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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.