fun; but this is just over the top for The Cosby Show's timeslot.

Oliver Townshend

Here's the original article on Santas saying Ho in Australia which shows that one organization has announced this as a piece of advice to their santas, but that everyone else is ignoring it. http://www.news.com.au/dailytelegraph/story/0,22049,22759570-5001021,00.html

Nathan

I think #2 captures a lot of the distinction. While Imus might have a radio persona, when listeners tune into him there's still an idea that they're hearing the jokes and opinions of a specific person. When Brian the dog makes a racist comment, I think it's often seen more as an observation about racism. Perhaps people recognize individual racism as being offensive but also are willing to allow fictitious "talking heads" to give voice to ideas we'd rather not see in real people. I think this also explains a lot about why a comedienne like Sarah Silverman (acting "in character") can make jokes that are objectively far more offensive than the comments that got Michael Richards into trouble.

Mark W.

Actually, Family Guy was canceled for a time but returned to the air a few years ago. However, I think this was more because of ratings than any reasons mentioned in this post.

I used to be an avid fan of the show. The first few seasons are ingeniously funny, and I recommend that anybody who hasn't seen them to do so. However, I think the writers viewed their return to the air as a mandate from the public and license by Fox to push the envelope as much as possible. In the process, they have lost sight of what made the show funny in the first place.

Mike

Parody of racism, versus naked hate. I don't even see where the confusion comes in! They're two completely different things. I would not be surprised at all if Family Guy had lampooned Imus, since that is what they DO. Family Guy is not a racist show.

Nick Johnson

Futurama is frequently pro Al-Gore (and incidentally, anti-Nixon), and that was also a fox creation (as is the new movie).

m

Stewie is sadistic, but only towards his mother, and he is the one that has some homosexual tendencies, not the dog. The Al Gore references are probably from the episode where they go back in time and unexpectedly alter the future. If you watch the show regularly, you would know that Brian (dog) is very left-leaning, so this is not a reflection on the writer's strike.

I'm surprised that FG can air on network TV, but their jokes cover just about everyone; there are no protected groups.

I think the show is mostly targeting males 30-40, as there are numerous references to 70/80s pop culture. I've only met a few females that enjoy the type of humor employed by the show, but generally speaking, I think females are more easily offended by an average joke.