South Park: Cartoon Wars
Last night South Park, in a way only South Park can, managed to mix Family Guy and the recent kerfuffle over cartoons involving the Prophet Muhammed into a scathing indictment of both. In the South Park universe, the "offensive Muhammed cartoon" is an episode of Family Guy which the Fox Network decides to censor. Cartman convinces Kyle to join him on his quest to get the episode off the air. It turns out Cartman doesn't care about the offensive episode, he just really, really, hates Family Guy, calling it poorly-written and accusing it of using interchangeable jokes, rather than jokes that actually have something to do with the plot.
I've said it on this blog and elsewhere that Family Guy's humor can be very jarring at times. Whatever plot there is has to be ground to a halt in order to insert as many one-off gags as possible. There's no effort on behalf of the writers to try and weave jokes into the story, jokes simply pop in and out wherever they seem to fit. In that regard, it's not even comparable to shows like South Park and The Simpsons, which take a more substantive approach to their humor and satire, even if South Park appears to delve into the same scatological humor as Family Guy at times.
There's a mistake that a lot of critics make, and that's to judge a show on what you think it should be rather than what it's actually trying to be. Does Family Guy use interchangeable jokes? Yes, it does, and so did the classic Warner Bros. cartoons from which the show takes its aesthetic. Family Guy has never been about depth, it has always been, from the first season on, about getting yucks. It is a CARTOON in every sense of the word, a series of animated drawings packed with as many jokes as possible, plot be damned. Nobody watches Family Guy hoping to hear some profound truth or see some hidden injustice exposed. If they want that kind of experience, they'll watch South Park. Or, if they can wrap their mind around the concept that two cartoons can have vastly different approaches to humor, they might actually be able to watch and enjoy both.
There's a moment toward the end of the episode when Kyle's Big Wheel goes crashing off a mountain, stops, and then bursts into flame. This same joke, one in which something shouldn't catch on fire but does, has been done before by both The Simpsons and Family Guy. In fact, you don't have to watch any of these animated programs for very long before you start to see some of the same gags and pop culture references. When I watched the Big Wheel explode, I thought to myself that despite making every effort to set itself apart from everything in order to have a more accurate satirical vantage point, South Park and its creators don't exist in a vacuum. Many people will tell you that any creative endeavor is just a matter of filtering and arranging ideas which already exist, and this is especially true for comedy writers. If you find something funny, it's likely someone else found it funny as well and has done it before. It's not about who did what first, it's about how you frame the joke and give it your own personal signature. In that regard, I think both Family Guy and South Park do just fine.