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.
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.
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.