The Simpsons vs. Rhode Island (sort of)
March 15, 2010
My previous analyses of Family Guy’s “Road to Rhode Island” and The Simpsons’s “Mother Simpson” focused primarily on narrative structure, conflict, and resolution, and I came to the conclusion that the Simpsons episode is a work of art based on its emotional content and ability to work on multiple levels but the Family Guy episode is not because it is little more than twenty-three minutes of loosely connected gags. There is more to these shows than narrative structure, however, and I believe some further analysis will help provide additional support for my conclusion.
The animated format of these shows allows the writers a lot of freedom to use large numbers of settings and scenes and quick cuts to non sequitur gags. Both programs use this to great extent, but Family Guy seems to rely on it more than The Simpsons. Typically, a character will talk about an amusing situation and then a cut is made to the situation itself, thus both telling and then showing the joke. For example, in “Road to Rhode Island,” Lois tells Peter they have communication problems, and then they immediately cut to a new scene which illustrates Lois and Peter having communication problems. Usually, the illustration scenes last a matter of seconds and then they return to the original scene. This tactic allows Family Guy to provide visuals to any joke they want, thus doubling the potential of every gag; the viewer gets to hear the joke and react, and then also see the joke and react.
These quick cuts are trademark Family Guy, and they work well for its random style of humor. The Simpsons is also known to be random, but an episode like “Mother Simpson” is a much tighter and more focused affair. Whereas Family Guy relies on non sequitur show and tell, The Simpsons relies more on running gags for their humor. One example from “Mother Simpson” is the tombstone. Homer’s tombstone first appears at Marge’s doorstep in a wagon towed by Patti and Selma, thus revealing the initial gag of the engraving (“We are better for having lost him”). The tombstone is next seen by Homer in the graveyard, causing him to shriek and fall into his own grave. Finally, it appears in a beautiful reveal at the end of the episode, as everyone’s coffee mugs are raised and we see the reactions of Mr. Burns and his posse from the tombstone’s perspective as they learn whose tombstone Patti and Selma had purchased. An argument can be made that running gags require the viewer to be more engaged in the episode in order to appreciate them whereas non sequiturs need only be seen, appreciated, and forgotten, but both styles certainly have their merits.
This is not to say that these styles of gags are exclusive to each series, nor is it to say that their styles are completely different. One type of gag employed to good effect in both episodes in question is the defial of expectations reveal. In “Rhode Island,” Brian and Stewie agree that they need to disappear fast, and then a passing bus fills the frame. When the bus is gone, so are Brian and Stewie—until the camera pans to the right, and they state that they probably should have jumped on that bus. Naturally, the cartoon convention is for characters to disappear when blocked by passing obstructions, but here the expectation is defied and mocked. In “Mother Simpson,” Homer grandly announces that he and Bart shall make the most of their Saturday now that his death has been successfully faked, and the next shot is of two kites flying gaily in the sky, but then the camera pans and Marge and Lisa are revealed to be flying the kites while Homer lies drinking a Duff in his hammock and counting as Bart lazily pounds a hammer on the brick patio. Again, both of these gags are facilitated by the animated nature of the programs, and both shows use the reveal adroitly.
There is more than visual humor to be had in each series, however. Both Family Guy and The Simpsons demand the viewer be familiar with popular culture in order to understand certain jokes, but there is still a significant difference to be found in the types of references made. When Stewie attempts to remember his home phone number, the first sequence of numbers that come to mind are “867-5309;” when he discovers his blunder, he proclaims “Damn you Tommy Tutone!” Obviously, anyone unfamiliar with this early eighties one hit wonder will have no idea what Stewie is talking about, but others may appreciate the brainy toddler’s knowledge of power pop which predates his own time by over a decade. Stewie and Brian also play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon in the car, which requires the viewer to be familiar with this game in order to understand what they’re doing, and perhaps knowledge of the specific actors and movies named will also increase the scene’s humor, but really the main humor of the scene comes from the fact that a talking dog and a toddler have the capacity to play the game and berate each other in an intellectual fashion.
The references in “Mother Simpson,” however, take a bit more parsing to be appreciated. In the third act, Burns calls in the F.B.I. to track down his helpful hippie assailant, and the agents are none other than Bill Gannon and Joe Friday of the second version of Dragnet, with Harry Morgan providing Gannon’s voice. The characters are never named, though (except Friday is once referred to as “Joe), so unless the viewer is familiar with Dragnet already, then the gag is entirely lost. Also, Lisa and her grandmother bond over bashing John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, and anyone who had to read said book in the ninth grade can better appreciate their commentary. Strangely enough, one of the finest moments in the episode occurs when Homer discovers that what he thought was his mother’s grave is actually that of Walt Whitman, which sends Homer into a violent fury during which he exclaims, “I hate you, Walt freakin’ Whitman! Leaves of grass my ass!” Personally, this scene sends me into a violent fury of laughter every time I see it, but the gag is probably lost on anyone who has never heard of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Really, though, the funniest part is that Homer is apparently rather familiar with it, which is hilarious considering how alternately buffoonish and intellectual he can be.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of “Mother Simpson” which clearly places it in a separate league from Family Guy is Homer’s mother’s epiphany. As revealed in a flashback, Homer’s mother tucks him into bed and enters the living room to find Abe watching the first Super Bowl. As soon as she sees Joe Willie Namath’s lustrous mane of hair and wild sideburns, an entirely new world of rebellion is opened up to her, complete with a circular pan around her featuring swirling colors and psychedelic imagery in the background. This new world puts her in direct opposition to the old one to which Abe subscribes, which is represented by Johnny Unitas’s “haircut you could set your watch to.” For The Simpsons to so perfectly summarize the attitudes of the late sixties via the hairstyles of the starting quarterbacks for the New York Jets and the Baltimore Colts is nothing short of brilliance—sheer brilliance.
“Road to Rhode Island” does not offer the kind of depth that “Mother Simpson” does, and I feel confident that the same could be said of the two franchises at large. Overall, The Simpsons is a complex and intelligent television series, and even though I have not seen a large amount of Family Guy episodes, I feel confident in stating that its product is nowhere near as intelligent or complex as The Simpsons’s. These qualities help to solidify The Simpsons, and “Mother Simpson” in particular, as works of art, and hopefully this analysis provides some clarification as to what enables The Simpsons to stand above Family Guy and countless other programs, as well.