Lucky There’s Family Guy: Petarded Fans, Freakin’ Critics and the Ethics of Humor

Introducing the Griffins

Chris Griffin: [Looking through his baby book] Look! There’s the broken condom that led to my birth.
Lois Griffin: [Hugs Chris] Oh, Chris, you’re my favourite mistake!
Chris Griffin: [Turns to Meg] See? I’m the favourite!

When it comes to Family Guy there is no via media. The show leaves no one unaffected; you either love it or hate it. There are hardly any occasional viewers, just fervent admirers or fanatic polemicists. Let me make clear from the beginning that I belong to the first group. The show has long haunted my undergraduate nights, when I was spending countless hours on my student flat’s not-so-cosy sofa, with company or by myself, watching every single Family Guy episode again and again. It was the first time I invested so much of my spare time to a television series. Others would follow.

After having plenty debates with my mates concerning the show, half of which being enthusiastic fans and the other half split in those who were offended by its sharp humor and those who were just unable to understand what were we laughing at, I kept wondering about the nature of humour. About what makes something funny and what is funny to me. And, more importantly, whether humour ought to have limits, to follow a specific moral code, or it should be free of any ethical constraints. To answer this is not a simple task, nor is there just one unique answer. It depends on each person’s character, beliefs and thought.  In this paper, after making a case for the philosophical take on humour, I will conclude with my own answer. But, first, let’s break Family Guy into numbers, facts and views.


Success and cult following

Peter Griffin: For more about flatulence, you can visit my ass!
[Peter Farts]

Family Guy is arguably one of the most successful cartoon series ever to air on a television network. The show has been around for more than a decade, pulling off a significant number of achievements. Among many nominations it won three Emmy Awards: the first one in 2000 for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance, the second in 2002 for Outstanding Music and Lyrics and the third in 2007 for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animation. Along with The Flintstones, back in 1961, it is the only animated show ever to be nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series, a nomination that even the longer-running Simpsons were never able to accomplish. It also counts two Golden Reel Awards (Best Sound Editing in Television Animated in 2006 and Best Sound Editing Direct to Video in 2010), two Annie Awards (Best Directing in an Animated Television Production in 2006 and Best Storyboarding in an Animated Television Production in 2008), one Annual Wave Award (Favorite Clippes, Comedy Series in 2007), one Saturn Award (Best Presentation on Television in 2008) and countless more nominations, even outside the American borders.

Popular website describes Peter Griffin as a “fatter, dumber, lazier, and cruder” version of Homer Simpson and ranks the show in position number 3 in its Top 10 Adult Cartoons[1], while the critics from “can’t think of another TV comedy that creates as many laughs in a half hour” and give Family Guy the 7th place of their 100 Best Animated Series[2]. The show’s creator, 37-year-old Seth MacFarlane, who himself has been honoured with critical praise and various distinctions, such as the Person of the Year 2009 in Film & Video Award, was proclaimed by Entertainment Weekly as the Smartest Person on TV[3], despite his edgy relationship with both the magazine and its main television critic, Ken Tucker, who is one of MacFarlane most zealous decriers. The magazine stated that the “frat-boy persona is only a cover. MacFarlane earns the $100 million that Fox 
is paying him to keep Family Guy and American Dad on Sundays through 2012”.

When the show aired for the first time back in 1998, there were many critics who embraced it. Caryn James from the New York Times wrote:

This animated series takes on the implicit challenge of The Simpsons and King of the Hill, offering an even more outrageously satirical family. The show includes plenty of comic possibilities, especially in the television parodies within the series[4].

Truly, there is a great amount of subtext to be found in every Family Guy episode. The references to cinema, television, music, art etc. are simply endless, adding to the show’s status and increasing the required cultural capital from the audience. In 2005, when the show came back after a two-and-a-half year cancellation period, National Review Online’s Catherine Seipp cheered: “Call me sick, call me twisted, but I’m delighted about the resurrection of Fox’s nasty but extremely funny Family Guy”, and continued marking its pop-cultural references:

With the apolitical but pop-culture-obsessed Family Guy, the standard complaint is that it’s derivative, which seems rather like accusing Bugs Bunny of not acting like a real rabbit. Family Guy takes the concept of derivative and turns it into something sublime. Just in the first season, the show had blink-and-you’ll-miss-them gags about All in the Family, Joanie Loves Chachi, One Day at a Time, CHiPs, Star Trek, Calvin Klein perfume commercials, Speed Racer, Happy Days, Kool-Aid commercials, and, as they used to say on Rocky and Bullwinkle, (to pile on the pop culture references myself) a host of others[5].

More recently, on April 2009, The Sydney Morning Herald named Family Guy Show of the Week, commenting:

Seth McFarlane’s pop culture-heavy masterpiece frequently sits on a knife’s edge. Its best material is side-splitting but when it misses the mark it can miss by a mile. This episode, Road to Germany, is hilarious, infused with music, mayhem and the sort of punchlines that have transformed Family Guy from mere cartoon into genuine cultural phenomenon[6].

Over the years Family Guy gained an incredible cult following[7]. The audience reception was overwhelming since the series’ first season and as it went on it managed to build around it an extremely devoted, almost obsessed, fanbase. On the other hand, Fox was under great pressure due to the shows’ controversy. From 1999-2001 there were many postpones and temporary cancellations. Finally, during the third season Fox executives decided to terminate the show. However, high rerun rates and increased DVD sales pushed them to reconsider. Family Guy would become the first case of a television show that revived after its cancellation thanks to an ever-growing cult following and popular demand.


Criticism and controversy

Lois Griffin: I feel like I’ve had this void all my life. Like there was a secret hole in me.
Glen Quagmire: Oh, God!
Lois Griffin: And I was trying to fill that hole with all these expensive things…
Glen Quagmire: Ooooh, God!
Lois Griffin: And I just enjoyed having all these things filling that hole.
Glen Quagmire: Ohhhhhhhhhh, God!
Lois Griffin: I guess I’m just going to have to sit back and let the penal system teach me a lesson.
Glen Quagmire: That one is also sexual.

Even so, it was clear that not everybody got the joke. Family Guy’s references to christianism, racism, anti-Semitism, conservative bias and terrorism, or its jokes on sensitive social topics such as disabled people, children abortion, ambiguous sexuality or AIDS, seemed to have bothered a huge part of the American society. The show was passionately outlawed by various conservative powers, religious organizations and right-wing politicians. Criticism and complaints about the show’s offensiveness emerged even from the broadcast of the very first episode, with the Parents Television Council leading the anti-Family Guy campaign. Its first E-Alert, a series of weekly warning newsletters, concerning the show was sent to Fox in May 2000, in order to persuade the network to cancel it, due to “strong advertiser resistance and low ratings”. More specifically, it was stated on the PTC website:

In the two months since the show returned, creator Seth MacFarlane has aggressively sought to push the content envelope. Worse, Fox has permitted him to do so. Although Family Guy airs during the family hour, when children are likely to be watching, recent episodes have included animated nudity, vulgar references to genitalia, and references to pornography and masturbation[8].

The show ended up several times in PTC’s lists for Worst Prime-Time Shows for Family Viewing and Worst TV Shows of the Week. After the return of the series in 2005, the council strengthened its views against it:

This unbelievably foul animated series made a strong come back after being off the air for two years, thanks to the success of DVD sales among young males. […] The show bases its humor on scatological and sexual references (including masturbation, incest, bestiality, necrophilia), and spoofs on popular culture. Institutions such as the church and family are held up to ridicule on a near-weekly basis. […]Parents of young children should be especially concerned because Family Guy’s animated format is sure to attract young viewers. Shockingly, since its return in May, Family Guy is the highest ranked show among 12-17 year olds, and the fifth highest ranked show among children ages 2 to 11[9].

To verify its claims, the PTC uploads video samples on its website, demonstrative of the series’ obscenity. The clips come with the following red-lettered warning note: “Graphic Content!!! Do NOT push play if you don’t want to see the explicit video!!!”.

Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker is notoriously known as one of the most persistent Family Guy haters. He graded the first season with a “D” and placed it in position number one on his Top 5 Worst TV Shows of the year. In his review his makes clear his vertical view on the show:

Family Guy — about dumbbell dad Peter Griffin, his wife, three children, and dog — is The Simpsons as conceived by a singularly sophomoric mind that lacks any reference point beyond other TV shows. Whenever MacFarlane and his writers aren’t spoofing tired targets like Fox disaster specials (Fast Animals, Slow Children — har-har), they’re trading on South Park‘s breakthrough bad taste to make ”jokes” about, for example, African Americans (the pilot went out of its way to make a stupid Aunt Jemima jibe; the second episode featured a white newscaster who thinks she’s not on the air when she says, ”I just plain don’t like black people” — I dare you to har-har). What is laughable is the clunky animation, which makes the static, retrograde stuff pumped out by MacFarlane’s old employer, Hanna-Barbera, seem state-of-the-art. Combine all of the above, and the acclaim for writer-artist-actor MacFarlane (who does three regular voices on the show) is shaping up to be the hollowest hype of the year[10].

Moreover, the show has frequently been targeted by other fellow cartoons[11]. Its main rival, The Simpsons, has continuously been attacking the show, despite the fact that they both air on the same network. The examples vary, from referring to it as “crude, low-brow programming”, to presenting Peter Griffin as Homer Simpson’s clone. Some of the Simpsons writers accused MacFarlane for plagiarism and in many cases publicly insulted him[12]. This idea of Family Guy being a Simpsons rip-off is clearly illustrated in the cover of issue 458 of Mad Magazine, where the Griffin family is turned yellow and crossed over with the Simpsons, accompanied by the title “We Salute Family Guy, TV’s Most Original Animated Series”.

South Park creators Mat Stone and Trey Parker heavily mocked the show in their two-part episode Cartoon Wars, criticizing its style of absorb humor, by depicting the Family Guy writers as manatees who push “idea balls” with random topics written on them into a trash can. When asked about the meanest thing they ever heard about themselves, in an interview by Canadian website, they boldly replied:

Mat Stone: When people say to me, “God, you guys have one of the best shows on television. You and Family Guy.” That fucking hurts so bad.
Trey Parker: Very well said. It’s such a kick in the balls[13].

Writer-director Kevin Smith can also be found in the long list of Family Guy polemicists. In the sixth and last episode of his short-lived animated version of the Clerks, the supposed writers of the show run out of good ideas. Then, one of them who’s holding a book entitled How To Write Cartoons, by Seth McFarlane (sic), happily cheers: “Hey guys, I have the funniest idea ever. How about we send them to Gilligan’s Island and make gay jokes about them in the whole episode”. During the DVD commentary, Smith thinks of Family Guy as his show’s nemesis and his co-producer, David Mandel, describes it as “Emmy Award-winning shit”. The conflict carries on with Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi condemning the show’s animation style:

If you’re a kid wanting to be a cartoonist today, and you’re looking at Family Guy, you don’t have to aim very high. You can draw Family Guy when you’re ten years old. You don’t have to get any better than that to become a professional cartoonist. The standards are extremely low.

The show’s peculiar sense of humor and disjointed gags, that sometimes bring to mind the anarchic humour of Monty Python, seems to have disturbed a lot of people, even comedians. Is Family Guy not funny after all? And what makes something funny, anyway?


Exploring humour

Olivia: You are the weakest link. Goodbye.
Stewie Griffin: Aha ha ha. Oh, gosh that’s funny. That’s really funny. Do you write your own material? Do you? Because that is so fresh. You are the weakest link goodbye. You know, I’ve never heard anyone make that joke before. Mmm. You’re the first. I’ve never heard anyone reference, reference that outside the program before. Because that’s what she says on the show right? Isn’t it? You are the weakest link goodbye. And yet, you have taken that and used it out of context, to insult me in this everyday situation. God what a clever, smart girl you must be, to come up with a joke like that all by yourself. Mmm, that’s so fresh too. Any titanic jokes you want to throw at me while we’re hitting these at the height of their popularity? Hmm? Cause… I’m here. God you’re so funny.

In his book On Humour, Simon Critchley sketches an interesting delineation of humour’s characteristics. The professor believes that good humour is a matter of timing and notes down the importance of duration of pauses and silences and the instant that the joke emerges:

Humorous would seem to be produces by the disjunction between duration and the instant, where we experience with renewed intensity both the slow passing of time and its sheer evanescence[14].

He talks about the social function of humour and the fact that there has to be a social congruity for it to be developed and bring the incongruity (more on this below). He connects laughter with the human body and explains that this relationship was the very reason it was condemned in medieval Christianity.  Citing Aristotle’s quote “no animal laughs save Man”, he argues that humour is a human practice -a universal one- and sets the common sense. It is an insider-knowledge for a culture, a secret code if you will:

A sense of humour is often what connects us most strongly to a specific place and leads us to predicate characteristics of that place[15].

What we find funny is connected to our regional, cultural, or social background. However, there are jokes that can travel over countries, continents and races and still be funny. So there must be a universal explanation to what causes laughter. The book Family Guy and Philosophy: A Cure for the Petarded gives a perspective to this matter, holding a collection of essays written by various academics. In his essay What are you Laughing at (And Why)? Exploring the Humor of Family Guy, professor Andrew Terjesen notes down the three different humour theories, which were first distinguished by religious studies professor John Morreall.

The first theory, mentioned in the writtings of Plato, Aristotle and Quintilian, but propounded some twenty centuries later by Thomas Hobbes, is the Superiority Theory. Hobbes argued that we laugh at something because it satisfies us in a way that we feel superior -that is prettier, smarter, stronger etc. – comparing to others. Ethnic humour falls under this category, since it usually is the laughter of one’s superiority over another’s shoddiness. The second theory roots back in the nineteenth century and the works of Herbert Spencer, but was broadened in 1905 by the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud in his book Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. According to the Relief Theory, we laugh when we feel awkward or embarrassed about something. Laughing is a way to relieve our stress about uncomfortable topics. Finally, the Incongruity Theory, which first appeared in 1750 in Francis Hutcheson’s Reflections Upon Laughter, but expressed more clearly through the German school of philosophy, namely Kant and Schopenhauer, explains that one finds something funny because it is not normal.

This idea that we laugh when something doesn’t meet or exceeds our expectations, can indeed explain many of the Family Guy jokes and gags. Chrichley argues that the most fundamental form of a joke is when we expect to hear one thing and we hear something else instead:

We might say that humour is produced between the way things are and the way they are represented in the joke, between expectation and actuality. Humour defeats our expectations by producing a novel actuality, by changing the situation in which we found ourselves[16].

Another philosophy professor who wrote an article about this topic is Berys Gaut. In Just Joking: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Humour, he distinguishes two groups of people according to their way of interpreting humor: the moralists and the anti-moralists. A moralist tells us that humor must have limits and answer to certain ethical considerations. An anti-moralist defends the anarchic nature of humor, arguing that it should be free of rules and restraints, or it will lose its effectiveness. Family Guy is the epitome of post-modernism and there is no doubt that an anti-moralist would enjoy watching it. Its humor is absurd, disjointed, incoherent, or as the Latins would put it, Non Sequitur. But should a moralist take offence by it?


Cynicism and offensives

God: Let me light that for you, honey.
[He points, lights lady’s cigarette with lightning bolt]
Lady: Wow!
God: Yeah, you like that? Magic fingers…
[Points again, lightning strikes lady, sets bar on fire]
God: Jesus Christ!
Jesus: What?
God: Get the Escalade! We’re outta here!

Let’s be honest: Family Guy is in fact a fairly offensive show. The edgy jokes are not there by mistake, nor would the writers be surprised if heard that someone was insulted watching it. It is obvious that Seth MacFarlane deliberately sets out his rude gags in order to cause offence. But is it really wrong to offend people and if yes, why?

In another essay featured in the book Family Guy and Philosophy: A Cure for the Petarded, professor Raymond VanArragon investigates whether religious people should take offence while watching the show. He references Immanuel Kant’s ethical dimension, citing his standpoint that one shouldn’t treat people as “means”, but as “ends”:

To do this is to take into consideration other people’s goals and aspirations whenever you deal with them, and never use people solely to fulfill your own selfish ends and purposes. To use people solely as the butt of a joke or to offend their sensibilities for a laugh is to use them as means only, and that, Kant thinks, is always wrong[17].

Hence, according to Kant Family Guy is strictly unethical, for Family Guy does not hesitate in the slightest degree to make fun of other people’s weaknesses, sensibilities or beliefs.  A believer himself, the professor is desperately trying to find some sort of justification for the show’s offensiveness. He recognizes that an offence could be acceptable if the offended was to receive some sort of benefit from it, but eventually he realizes that no such thing could be claimed in the case of this show. Nor Aristotle’s dogma “everything in moderation” seems to be quite fitting.  Unable to find any serious mitigating factors for the insulting jokes, he concludes that the best answer he can give to a fellow believer who asks if he should be bothered by the show, is to explain why he doesn’t:

I’m laughing at the crazy product of someone’s imagination wherein God, who is in reality glorious and magnificent, is portrayed as inept and lust-filled. How absurd – an absurdity that tickles my funny bone and, apparently, the funny bones of many other people as well.

I can hardly consider this as an academic coda and I feel that in a way this certifies why it is so tickling for comedians to make fun of religious groups: they are such an easy target. They are incapable of fortifying their beliefs with concrete rationale and as a result they are so vulnerable to being ridiculed (“God, who is in reality glorious and magnificent”?). VanArragon summarizes his essay warning believers to be careful what they and their children watch, indicating that Family Guy might be a bad influence on young people, as it “helps promote an unhealthy cynicism about religion”. Well, in my opinion, that’s a good thing. Give me a youngster who is cynical towards those things that are presented to her as granted, and especially religion, and I will show you an open mind. It is important to be able to doubt the very foundations of one’s world and beliefs, in order to develop a critical thought.

At regard of the offensiveness, I strongly believe in the redeeming nature of humour. It is true that the show does not only joke about people’s beliefs, but also about people’s appearances, illnesses or disabilities. About those things that cannot be altered or fixed. Even so, if one can be sarcastic at oneself, the burden can be much lighter. If I am able to make fun of my problems, then I am one step closer to overcoming them. A good example of this is the incident involving conservative politician, former Alaska governor and 2008 vice president nominee, Sarah Palin.

In this year’s Valentine Day’s episode “Extra Large Medium”, the oldest son of the Griffin family, Chris, dated a girl with Down Syndrome.  The character of Ellen, who claimed to be the daughter of the ex- governor of Alaska, was portrayed as a darn rude person. Two days later, Palin, whose youngest son actually suffers from the syndrome, posted a note on her Facebook profile entitled Fox Hollywood – What a Disappointment, calling the show “a kick in the gut”. In a manifest exertion of demagogy, she called on her daughter to express her feelings about her little brother’s insult:

When you’re the son or daughter of a public figure, you have to develop thick skin. My siblings and I all have that, but insults directed at our youngest brother hurt too much for us to remain silent. People with special needs face challenges that many of us will never confront, and yet they are some of the kindest and most loving people you’ll ever meet. Their lives are difficult enough as it is, so why would anyone want to make their lives more difficult by mocking them? As a culture, shouldn’t we be more compassionate to innocent people – especially those who are less fortunate? Shouldn’t we be willing to say that some things just are not funny? Are there any limits to what some people will do or say in regards to my little brother or others in the special needs community? If the writers of a particularly pathetic cartoon show thought they were being clever in mocking my brother and my family yesterday, they failed. All they proved is that they’re heartless jerks.

Andrea Fay Friedman, the voice actress who played the role of the girl, and who also has Down Syndrome, considered that it would be proper for her to take action and speak out to these claims. She give the ex-governor an honest comeback:

I guess former Governor Palin does not have a sense of humor. I thought the line “I am the daughter of the former governor of Alaska” was very funny. I think the word is “sarcasm”.   In my family we think laughing is good. My parents raised me to have a sense of humor and to live a normal life. My mother did not carry me around under her arm like a loaf of French bread the way former Governor Palin carries her son Trig around looking for sympathy and votes[18].

This makes clear that even a disabled person is capable of developing a sense of humour and self-sarcasm. At the end of the episode Chris Griffin breaks up with the girl, indignant with her derisively behaviour. And here exactly is the point which Sarah Palin seemed to have missed. Disabled people do not hunger for special treatment or pity. They are as normal as everyone else, having the same passions and weaknesses. They can be impolite, they can be tactless and they can be capricious. If there’s a message in this particular Family Guy episode, it is that a disabled person might as well be a bad person. And that’s a good message.

Yet another dimension that can be given to the matter lay in Aristotle’s belief that virtue is determined by a thing’s proper function. Let’s assume that humor’s function is to indicate what should be avoided. Should we laugh when Peter Griffin says that “Women are not people – they are devices built by the Lord Jesus Christ for our entertainment”? If we consider Family Guy to be a parody, then yes we should, because we condemn such a sexist statement and by laughing at it we ridicule the person who holds this belief. The object of humor is not the target of the joke, but the one who makes it. Therefore, we ought to laugh at parodies; it is ethical to do so in order to reinforce the idea that no one should have such viewpoints. This is the proper function of laughter and it lies in the field of ethics.



Peter Griffin: [in Sunday School with several children during story time]
And when you die, you go to a wonderful place called heaven.
[Children gasp in delight, Peter starts laughing]
Peter Griffin: Nah, I’m just jackin’ ya, you’ll all rot in the ground.
[Children look horrified]

In my own mind, humour should be anarchic in nature, sharp in form and free of moral constraints. It should be able to break bones, otherwise it’s not humour. Only then can it be redeeming. I agree with Andrew Terjesen conclusion that Family Guy’s kind of humor is the thinking person’s humour. It requires thought, an open mind and a clear sense of judgment -as well as a considerable amount of cultural capital- to appreciate and that’s what makes it so rewarding.



Wisnewski, Jeremy (ed). 2007. Family Guy and Philosophy: A Cure for the Petarded. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Critchley, Simon. 2002. Thinking in Action: On Humour. London: Routledge.

Gaut, Berys Nigel. 1998. Just Joking: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Humor. Philosophy and Literature, 22(1), pp. 51-68.

Lockyer, Sharon & Pickering, Michael (ed). 2005. Beyond a Joke: The Limits of Humor. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.



[1] Aksmen. Top 10: Adult Cartoons. Available at:

[2] IGN. Top 100 Animated Series. Available at:

[3] Entertainment Weekly. 25 Smartest People on TV. Available at:,,20243951_26,00.html

[4] James, Caryn. 1998. THE NEW SEASON/TELEVISION: CRITIC’S CHOICE; A Little Dysfunctional Family Fun. The New York Times, September 13. Available at:

[5] Seipp, Catherine. 2005. Return of the Family Guy: Welcome back! National Review Online, February 4. Available at:

[6] The Sydney Morning Herald . Show Of The Week: Family Guy. Available at:–radio/tv-reviews/show-of-the-week-family-guy/2009/04/20/1240079595389.html

[7] Telegraph – Herald (Dubuque). 2005. Cult following intact as ‘Family Guy’ returns; Live script reading brings rowdy cheers and applause. May 2. Available at:

[8] Parents Television Council. PTC Alerts. Available at:

[9] Parent Television Council. Rating the Top 20 Most Popular Prime Time Broadcast TV Shows Watched by Children Ages 2-17. Available at:

[10] Tucker, Ken. 1999. TV Review: Family Guy. Entertainment Weekly, April 9. Available at:,,273010,00.html

[11] Spiritus Temporis. Family Guy: Criticism from peers and critics. Available at:

[12] However, MacFarlane made clear in the Howard Stern talk radio show that his rivalry with Matt Groening, the Simpsons creator, is a friendly one.

[13] Exclaim. Questionnaire: Trey Parker and Matt Stone South Park / Team America. Available at:

[14] Critchley, Simon. 2002. Thinking in Action: On Humour. London: Routledge. pp. 7.

[15] Critchley, Simon. 2002. Thinking in Action: On Humour. London: Routledge. pp. 68.

[16] Critchley, Simon. 2002. Thinking in Action: On Humour. London: Routledge. pp. 1.

[17] VanArragon, Raymond J. Family Guy and God: Should Believers Take Offence? In Wisnewski, Jeremy J. ed. 2007. Family Guy and Philosophy: A Cure for the Petarded. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 20.

[18] Palingates. Andrea Friedman, actress from “Family Guy” sets the record straight after Sarah Palin’s Facebook rant. Available at:


May 2010 / Brunel University / MA Cult Film & Television / Cult TV