After sharing a network and broadcast date off and on for 15 years, Matt Groening’s cartoon family formally recognized the existence of Seth MacFarlane’s loving homage (or blatant ripoff).
Animated worlds collided Sunday night when Family Guy’s Griffin family broke down in The Simpsons’ Springfield. This was still a Family Guy episode, with Family Guy opening credits, on which The Simpsons merely appeared.
It was not the first time the two shows have mingled. In a multi-part series of South Park episodes in 2006, Bart Simpson and Eric Cartman team up to stop Family Guy by depriving the manatees that create the show the idea balls they use to write jokes.
Rich Appel, the executive producer who made the crossover happen, has worked on several MacFarlane-created properties including Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show where he was a series co-creator, but he got his start as a writer for The Simpsons. Appel used his ex-wife’s name as an inspiration for Homer Simpson’s mother, Mona Simpson.
The two series have danced around each other for years, taking potshots and swapping employees. From their advantageous position, The Simpsons poked fun at their rival like when Betty White implied the show was “crude” and “low brow” in her 2000 guest appearance, or a picture of Family Guy’s Peter Griffin appearing on The Simpsons with the caption “Plagiarisimo.” In 2007, Fox vetoed a planned Family Guy sequence in which Glenn Quagmire sexually assaults Marge Simpson, and then murders the rest of the family. Network executives claimed the insult was too “personal.”
When MacFarlane’s typical misogynist humor (the kind that got him in trouble at the Oscars) led to Stewie Griffin spouting rape jokes on a prank phone call to Moe’s Tavern Sunday night, some were rightly upset.
The controversy is doubly unfortunate as it has returned the Parents Television Council, a right-wing, conservative hate group with a pro-censorship agenda, to the public consciousness. Capitalizing on the outrage accompanying the rape joke, the PTC spent weeks trying to get viewers sufficiently angry enough that they might donate money to the organization struggling to remain relevant.
Founded by L. Brent Bozell III (a man who once said “the gay agenda endorses the right of gays to marry and teach children, and that's in utter opposition to mainstream America”), the advocacy group has previously criticized The Simpsons for “becom[ing] steadily more graphic as the years have gone by.” The PTC has an especially turgid hard-on for Family Guy, alleging the show “delivers some of the most vile, offensive content on broadcast television,” including flagrant uses of the words “ass,” “douche,” and “son of a bitch.”
The rape joke was in poor taste, and the reference to sexual assault not relevant to the punchline. When asked to defend its inclusion, MacFarlane told Entertainment Weekly “In context, it’s pretty funny.” Matt Groening didn’t defend the joke, but praised its ability to keep the long-running prank phone call gag alive.
Even among other Seth MacFarlane shows, Family Guy stands out for its violent misogyny. In last season’s finale, a masturbation joke segued into a “laff-riot” about a domestic double murder. Unlike American Dad or The Cleveland Show that will sometimes include a violently off-color joke when it is germane to the plot, Family Guy often resorts to abrupt and shocking jokes that trade heavily on violence against women.
Of course, humor is subjective, but even by very broad standards, and accounting for context, Stewie’s rape joke was not funny.
The rest of the crossover worked a little too well. Each series trotted out gags that neither has attempted in years, like the previously mentioned prank phone call. Others included Peter Griffin teaching Homer Simpson how to introduce a cutaway gag and Bart Simpson showing Stewie Griffin how to ride a skateboard.
Brian, the Griffin’s anthropomorphized dog, tried and failed to make conversation with The Simpsons’ greyhound Santa’s Little Helper and, after being saddled with walking duties, ended up freeing the thoroughbred in a moment of ill-conceived canine liberation politics. Frank Welker, who provides the voice for Santa’s Little Helper, is one of the few cast members on either show to have appeared in the ultimate crossover, the widely panned 1987 animated romp The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones. Santa’s Little Helper returns by the end of the show.
With an extended run time of 43+ minutes, most of the Griffins get to have a side quest or two with The Simpsons. Stewie develops a chaste crush on Bart. Homer and Peter establish a friendship based on their mutual love of donuts, and Lisa tries to undo the years of psychological abuse endured by Meg Griffin (played by Mila Kunis). The whole affair is capped off by a nine-minute fight sequence between the two patriarchs that recalls Peter Griffin’s constant battles with Ernie, a giant chicken.
Missing from much of the action were Lois Griffin and Marge Simpson. Apart from an afternoon they spend together at the movies, the pair is barely seen. Also absent from the proceedings was longtime Simpsons voiceover artist, Harry Shearer, who had the good sense or financial security to decline crossover participation.
The Griffins and the Simpsons seem to be getting along until it is revealed Pawtucket Patriot Ale, the fake beer enjoyed by the Family Guy characters of Quahog Rhode Island, is nothing more than Homer Simpson’s beloved Duff with a new label slapped on. Springfield’s unnamed, Roy Cohn-esque, blue-haired lawyer takes the Griffins to court over “intellectual theft and patent infringement.”
The crossover has some of its finest moments in the courtroom as the rich tapestry of characters that populate both shows come together and acknowledge their similarities. Tom Tucker meets Kent Brockman, Principal Seymour Skinner meets Principal Shepherd, and Cleveland Brown and Carl Carlson revel in being the two funniest guys in their respective towns.
The Family Guy pairing is only the first Simpsons crossover episode this season. An upcoming episode will feature the cast of Futurama, Matt Groening’s other hit animated show. The Planet Express crew will pop in to Springfield by way of time travel (a more direct ode to The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones, who met via similar means).
The crossover ended with Stewie crying for his lost friend, writing over and over again on a chalkboard that he would not think about Bart Simpson. Brian the dog shared his sentiment. As the Griffin family walked through downtown Springfield for the first time and Lois said she would like to visit again, the family dog said their brief trip “feels more like a one-shot deal.”