‘Family Guy’ uproar overlooks show’s equal-opportunity skewering

Larry Levin, CEO and Publisher of the Jewish Light. 

By Larry Levin

 There was a lot of digital noise last week after an airing of the Fox TV show “Family Guy” in which multiple iterations of regular Jewish character Mort Goldman were seen picking up pennies on a Jerusalem street. Notable was a missive from Jewish Daily Forward blogger Mark Pinsky, who decried the career of the show’s creator, Seth MacFarlane, as exhibiting anti-Semitism and ultimately compared him to the (notoriously unstable) Mel Gibson.

In his piece, Pinsky claimed that a close examination of MacFarlane’s humor over the years demonstrates a singular form of deprecation toward Jews. After giving examples of previous conduct and reasons that might explain anti-Semitic intent, he offered a distinction that supposedly puts MacFarlane on the wrong side of the fence:

True, other faiths take their knocks in “Family Guy,” and some of the representations of Jews and Judaism in the series are favorable. Other animated comedies poke fun at Jewish foibles, as well. The Simpsons’  Krusty the Clown is a lapsed Jew and a committed reprobate. South Park’s Kyle Broflovski is a conflicted Jewish kid with a yente mother and a lawyer father who wears a kipa. Another character in “South Park,” whose co-creator Matt Stone is a secular Jew, is a despised anti-Semite and occasional neo-Nazi. But the satire in these shows, often written by Jews, is knowing and good-natured.

In “Family Guy,” in contrast, there is consistent meanness that reinforces classic, anti-Semitic stereotypes: greedy, cheap, cowardly, whiny, averse to physical labor, and in control of Hollywood.

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To which I have to ask: Has Pinsky ever seen “South Park”?

But I digress. The subject of MacFarlane’s treatment of Jews came up last year, too. When he hosted the Oscars (it must be noted, in rather mediocre fashion, but hey, why the Academy chose him in the first place is beyond me), he was taken to task in similar fashion, most notably by the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. But at that time, Jewish Journal’s Rob Eshman combatted the allegations of anti-Semitism and noted the distinctive importance of humor in coping with societal shortcomings:

One thing humor does well, even better than press releases, is difuse [sic] prejudice.  It does that through mockery, exaggeration and sometimes by just bringing prejudice to light.  That explains everything from Charlie Chaplin in “The Great Dictator” to Sascha Barron Cohen’s character of Borat, who got hundreds of Arizonans at a rodeo to sing the “famous” Kazhakstan folksong, “Throw the Jew Down the Well.” Cohen wasn’t out to whip up Jew-hatred, he was out to expose human — hmm, what’s the word? — stupidity.

So who’s more “right,” Eshman or Pinsky? Well, there are a few problems with Pinsky’s analysis. First, there’s absolutely no question that MacFarlane’s products – from “Family Guy” to “American Dad” to “The Cleveland Show” to the film “Ted” – mock, parody and satire virtually everyone.

Whites, blacks, Arabs, Asians, Latinos, gays, straights, old, young, disabled, healthy, men, women, you name it, they all get skewered. On the religion side, Christians and Muslims get it in abundance. Everyone gets it. Shoot, there were even similar ethnic and religious jokes toward other groups in the very same episode Pinsky was blasting.

And to Eshman’s point of social stupidity, the most clueless character on “Family Guy” is its protagonist, Peter Griffin, an oafish, overweight, white, gentile male. Most of the stereotypical barbs on the show are reflected through his persona, meaning, of course, the biggest laugh is on him and his boorish outlook on life.

So if MacFarlane’s show rips everyone, how does one respond to Pinsky’s contention that the verbal and visual maiming of Jews is somehow different in feel or spirit? Well perhaps it’s a matter of intent; Pinsky claims to rely on MacFarlane’s history of thinking he was mistreated by being a gentile in Hollywood as one reason.

Rather illogical, as that doesn’t explain the large number of Jews who have populated MacFarlane’s writing staff; in other words, the ones who write the jokes about both Jews and others. Sure, it’s possible that Jews could produce anti-Semitic content; but if MacFarlane were so significantly anti-Semitic, would he entrust his weekly material to so many talented Jewish writers? And are they all anti-Semites, too? Seems like an awfully big stretch.

The truth of the matter is, it would be weird if Jews were somehow excluded from the endless stream of daggers. That would connote, in my opinion, that while it is OK to poke at others, it’s a no-no for Jews. Not only would that undermine the universality of the humor, but it would also locate us as Jews in a position of separate and different treatment in parody and satire, which is not to my mind a healthy place to be.

You may not have ever liked or appreciated crude or outrageous humor, whether “Family Guy,” “South Park” (one of whose creators, Matt Stone, is a secular Jew) or any other extreme comparable that denigrates and ridicules. But as one of “South Park’s” characters says about humor in the classic episode “Cartoon Wars” – that coincidentally to this discussion, satirizes “Family Guy,” — “Either everything’s OK to write about, or nothing is.”