Will Marino '25
American television programs have a history of being deeply representative of the time period and culture in which they were created. The emergence of the television set as a household item in America shortly followed the end of the Second World War. An explosion in the popularity of television sets in the late 1940s can be accredited to Milton Berle’s variety show The Texaco Star Theatre. Berle’s style of comedy was nothing revolutionary - wholesome yet unsurprisingly conservative - he glorified the entertainment industry, criticized rebellious youth and offered some self deprecation. Berle simply reinforced a patriotic status quo. Throughout the 50s, television programming, with the exception of news, consisted mainly of variety shows such as Berle’s and family sitcoms. The 60s saw the rise of rural sitcoms. These shows such as The Beverly Hillbillies featured likable “average Americans” usually set in the South. These programs perfectly represent a pre-cynicism heavily idolized America - the glorified nearly utopian South during a time in which the South faced much racial unrest. By the mid-60s this sense of escapism was fully realized. Television programmes portrayed increasingly strange scenarios. Shows such as Hogan’s Heroes (a comedy set in a Nazi prison camp) and My Mother the Car (a show about, you guessed it, a man whose mother is a car) marked a shift away from a portrayal of mid-century American life in television. In light of growing tensions in the Cold War as well as significant social movements in the 60s it seems only natural that television became used as an escape. Included in these social movements was the sexual revolution, which culminated in the “Jiggle TV” of the late 70s characterized by a significantly sexually freer set of programs. Fueled by Reagan’s propagation of the value of the nuclear family, the 80s saw a resurgence of family sitcoms. These would feature a father as the moral center, his good natured children who on occasion are led astray but find some sort of resolution to their problems with their father’s aid as well as a loyal housewife. The structure of the nuclear family was overemphasized and became a point of American pride as the building block of Western Civilization.
In 1989 America was introduced to The Simpsons. This marked a significant shift away from both the idolization of the 80s and the escapism of the 70s. Homer Simpson served as a direct parody of the well morally sound father of 80s sitcoms; however, the show remained distinctly different from the 70s’ escapism in its constant critique of anything and everything and became emblematic of the cynical and sarcastic 1990s.
The widespread popularity of The Simpsons led to main two kinds of copycat shows. The first type, featuring shows such as Daria and South Park, stay largely true to the intent of The Simpsons and carry on the tradition of societal critique. The second type, featuring shows such as Futurama and Family Guy, only copy The Simpsons in style and form, but lack any of its value as parody. It is widely recognized that after nine seasons or so, The Simpsons began to resemble this second type of copycat as it lost its politically charged nature. A third kind can be found in Bob’s Burgers, which keeps the wholesome aspects of an 80s family sitcom but retains some of the absurdity inherent in animated shows.
Family Guy is emblematic of post modernity in its use as a floating signifier. A floating signifier, or empty signifier, is a term used in semiotics to refer to a signifier (a sign that creates meaning outside of itself) that is not grounded in a reference. A floating signifier is ultimately only self referential. For example, the candy Swedish Fish is referential of a fish via its shape; however, Swedish Fish flavored Oreos are only referential of Swedish Fish (as they make no reference to Sweden or to actually fish) and thus are floating signifiers. So how is Family Guy a floating signifier?
Family Guy serves as a recuperation of the animated sitcom The Simpsons and its “type one” copycats, which served as both challenges to the status quo (through their use of parody and satire) and ways to generate capital. These two aspects often come into conflict, as demonstrated by constant jabs at Fox found throughout The Simpsons. As a recuperation, Family Guy only serves to generate capital and has thus lost any radical political motivation. This is evident first in its use of shock humor and fast paced form. You may come away with a few laughs, but by the end of the episode nothing meaningful really happened, as the show centers more around perceived ‘edgy jokes’ than around actual critique. One may argue that Family Guy’s ‘edgy’ nature is a response to left wing woke culture and is thus revolutionary in that sense. This, however, cannot be the case. The politically charged and satirical aspect of The Simpsons is hard baked into the show. The character dynamics the show was built on target specific aspects of the nuclear family and ridicule them. Homer runs in stark contrast with 80s sitcom Dads, Marge is frequently discontent with her station as a housewife in early seasons and often turns to alcoholism in later ones, and a dynamic played out where Lisa often acts the most sensibly but Bart is the one favored by his parents. While Family Guy somewhat sticks to these roles, it isn't revolutionary simply because it is a derivative work. Furthermore, as a copy of The Simpsons the family dynamic has to be inherently at the heart of the show, not the ‘edgy’ humor. Thus, Family Guy’s reliance on ‘edgy’ jokes is only an accessory and not at the core of the program. Based on this it is hard to even claim that Family Guy's humor is reactionary. It is simply lowest denominator content used to make an easy buck. Further evidence that its ‘edginess’ is only a marketing tactic can be found in the mode Family Guy is most often consumed - TikTok. How could it be possible that anything with significant meaning can be chopped up into a series of 30 second clips, sewn back together in a compilation, and still maintain the truth of its source material if in fact the nature of Family Guy is reliant on its ‘edginess’? The ‘edgy’ humor is thus only an aesthetic.
Devoid of any meaning and a shameless copy, Peter Griffin can now be recontextualized as an empty signifier. He is not an icon of free speech or a parody of a typical American father, he is only the character Peter Griffin. Thus, Peter Griffin is like so much of our postmodern landscape, any other character that has been removed from its satirical context (Patrick Bateman), any fashion brand that relies on its own name for marketing (Supreme), or even a Mark Rothko painting, conceived only as representative of itself.
So how is this representative of the 21st Century? The age we live in is characterized by the instant gratification we are provided by social media. Information is often dumbed down and fed to us in the most provocative or entertaining way possible. Overall there has been a culture shift away from nuanced media and towards that of instantaneous entertainment. As a people we no longer want to watch a film that will leave us confused and thinking for hours, rather we want flashy CGI battles and fast paced action. As a show, Family Guy panders toward a need for instant gratification, providing, quick and often nonsensical, jokes that satisfy us with their staunch lack of political correctness in an era when so much care must be placed on what we say, for better and for worse.