It seems today that all you see is violence in movies and sex on TV. Take The Family Guy, Fox’s prime-time animated sitcom, whose theme song opens with just such a curmudgeonly sentiment in an homage to All in the Family: “Boy, the way Glen Miller played...”
A kind of middlebrow Simpsons written by public university grads rather than the Harvard elite, The Family Guy prides itself on pushing the envelope of good taste whenever possible. At times, this can seem liberating; at others, merely mean-spirited and offensive, as when they ridicule Tommy Lee for letting a five-year-old drown in his pool, or say of Joaquin Phoenix, “He’s just a harelipped reminder of what might have been.”
The one-liners, ungrounded in the best of times, now teeter dangerously close to nastiness.
So when a scheduled episode from the upcoming season on the subject of abortion—“Partial Terms of Endearment” by staff writer Danny Smith—ran afoul of Fox censors, showrunner Seth MacFarlane did the only logical thing: he scheduled a table read of the episode before a live audience in the heart of Hollywood. The reading took place last night.
The last time MacFarlane found himself censored by the network was in 2000, a year after Family Guy premiered on Fox, and just before it was canceled for the first of two times. (It was revived in 2005 after blockbuster DVD sales and a popular syndication run on the Cartoon Network; McFarlane’s most recent deal was for $100 million. As one of the writers said at last night’s event, “We argued at the time there weren’t Nielsen boxes in either dorm rooms or prisons, and those were both big demographics for us.”) That was the episode “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein,” which, despite being spiked, showed up in the Season 3 DVD set. In that episode, family patriarch Peter Griffin, realizing that stockbrokers and accountants invariably have names like Ian Greenstein and Larry Rosenblatt, seeks to convert his teenage son Chris to Judaism so he’ll earn a better living. “Is there anything you people can’t do—besides manual labor?” he asks one of the Chosen People.
Censored Family Guy episode performed live
But it was the show’s elaborate musical number—known as a cutout in showbiz parlance—that had Fox in a tizzy: a takeoff on “When You Wish Upon a Star” titled “I Need a Jew,” which included the offending lyrics: “Though by many they’re abhorred/Hebrew people I’ve adored/Even though they killed my Lord/I need a Jew.”
(The penultimate line was subsequently changed to, “I know they didn’t kill my Lord.”)
This time around, MacFarlane chose to beat his liabilities into assets. So last night, at the Ricardo Montalban Theater—literally at Hollywood and Vine— The Family Guy’s principal cast, together with a 16-piece orchestra (perhaps the last of its kind in network television), gathered to give a live reading of what a Reuters article claimed contained “very graphic, very morbid” images of an abortion.
On stage were MacFarlane, in a black-on-black tux, looking like Kevin Spacey doing his Bobby Darrin impression, reading the parts of Peter, Stewie (a Noel Coward-inflected infant) and Brian (the family’s talking dog); the tiny, incorrigibly foul-mouthed Alex Borstein, with her signature Betty Boop Brooklyn honk, reading for Peter’s sensible wife, Lois; Mila Kunis, in a microscopic black dress, who didn’t say much as teenage daughter Meg, and didn’t have to; and actor-writers Jon Viener, Alec Sulkin and Danny Smith, plus ringer Christine Layton rounding out the cast. For the record, everyone looked mah-velous.
In the episode, Peter and Lois attend Lois’ college reunion, where she is approached by ex-roommate (and old flame!) Naomi, who has a secret request. Peter’s certain he’s about to have a three-way; instead, Naomi and her husband reveal they cannot have children and ask Lois to serve as a surrogate mother. At first supportive, Peter soon sours on the concept, imagining that his home’s “rickety staircases, faulty wiring and gay poltergeists” might lend fate a hand. This quickly escalates to Peter’s challenge to his wife, “I bet I can drink more bleach than you,” and a Roadrunner/Wile E. Coyote-inspired bit involving an “Acme Miscarriage Kit.”
When Naomi and her husband are killed in a traffic pileup on the freeway, Lois is faced with the dilemma of what to do with the pregnancy, and consents to a visit to the local family counseling center. There, Peter is scared straight by some right-to-life protesters and their video Abortion Madness, in which a single-celled cartoon named Ziggy the Zygote displays a sign reading, “Don’t kill me—I wuv you,” before being dispatched by “a sharp, foreboding hook device.”
The one-liners, ungrounded in the best of times, now teeter dangerously close to nastiness. Peter says, “If God wanted us to kill babies, he’d make them all Chinese girls.” And later, “I’m here to save the unborn – after they come out of the vagina, they can go fuck themselves,” which drew a smattering of applause. The dialogue hits its low point when someone asks, “What if a woman is raped?” and Peter replies, “Maybe she should have thought about that before she asked me for directions.”
You don’t need to look too deeply to realize there was little chance of such material ever airing. McFarlane admitted as much at Comic-Con in July. The event was a publicity stunt to drum up support for the Emmy run, and the audience was mainly Academy of Television Arts and Sciences voters and VIP guests.
Or, as MacFarlane put it afterwards, “We did this to drum up Emmy votes, so we could lose by fewer votes.” Fox, which hosted the evening, claims their concern was for the delicate sensibilities of advertisers rather than viewers. Look for the episode on the DVD release after the rest of the season airs.
Paul Cullum is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, L.A. Weekly, Variety, Details, Radar, Vanity Fair and hundreds of tiny magazines that pay comically little.