When last seen, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane was stepping before the camera to turn the honored act of hosting the Oscars into a high-profile act of slut-shaming and ethnic jokes. Everybody got mad for a couple of days, everybody else pointed out that the Oscar telecast actually had pretty good ratings, and eventually the hubbub died down.
Now MacFarlane is back with a new live-action comedy for Fox called Dads. And it appears that his new project will be … a high-profile act of slut-shaming and ethnic jokes. This, it seems, is cutting edge humor in the 21st century. Take a look:
My initial reaction? Gross.
Consider what’s supposed to be funny in this four-minute clip.
• A riff on the “Chicago Way” scene from The Untouchables: ”They bring knives, you bring guns, etc.” This isn’t actually offensive, it’s just lazy: I’ve seen the same bit—with several young actors doing deliberately bad Sean Connery impressions—on at least two sitcoms just this season. Unfortunately, this is about as sharp and innovative as the writing’s going to get.
• Because next up, we meet an Asian-American woman who complains that her father “beat me with a math book….”
• Right before this same Asian-American woman is required by her bosses to dress (against her wishes, apparently) as a “sexy Asian schoolgirl”—complete with embarrassed tittering—for the sexual gratification of visiting Chinese businessmen.
• Topped off with Martin Mull, portraying one of the titular dads, bursting into that meeting in order to warn his son that the Chinese businessmen will probably cheat him because that’s how Chinese people are. “There’s a reason ‘Shanghai’ is a verb,” Mull warns.
• And where to start with the broken-English Latina maid?
None of these tropes would’ve been out of place in a mediocre ’80s sitcom. Including the Untouchables bit.
MacFarlane, of course, tries to have it both ways—he wants to get laughs from the transgressions against good taste while acknowledging the transgressions, implicitly neutering them so the audience won’t have to feel bad about laughing at the naughty stuff.
So our young Asian actress gets to be indignant, yet still play along, because otherwise she wouldn’t be any fun. One of the protagonists turns out to have an Asian girlfriend who is also offended by his efforts to exploit the young woman, yet probably will stick around anyway—or else she wouldn’t be any fun. And our protagonists get to be embarrassed by the dad’s overt, public racism without being tainted by it themselves—because that wouldn’t be any fun.
The point, though, is to get the laughs and the “woo woo” behavior that comes from trafficking in the stereotypes in the first place. Otherwise, why go there?
The problem with Seth MacFarlane’s humor, as always, is that he’s almost always punching down instead of punching up. He’s picking on people who have always been picked upon, and he thinks he’s hilarious for doing so. What’s more, he’s making a lot of money from other people who enjoy that sort of thing. But that doesn’t make him funny. It makes him one of those fratboy douchebags who seem to be everywhere in life, even into middle age, making uncomfortably insulting wisecracks that always seem to end with the protest that “I’m just joking.” The result? The two white guys are the straight men in this bit. Everybody else—foreign, old, female—is ripe for the ribbing.
A few years ago, South Park made fun of MacFarlane with a riff that depicted his comedy writing style as being about as clever as manatees randomly pushing around big rubber balls:
Not much has changed. Seth MacFarlane is still clearly making comedy with his tired old balls. Only he’s got two left—”racist joke” and “sexist joke.” Without them, it seems, he clearly wouldn’t have any balls at all.