FG Pop Culture, Episode 1: Death Has A Shadow
I think one of the more fascinating portions of television history to me, was the mid-2000's rise of Family Guy... in the UK, specifically. Now, when Family Guy was first released in 1999, to say that it had a bad start would be an understatement. It first aired after the Superbowl where it would have the highest ratings of its career up until its cancellation. But something pretty strange happened with Family Guy which has failed to happen to the vast majority of other canceled shows: it built an extremely dedicated fan-base over the years that the show was canceled. The show gained DVD sales far beyond what other shows with dedicated fan-bases were capable of... and most of them were still on the air. It was pretty much a miracle for a show that just years before, had practically no commercial fan-base what so ever.
But what fascinated me was just the extent of the Americanism's present in the series. Family Guy, above and beyond the other adult-animated programming which was airing at the time and is now currently airing, is a very American show. It uses Pop-Culture references that frankly, I am stunned people in this country laugh at or even know how to respond to. Yet frequently during my High-School and even more so in my college years, friends would proclaim how it is their favorite of the adult-animated programs currently on. How? How do you even comprehend what has not been ingrained into our heads ever? Maybe even more importantly, how does a show that constantly flash-backs to references WAY beyond our media-consuming lifespan make any sense to most of you?
I have three explanations, One: ome of you may have done what I did, (although I doubt it's the majority) and actually researched the references after seeing them. Two: You may just find the punchline really funny, without actually understanding all of the underlying references. Three: You actually understand the reference. Don't get me wrong, Family Guy isn't some alien-invasion of culture that we just do not understand--in fact, I would say a great majority of it we do understand just because of the present-day importing of American culture clashing with British. But when some of the references are so far out there... Well, it soon becomes apparent that almost no-one who watches the show understands some of the references being pushed. Seth McFarlane and the writers of the show are aware that their 20 something fan-base is far from the fan-base they thought they would have, but what's happened has happened.
Now, to get to the point of this article and the series as a whole which I will be doing fairly regularly: I want to dissect every reference within the episode I am writing about. I want to do this for however long I don't tire of talking about Family Guy and I want to come from a British perspective. I will explain to the reader just what we Brits do and don't understand whilst also taking my age into account. I think some of you Americans will be surprised at just how many references we don't understand primarily because we don't have that 'thing' in our country and I'm sure the British will be interested in reading this just to find out what they're missing. On to the episode!
The first of our onslaught of references features the Griffin's at home, watching an episode of the Brady Bunch. A great part of the joke is centered on the punishments that the parents levy on the two children, Greg and Jan. Now this reference I guess is pretty universally known. The Brady Bunch was a landmine of sitcoms and the UK is no less affiliated with that series than the United States, however what I think might throw a lot of people off is the second reference. After this and in conjunction with the last reference and joke, we have an Aunt Jemima gag. The first time I ever saw an Aunt Jemima reference was an episode of Saturday Night Live in which Tracey Morgan (also of 30 Rock fame) plays Uncle Jemima, Aunt Jemima's husband, selling his “Pure Mash Liquor” and after seeing this, I assumed Aunt Jemima was a real product. I looked it up and it turns out this product has been available in the US for far longer than I had assumed and is still unavailable to this day (in the UK). It was an interesting history lesson into one of America's many un-imported products.
Ignoring a minor Hitler joke which... let's face it, none of us have to question whether we know the joke. The next is a gag in which Peter exclaims “I got it, that's the guy from BIG, Tom Hanks, that's it. Funny guy Tom Hanks, everything he says is a stitch” in a viewing of Philadelphia and then continues to laugh when Tom Hanks explains that he has AIDS. I won't explain Philadelphia, it's a common film on both sides of the pond as well as the next scene with the film Casablanca but once again, after this, there's a joke that MANY people living in the UK have probably heard of, but never seen.
G.I Joe is a show that I see in a weird light. I remember watching G.I Joe as a kid but it was renamed for UK viewers (to Action Force, probably to appeal to the Action-Man base already there) and I remember preferring Action-Man (The UK equivalent--if you're American, go check it out on Wikipedia or something). Perhaps because G.I Joe actually didn't go by that name in this country, it just didn't really stick with me as a child. It was only when I watched videos on the internet of these people with very fond memories of the show as children that I truly became interested in re-visiting it and paying attention a bit more. But yes, for people who know the show so well, as much as they do Transformers say, UK people have heard little or nothing about this show besides the recent live-action movie. If they know it, the odds are they know it either by a different name, or very little and not by first-hand experience of watching.
Cocoa Puffs are the next target of parody, another joke that too many British people don't understand fully. Of course we get the jist of it, but without looking up the commercials yourself, Cocoa Puffs are just a store-brand imitation copy to UK'ers. In fact until recently, the UK didn't even know what Fruit Loops were (this was recently released here in a more “natural” variety, basically meaning they reduced the sugar content, as we tend to when US stuff hits our shores). These cereals are available from US Importers and... well, pretty much no-where else.
This leads to a portion of the show that is pretty much unanimously understandable to western viewers featuring references including Bill Clinton, Jane Fonda, Tianemen Square, the Statue of David, McDonalds and New England, but then comes the one most of the British population will know from either one place, or not at all. John Madden and Pat Summerall are commenting on the Superbowl in this next portion... which, yeah, unless you are aware of the Madden games and play them on your Playstation, 360 or what have you, are pretty much complete unknowns in this country. That is changing, however. American Football has managed to gather a dedicated following in the past few years to decade, with NFL becoming more and more popular on cable, even becoming a staple of Sky Sports very recently.
Now considering my mother knew about the show recently when we accidentally flipped to it on Cable, the UK certainly must have aired Different Strokes at some point in time, but much like anyone else my age, this was just something we never saw. Maybe it wasn't the fact that they didn't broadcast it, but just the sad fact that we were just too young for this to be around (the joke, as per usual however, can still be understood regardless of whether you've seen the show or not). Now, the next gag, involving the Kool-Aid man crashing through a wall, is one of my favorites... but also the most nostalgic to me as it made me realize what Kool-Aid was... and what would become my favorite drink of all time. Don't get me wrong, I don't drink this stuff very often, pretty sure one cup could give me full-blown diabetes, but man... a life without trying Kool-Aid would be a life not worth living. Oh by the way, the UK doesn't have Kool-Aid whatsoever, so yes, we grew up without it. The biggest tragedy.
Now, these are the references I picked up on with this episode and with that, it's astounding just how many references haven't even delved into the British sensibility. But what astounds me more however and is slightly ironic, is that these shows/cereals/whatever else that are subject to parody on Family Guy usually are all referenced by people in the UK, whether joking about something or just talking about something they saw some time. These aren't things that are completely unfamiliar territory for people in Britain, it's just things we haven't been subjected to first-hand. It's an extraordinarily interesting subject for me, because it develops my understanding of American culture that I have already been subjected to purely from living in the western world. This is the first episode of Family Guy Pop Culture, over and out.