In a recent issue of the New Yorker (1/16) Nancy Franklin has a review of Family Guy that I think misses the mark. She makes some great points about gender and joking. But she glosses over the show's main strength, its referential humor.
I'll admit I didn't get Family Guy when it first premiered back in 1999. Other shows like South Park, King of the Hill, Futurama, even the weakened Simpsons, all seemed to strike my funny bone more reliably and consistently.
Now, however, Futurama is gone, and King of the Hill lost its edge several seasons ago. South Park remains strong, and the Simpsons have regained their stride somewhat, but there's room again in my schedule for some smart animated fun.
Reenter Family Guy, which has steadily earned my appreciation since returning to the air in 2004. The key for me, and which Franklin discusses only in passing, is the highly referential style of humor that she notes has become a signature of the show.
References to pop culture cram each episode. Often they're to well known works like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Heart of Darkness. Sometimes they're more obscure, as when Peter dances with William Shatner in a parody of a 1938 film Joy of Living.
Discerning these nods and winks is a lot of the fun. So much so that whole websites are devoted to cataloguing them. (I certainly didn't catch that Joy of Living reference myself.) Ignore this feature, and you miss a main source of Family Guy's appeal.
Franklin mentions the referential humor briefly, but saves most of her praise for the voices, which she approvingly compares to a radio show. This frankly baffles me -- I've never considered the voice work to be a strong suit of Family Guy.
I'm not saying that Seth MacFarlane is James Joyce. Nor am I claiming the writing is flawless. Sometimes the rapid-fire gags get relentless, particularly when the references are cliched. Few shows, however, make laugh as often or loudly.
And I don't think that's a guy thing...