Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Cartoons and Satire

by tryanmax

It’s no mystery that television writers will often promote their own values through their shows. It’s less of a mystery that Seth McFarlane uses his highly successful show Family Guy to that end. In fact, the only mystery is why there is still anyone who doesn’t realize that. What I didn’t realize until lately, however, is how absolutely simple the Family Guy formula is. And once I saw it, I started noticing it in almost every sitcom as well as shows in other genres. But before I discuss the formula, let me lay some groundwork.

Since before the days of animation, cartoons have been an ideal medium for satire. There are a multitude of reasons, but the foremost is that they make an obvious break from reality. We talk a lot about “cartoon physics” here in the Toon-arama articles, where humor is achieved by divorcing events from their consequences. Satire in comics is achieved by a similar mechanism we might call “cartoon psychology” where characters’ words and actions are divorced from their social ramifications. But unlike cartoon physics, cartoon psychology doesn’t just protect the cartoons, it also makes cartoons safe for the audience and the satirist.
What makes cartoons safe for the satirist is fairly obvious. Something about cartoons causes people to immediately let their guard down. This frees the satirist to broach taboo subjects, say politically incorrect things, and deliberately commit faux pas. Cartoons also remove the need for subtlety, which can be a hindrance to live-action or written satire. Where cartoons can be as outlandish as they need to be with little risk of being dismissed, other mediums need to walk a fine line between being outrageous enough to not be taken seriously, but not so outrageous as to be dismissed as absurd.

For the audience, the safety comes from being able to like characters without having to identify with them. That’s because cartoons deal almost exclusively in caricatures and stereotypes and, because they are drawn, there’s absolutely no confusing them with real people. Thus, where saying you like a bigoted character from a live-action show could be construed as liking him for his bigotry, saying you like a bigot from a cartoon says that you like the way he lampoons bigotry.

All these factors come together to make cartoons an excellent medium for spreading social and political messages, especially in narrative forms like an animated sitcom. While satire is certainly an art form, there are also methods to it. These methods aren’t exclusive to cartoons, but when applied to them, they can be more effective. On the other hand, because cartoons don’t worry about subtlety, they can also make the methods more obvious, which is what inspired this piece.
Remember what I said about cartoons dealing mainly with caricatures? Well, what I started noticing as I was watching unhealthy amounts of Family Guy is that the main characters all serve as double-caricatures. They are first “the lazy husband,” “the nagging wife,” “the smug liberal,” and so on, but these are all different covers for the same underlying caricature, which is “regular Joe.” This shouldn’t be surprising, really, but with so much else going on, it becomes easy to overlook the storytelling basics.

The purpose of “regular Joe” is to first be stubborn in his ways about some issue that arises, and then ultimately change his ways. For example, he might oppose gay marriage at the beginning, but ultimately embrace it by the closing credits. But where a live action show would have to aim lower to show a more plausible change, a cartoon can shoot for the moon without losing credibility and hammer home a message in one episode which might take another show its entire run to deliver. Furthermore—dare I say?—the genius of a show like Family Guy is that it has been set up in such a way as to let the writers pick one of four or five regular Joes to deliver the message based on which over-caricature seems most likely.

Now, I don’t want to leave anyone thinking I’m claiming that a formulaic cartoon can brainwash people. I’m not. But for those who are receptive to the kinds of messages injected into popular TV shows, cartoons are like a catalyst. They have the ability to go further and faster in making a persuasive case to such people than a similar live-action program.

As a counterpoint, let me close with an illustration of where the formula has been misapplied and ultimately failed. Mike Judge has had some hits that also land some social/political punches. His show The Goode Family about a clan of fastidious environmentalist liberals was not one of them. That’s because none of his main characters had a “regular Joe” underneath. They were only the obvious caricatures. Thus, when the show’s liberal characters came to any sort of realization, it wasn’t a shared experience with the audience. Instead, it merely provided schadenfreude to one part of the audience and disgust to the other.


AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Excellent addition to our lexicon with "cartoon psychology." Well diagnosed! :D

On Family Guy, honestly, I hate the show. I don't find it at all funny. I find the politics noxious. I find the characters cliched, the jokes to be low-hanging fruit and obvious, and the whole thing to be smug.

On the idea of the "regular Joe," I concur completely. The more a show can make you think a character is just like you, the stronger the punch when that character embraces the seemingly-contrary political message. If you don't have the regular Joe, then the whole thing feels like a lecture.

Kit said...

I agree re the "regular joe". Works for The Simpsons too.

I have neither hate nor love for Family Guy.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, The regular Joe has become key to action films too and even superhero films now.

tryanmax said...

I'm ambivalent toward Family Guy. On one hand, I agree it is completely onerous in so many ways. On the other hand, it's a great window into how TV "works" in that it doesn't hide the wheels turning. Instead, it opts to overload the senses. If you can look past the continuous cut-away gags, it's quite revealing. (And in that sense, even the cut-away gags are smart.)

One thing I forgot to include in the article, so I hope folks will read down the comments. This would follow the gay marriage example:

The regular Joe isn't actually given an option about how to change, though. No one forces him to change, but his "old" ways are mocked while the "new" way offers a reprieve from ridicule.

Anonymous said...

I haven't watched Family Guy in years. And I might be in the minority but I never really cared about the characters or the plots: I for one actually enjoyed the non sequiturs and pop culture references.

Peter and Meg's marriage in trouble. Yawn! But hey, they did a Flash Gordon parody?! I'm in!

As for Regular Joe, is it that the character is portrayed as a conservative? Or is it that the character is only learning liberal lessons? (In other words, I don't recall the last Regular Joe who learned an important lesson about gun ownership or the dangers of abortion.)

tryanmax said...

Scott, that's part of the trick of using caricatures, you don't have to care about them, merely like them for the ploy to be effective.

The point of Regular Joe (or Jane) isn't that he/she is conservative or liberal, just that he/she is someone the viewers can see themselves in. Generally, that involves giving the Regular Joe/Jane a mix of beliefs. You portray the character as liking all the normal things, but then you throw in an attitude that you want change and mark it as somehow out-of-synch with the character's otherwise normalness.

So, for example, Peter enjoys football, likes going to the bar with the guys, hates his job, just wants to relax at the end of the day, and hates immigrants. Wait! That last one doesn't fit! Everyone else (on the show) thinks immigrants are fine. (Except for the racist caricature.) So let's put Peter through some lopsided rigors where his the resolution is to embrace immigrants, like regular folks do. *wink, wink*

(BTW, Peter's wife is Lois. Meg is their daughter. LOL!)

The reason you don't recall any Regular Joes learning important lessons about gun ownership or abortion dangers is because conservatives have ceded the entertainment ground. There's no reason why the same tactics couldn't be used on those subjects. Perhaps tellingly, while Family Guy often makes light of abortion, they still cast it in a negative light. Probably because to do otherwise might sacrifice the Regular Joe/Jane images of the characters.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I can't believe I made that mistake (Meg/Lois). :-)

tryanmax said...

Andrew, I'm thinking there will be further articles on cartoon psychology.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Definitely. It's the other side of the cartoon physics coin and we should definitely explore it.

AndrewPrice said...

On the regular Joe, I think "regular" is not based on politics. Joe needs to be seen as apolitical and normal because the idea is to appeal to as many people as possible. Thus, as tryanmax notes, the character will like football and beer and popular movies and say nothing about politics except platitudes "I love freedom" and "America is the best!" until they do an advocacy episode. Then the character will a "wrong" value and the others around them will make it clear that they are the outlier. Peer pressure will lead to a false epiphany where the character admits their prior thoughtcrime and swears to do the right thing from now on.

Rustbelt said...

tryanmax, you might want to invest in security. You've cracked the Hollywood moguls' code and they'll probably send their liberal, peace-loving minions to capture and take you to a re-education center. (I hear it involves hours of watching Sarah Silverman's, Seth Meyers', and Tina Fey's 'greatest' hits.) Be afraid...

All kidding aside, I agree with your analysis. Now that I think of it, I this 'Average Joe' formula probably started in the '70's with 'All in the Family.' Perhaps one reason the father figures in TV shows since then have been dumbed down into morons was because Archie "the Loveable Bigot" Bunker had convictions and a mind of his own that were too strong for him to completely buy into Mike "Meathead's" (surname forgotten, but who cares?) leftist philosophy. (In fact, show creator Norman Lear has stated he was angry that people identified too strongly with Archie instead of condemning everything that he stood for.) The modern "Average Joe" must be stupid, because his 'normal' beliefs are stupid, and therefore he requires enlightenment.

As for 'Family Guy,' well, I currently work with a lot of people younger than me. Some still watch the show, but then I show my age and tell them that I've outgrown it. The show's tricks and pop reference gimmicks don't work for me anymore. I think I mentioned in the 'Ted' thread how I consider Seth MacFarlane to be in need of anger management therapy and that his comedy consists of p***ing people off, making them uncomfortable, and then him laughing at them. The guy is a roach.

tryanmax said...

Well said, Andrew!

tryanmax said...

Rustbelt, yeah, the formula is definitely not unique to Family Guy , but that show makes it very obvious if one.looks.past the constant barrage of sight gags and cut aways.

Archie Bunker is a great example of a satirical backfire. Clearly the writers thought he was too over the top to be taken seriously. They were wrong. However, if he had been a cartoon, the caricature might have worked b/c people can't relate to a drawing in the same way as a human actor.

On the Sarah Silverman and Seth Meyers stuff, I'm afraid the liberals will be greatly disappointed to find how much I enjoy it. I'm an odd case. I recently came across a list of top show by political leaning and found that I either have the wrong tastes or the wrong politics. According to the article, liberals go in for more morally nuanced shows like Breaking Bad, whereas conservatives like more black and white programs, such as contest shows. Of course, none of that explains why I like unfunny comedians. I guess I'm just broken inside.

Anonymous said...

tryanmax -

A while back, BH did a story about a Hollywood Reporter piece charting what shows were popular with liberals vs. conservatives. Unfortunately, the whole thing came off as one big stereotype (ie: "Conservatives are too dumb to appreciate nuanced writing" and other such BS.)... and BH did nothing to clamp down on that stereotype.

And as the resident Tina Fey fan here, 30 Rock actually had several conservative-friendly stories including one about GE environmental cronyism, and another about a washed-up 70s TV writer (played by Carrie Fischer) who still thought she was fighting "the man."

Unknown said...

This is an awesome analysis, and "cartoon psychology" is perhaps even more interesting a concept than "cartoon physics". I often quite enjoy shows/films/cartoons/newspapers whose politics I don't agree with, because the entertainment is augmented by that jumping-out-of-the-system superior feeling of being an objective outside observer. Hence in order to suck in the largest possible audience, shows/films/cartoons/newspapers have to contain a large Regular Joe element.

I agree that cartoons were almost certainly doing this in the 1970s - I wouldn't be surprised if this was how The Wombles worked, for example. Political satire in newspaper cartoons has an even longer history.

But to go back further still, fairy tales and fables often involve a Regular Joe character than everyone can identify with in order to draw them in. Goldilocks would be one such example, but there are surely better ones.

tryanmax said...

Scott, I never saw that report or the BH response. Not surprising that they didn't challenge the stereotypes. That seems to be a shortcoming of conservative media in general. They accept the liberal premise then try to spin it rather than challenge the premise.

When I used the word nuance, I just was using as a descriptor, not to imply that conservatives don't get nuance. Just to say they don't seem to prefer it.

tryanmax said...

John, that's one of the things that caught my attention, how basic the approach really is. It's storytelling 101 but it's been obscured by sensory bombardment. Also, the magic is when you bring storytelling 101 in concert with animation. When regular Joe is a cartoon rather than a human actor, it makes him more broadly relatable but w/o the baggage of really caring about him. This makes it easy to shift back and forth from rooting for him to opposing him and back again. Huh, the more I think about this, the more things I realize.

Tennessee Jed said...

Tryanmax - well done. I believe the cartoon is a perfect method to make obvious points for the writer's agenda

Unknown said...

I agree that this is Storytelling 101, but I zoned in on fairy tales and fables rather than stories more generally (or novels in more recent parlance) because they also use the larger-than-life subterfuge to create the illusion of objectivity (peering in to another world), so that the reader/audience can then be drawn into it by empathy with a particular character.

Outlaw13 said...

There was a South Park episode where they just tore Family Guy apart...it was one of the funniest things I have ever seen on that show.

Watched a lot of Family Guy during my first tour in Iraq. A lot of Soldiers enjoy it, just because it was silly fun on the face of it. There was a particular clip that we ran during briefings over and over again.


It's just a baby beating the hell out of a dog...over and over again. Because sometimes that's what people want to see.

Anonymous said...

I really liked The Family Guy when it first came out but over time it just got so repetitive and it was like the writers were having a competition to see who could be the most offensive (for no reason) and it just mostly bored me with a few laugh out loud moments.

I could ignore the politics mostly but sometimes it went way overboard. The worst was on the spin off, The Cleavland Show episode about gays where they just bashed the hell out of Cleavland's 'bigotry' and by the end of the episode he 'learned' that there was nothing wrong about being gay, in fact it was fabulous.

Outlaw13 I remember the South Park take down of The Family Guy and it was funnier than anything, ever done on The Family Guy. Compared to The Family Guy, South Park put the 'B' in subtle. And I remember The Family Guy episode when Stu beats up Brian,that was funny.


tryanmax said...

John, I actually think that empathy is where cartooning separates from most other forms of storytelling. The inherently surreal nature of cartoons allows us to suspend empathy while still relating on other levels.

Why is it that empathy is what gets kicked out and not something else? That I couldn't readily say, but that certainly seems to be the case. Just as cartoon physics makes light of physical pain, so cartoon psychology makes light of mental pain. When we turn the pain off, we get to discuss the most painful things.

I don't really see fairy tales and fables as turning the pain off in order to analyze the pain. Rather, they tend to do the opposite and make hyperbole of pain in order to scare off the audience without discussion.

Again, I'm not saying that what Family Guy or other such shows do counts as a valid discussion. Rather, it sets up the framework for a discussion such that most would be fooled into thinking one is happening, but only presenting one side of the case. That again seems fairly unique to cartoons. If you tried the same approach with live-action characters, those who empathize with the guy getting the short end might be outraged and the effort would be blown.

tryanmax said...

Outlaw, that is another thing that Family Guy is really good at: just showing people what they want to see. That's probably why it continues to draw an audience even though the stories suck. In fact, they could do away with the stories and just run the cut-aways and people would still tune in. But McFarlane & Co. have their soapbox and they won't let it go to waste. Would you?

tryanmax said...

Scott, I think I saw that episode of The Cleveland Show. It shows just how far they have to push the formula to make it unbelievable. And even then, it's not like people stopped watching.

I have no doubt that the writers are competing to see who can be most offensive.

KRS said...

T-max - Family Guy is a hit and miss show for me. Sometimes I bust a gut and sometimes I just shrug it off. Your "regular joe" observation is an interesting take on these things and I get what you're saying on why it works. I think that might be the reason why the politics in these cartoons never bothers me. They're all ridiculous characters and they still look ridiculous when they "learn" to be better people, which of course they shrug off for the next episode, like when Kenny dies on South Park. I guess in my eyes, they make their own agenda seem all the more preposterous because of the character that champions it.

On the other hand, when the cartoon is simply advocacy without "regular guy" core, then it's just painful, like Fern Gully or Captain Planet or Sarah Silverman.

With regards to our boy, Archie Bunker, he was a subversive character in the liberal world. Carrol O'Conner was such a great actor that, even when Archie took his licks, you empathized with him. In the end, he owned the show and upturned the tables in the Temple, even if no one in the show meant him to do it. Regular Guy rules!

Cross-walking this with an earlier thread on TV dads, I think I'll nominate Archie for the Best TV Dad of All Time. Think of it, even if he thought of his wife as a "dingbat," he otherwise loved and honored her in all things, was devoted to her and typically gave her her way. He loved his daughter and hated everything about his son-in-law, but for love of his daughter gave the Meathead shelter and support for years despite having to endure a near continuous stream of criticsm and disrepect. And, in the end, he even - in his own way - reconciled with Meathead.


How many TV dads have that in them?

God Bless the regular joe.

shawn said...

Enjoyed Family Guy during it first 3 season run. It was wildly absurd. But it was cancelled. DVD sales were such that Fox said, maybe we could it again. So it came back and season four was okay, but the magic was gone. In Season five, McFarlane's politics really started to seep into the show and I quit watching.

Unknown said...

I may have chosen my words badly: I didn't mean empathy in the sense of feeling/suffering with the character (sympathy in a rather literal sense), but merely viewing the story from the perspective of the character (and hence identifying with the character at arms length). I stand by my assertion that fairy tales have a similar feature to cartoons: there is a protagonist that we identify with, but we do not experience their emotions. This is one reason that fairy tales make good subjects for cartoons. In Little Red Riding Hood, for example, we clearly experience the story through her eyes (and, the storytellers may have hoped, learn the lessons she learns), but we do not experience the traumatic grief of having our grandmother devoured by a wolf. Fairy tales, like cartoons, make the pain other-worldly, so that we do not experience it. Consequently, it can be presented in quite stark form.

tryanmax said...

KRS, I don't have much to say to that except that naturally these tricks don't work on the savvy or the ones predisposed to resist the message. These things only ever sway the people looking to be swayed.

tryanmax said...

shawn, I honestly couldn't tell you why I continue watching Family Guy. Habit maybe. I'll chuckle here and there, but I can't think of a completely funny episode since the first Star Wars treatment.

tryanmax said...

John, now I understand you better and I concur. Empathy is not the goal of fairy tales. I still think fairy tales as they were originally told were more designed to scare off, making them more like modern horror films, which also rely on empathetic distance. (Virtually all horror films would be unwatchable if you felt true empathy for the characters.) But I think you are right that the sketch-like characters are perfect to translate to cartoons.

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