A semi-intellectual examination of why South Park and Family Guy are at each other’s throats.
The fates of South Park and Family Guy are more greatly intertwined than simply being two American animated shows aimed at an audience of late teens to early 30-somethings who reside in dirty, haze-filled basements across the world.
War is bloody, brutal and barbaric. Unless the two sides of the epic conflict that will be reported on throughout the ages is between two animated families, the weapons of which being satire, sodomy jokes, pop-culture references and ‘hammerspace’ gags. The battleground: the television in the corner of your living room.
Everything came to a head in this conflict on 5 April 2006, when the first shots were fired in a war that would be the greatest clashes of pop cultural icons until reality stars realised that they had 140 characters worth of abuse that they could hurl at one another over Twitter.
‘Cartoon Wars Part I’ aired in America with writers of cult phenomenon South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, aiming their weapons at another popular animation series: Family Guy.
Their barbs were direct and to the point, with Stone and Parker lampooning both the characters on their rivals show and the writers’ themselves, asserting that Family Guy is so poorly written that it was actually the work of manatees randomly manipulating beach balls to generate the shows storylines and jokes.
The episode came chiefly from the disdain that the writer’s of South Park had when they were compared to the Family Guy franchise in the same breath from fans. When questioned about the relationship between the two shows Trey Parker had this to say:
That’s the frustration. We kept running into people that are just like, “Oh, you guys do South Park – I love that show, and Family Guy. That’s the best. You must love Family Guy.” And we were like, no, we hate Family Guy.
Parker was the lead writer on the episode and clearly speaks through Cartman, his favourite Cheesy Poof eating creation, in the most transparent manner possible:
I am nothing like Family Guy! When I make jokes they are inherent to a story! Deep situational and emotional jokes based on what is relevant and has a point, not just one random interchangeable joke after another!
In his frustration we no longer see the bobble-hatted child in a rage, but rather the writer banging his fists and forehead on the desk in unison at the comparison. However his writing partner, Matt Stone, was a little more diplomatic in his response:
It’s a frustration I’m sure they probably have, too. You get lumped together with shows because you’re animated. There’s just not a lot of similarity, we don’t think, between the two shows. By the way, there’s not much similarity between South Park and Beavis and Butthead. Except for being animated, they’re very different shows.
The move seemed to pay off and the show won support from other rival providers of animated goodness. The Simpsons sent flowers after the episode aired, and King of the Hill called to say that the duo were doing “God’s work.”
There was no immediate response from the Family Guy camp. They were either too busy licking their wounds from the onslaught, or potentially too afraid to awaken the wrath of the titans from Colorado.
Various writers on Family Guy launched a few cheeky swipes at Stone and Parker in DVD commentaries stating that the writers’ do indeed have to move jokes between episodes due to them running long and have also taken to referring to cutaway gags as “manatee jokes”, but these were nothing more than exploratory raids over enemy lines.
Also, on the Fox website the teaser details for the Family Guy episode ‘Peter’s Two Dads’ states that: “This week, the manatees picked out the topic balls reading ‘Peter’s real father lives in Ireland’ and ‘Peter goes there to find him’.” So it seemed that they were taking it all in their stride.
However, Family Guy finally hit back in the 2009 episode ‘Spies Reminiscent of Us’ where the gloves finally came off. In the episode Peter, Quagmire and Joe set out to set up an improv group where Peter is the only one to get laughs from the crowd with an entirely out-of-context gag about John Wayne saying: “pilgrims” in a terrible accent. Although the audience loves Peter, Quagmire sees the show as a failure.
During their group’s rehearsal, Quagmire repeats many of the mantras of traditional improv comedy, including “don’t think” and “keep it going.” Quagmire seems to be a stand-in for a particular philosophy towards comedy outlined by Del Close and Charna Halpern in their improvisational comedy work.
In this episode Quagmire is trying to create more organic, narrative, character-based comedy, a style that the South Park boys were criticising them for not having.
However, in adhering to this philosophy the Family Guy characters are not actually funny and have to rely on Peter for the laughs (a metaphor for the show of late if there ever was one). Was this an admission of the Family Guy writers saying that they need the cut-away gags to be humorous, or is it that they are trying to say that South Park’s desire for a structure is at the expense of the laughs?
Either way the episode pits Quagmire and Peter directly at odds with one another, a battle which Peter ultimately wins, giving the impression that MacFarlane and the Family Guy writing team is happy with their distinctive brand of comedy. However, MacFarlane has let it slip that the conflict does get to him, as he told Rolling Stone:
I thought the South Park episode making fun of us was funny and accurate. But what I don’t understand is the personal venom that they spew in the press about the show and about me, where it’s not in the context of a joke. That’s a little baffling. They let loose with this vitriol in every interview I read with them. It’d be interesting to know where it comes from, because I don’t know them.
So why is it that Stone and Parker seek to spew such vitriol on the animated counterparts that they hate being compared to? Just like every good superhero movie, in order to understand the present we first have to look at the shows origins, and what they hope to achieve in their narratives.
Why the hate?
Both shows show us the lives of ‘average’ suburban families with a supporting cast of their neighbours and other townsfolk. Both have the same sort of crude, shock-value humour and both have an element of the surreal that allows them a smorgasbord of situations in which to drop their characters.
The key differences lie in the story structure and social commentary of each show. South Park is highly satirical, relentlessly hounding after the most corrupt figureheads in society.
No one is safe during a visit to South Park with most groups put to the sword at some point in the shows history: the Catholic Church, Scientology, Democrats, Republicans, Al Gore, Rosie O’Donnell, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Richard Dawkins, Mormons, Canadians, Mexicans and most importantly ‘us’. As the viewer have been in the dock on more than one occasion forced to confront our ideas of political correctness and hypocrisy.
Family Guy however is a pastiche, offering a more traditional family sitcom making jokes mainly away from the main narrative primarily for humour’s sake rather than to make any statement.
There are still the cameos and statements to be made, but it homages the work that it’s attempting to lampoon, rather than satirising it. Family Guy often celebrates rather than mocks.
A great example of this can be seen in the ‘Blue Harvest’ episode that wouldn’t be nearly as funny if it was an original concept, but as most of us have prior knowledge of Star Wars we see it as a loving homage to the feature set in a galaxy far, far away. In this sense Family Guy relies far more on intertextuality than South Park.
However this means that if you have no knowledge of US popular culture, Family Guy is about as funny as a fart in an elevator. South Park has a much more solid and present traditional three or five act structure that is far less dependent on intertextuality with characters being given time to grow and develop within the narrative. Even celebrity cameos within the individual shows, and in some case from series to series in the case of Al Gore, are given an arc.
South Park’s ascendancy
South Park at the outset was little more than crass toilet humour, a show that threatened to pollute the minds of the young with attacks on religion, minorities and the vulnerable, featuring four young boys who curse in ways that would make a sailor blush. In the beginning Comedy Central only commissioned six crudely drawn episodes and the writers were sure that after that they would fade into obscurity.
However it was to become so much more, with the show now one of the most popular social commentaries on TV, delivered by the same potty mouthed nine-year olds that are wise beyond their years. The earlier South Park episodes often had Stan present the line “I learned something today…” and delivering the writer’s message from their figurative soapbox about that week’s issue that the protagonists faced.
The speeches were deliberately articulate, and were often the exasperations, or even disgust, that Stone and Parker felt about the world today. The issue itself drives the narrative and it is up to the boys to solve the crisis of the day and discover what it is they can “learn” from their experience(s).
Family Guy came on the scene in the early 2000s to much success and controversy, was cancelled in 2002, and then brought back in 2005 after the re-runs on Adult Swim were attracting huge audiences.
The show takes a much more different approach to how episodes are contrived than South Park. Each has a central plotline most typically related to a sitcom-esque drama or mishap where frequently family members will utter “Remember the time that…” or “This is worse than when…” and the action will be transported to a cutaway that will serve as a distraction and produce a gag that will usually have a pop-culture reference attached.
The plot of most Family Guy episodes is little more than a washing line on which the writers’ hang their jokes to dry.
A comparison that can be made for the writing process for Family Guy is to Monty Python. The Pythons understood the comedic value of nonsense. They had transvestite lumberjacks, killer blancmanges and the ministry for silly walks; anything that happened in an episode of Monty Python was expected to be as unexpected as the Spanish Inquisition and was there for no other reason than because it was funny.
Family Guy relies heavily on the humour of nostalgia, the desire for people to find things relatable or that they remember were funny previously. If an alien being were to watch an episode of Family Guy with no context of our previous existence there would be some understandable gags due to the slapstick humour but ultimately they would draw this conclusion of the show: “why is everyone laughing at this fat man, and can the family actually understand the baby?”
In producing the shows, each team of writing staff come from two very different schools of thought when it comes to constructing episodes. Trey and Parker follow the traditional three-act structure that has been lain out as the template for drama since Aristotle first wrote Poetics.
There is a clear beginning middle and end to each episode with a problem that must be overcome and a growth that must occur within one or more characters in order to overcome it.
On the other hand, Family Guy actively attempts to destroy its own growth through its cutaways that reach into the ‘Hammerspace’ and pull from it a gag that will break the flow of the narrative and offer a respite for laughter. Hammerspace by the way is defined by TV Trope as follows:
Hammerspace is the notional place that things come from when they are needed, and where they go back to when not. The term was fan coined as the place cartoon characters and manga characters would store the overly-large hammers and assorted weaponry they had a propensity for hitting each other with, especially for comedic effect.
Or even more simply, here’s Yakko Waner from Animaniacs:
From this bag here, why I can pull most anything imag’nable. Like office desks and lava lights and Bert who is a cannibal.
Family Guy often reaches into its Hammerspace, a seemingly endless universe of topics and characters from which it can pull out a gag. Deleuze describes this as a “plane of immanence” that is a world without dialects, boundaries or rules.
The cutaway in hammertime is both separate from the story world but at the same time inhabiting a similar space that would be recognisable next to the narrative but with differing rules. Family Guy at times even makes references to this within its own narratives – a very postmodern twist on things.
Now, why isn’t it that Family Guy won’t hit South Park back in a more overt way?
The show is more than capable of reaching into other narrative worlds from its Hammerspace as it has done with The Simpsons in ‘Ratings Guy’. It could be argued that Family Guy in its shunning of structure entirely can never really express a point of view within a narrative of its regular episodes (there are exceptions such as ‘Partial Terms of Endearment’) and therefore cannot attack another point of view.
The best it can do is like Peter in the improv group of ‘Spies Reminiscent of Us’ is defend itself by doing what it does best and continue trying to be funny. As Seth MacFarlane said at Harvard University at a graduation speech in June 2006:
… cutaways and flashbacks have nothing to do with the story. They’re just there to be ‘funny’. That is a shallow indulgence that South Park is quite above, and, for that, I salute them.
Although I’ve tried to defend Family Guy with a hopefully intellectual argument, some media theory and a host of examples of previous successful comedic performers and performances it is often hard to separate what is intentional and what is simply throwing stuff at the wall and hoping that it’ll stick (see J. J. Abrahams’ Lost as a great example of this).
MacFarlane made the decision to reject conventional forms of storytelling, but it’s difficult not to side with the South Park boys. Despite Family Guy regularly achieving more than 8m viewers and being ranked Sunday night’s number one rated entertainment program, South Park is still delivering topically relevant, boundary pushing, meaningful satire even after 18 seasons, and will certainly have the more positive legacy.
Check out more in-depth and slightly wayward small-screen analysis in our Television section, including how Silicon Valley has made the world a better place.