Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Cartoon sitcoms

I was lying on the sofa channel hopping at 11pm last night, as you do, when I found something odd. Family Guy was playing both on BBC Three and FX at the same time. They both had two episodes on in a row (although due to no ads, the BBC block was ten minutes' shorter than FX), both from around the same series.

(Nerdy Note: You can tell when it was made without Googling the episode title by the animation quality - worse on earlier ones, fantastic on newer ones with bits of 3D on vehicles, sets and the like... and also the occasional continuing story - ie Brian's girlfriend for a lot of eps later on. Also the newer eps tend to have the name of writer/producer Cherry Chevapravatdumrong
at the front and you can't help but notice that one. She's just down as staff writer on old ones.)

Quite odd, scheduling the same show at the same time, although it came in quite handy for me as I'd watched one ep on Three and the next one I'd iTuned and iPodded a few days ago, so I could switch to FX and watch another one.

I'm not going to say Family is better than The Simpsons but I have to say it's certainly now up there as one of my favourite sitcoms. The Big Three - Family, Simpsons, Park - have now all made hundreds of episodes over decades of production, and despite the occasional lull (or in Family's case, cancellation and re-commission) they've all maintained a very high quality over this period.

How come? It's so hard to make anything funny, why have these three shows produced more laugh-out-loud comedy than almost every other sitcom on TV put together?

Here we go - making this up as I go along, in true blog style, so here are my x number of reasons. I won't even edit the 'x' out...

Firstly and massively hugely importantly - they're all run by the same people who invented the show in the first place. Groening, MacFarlane and Parker & Stone. Their original vision is still in place, from tiny insert into The Tracy Ullman Show from Mr Groening to rude crude web Xmas card from Matt'n'Trey.

(Nerdy Note: 50% of the creators are called Matt. Discuss)

These four people are, not to put to fine a point on it, geniuses. Groening because he managed to get Fox to leave him alone in the first place, then moved from a kidsy Bart-focused comedy to a Homer-centric 300 cast-list strong comedy epic. Parker & Stone because they revel in being crude and rude and un-PC, and in Eric Cartman they've created the ultimate anti-hero for television. And MacFarlane, lastly, because his show is simply funny.

Yes, Family Guy doesn't push as many boundaries as South Park, but it's much edgier than The Simpsons. OK, Matt'n'Trey did a fantastic spoof of Family in their show, focusing mainly on the habit of a character saying "I haven't been this impressed / depressed / shocked since..." and cutting to a flashback scene, and how it was written by giant sea creatures knocking balls around in a tank (season 10, Cartoon Wars p1 and II) - but you know what? That habit of Family Guy is damn funny. It makes it more into a sketch show than a sitcom.

Family Guy really pushes some gags until they break. And then some. An ep I watched the other night had Peter trying to scoop a dead toad up in a box as it lay against a wall. He failed for at least a minute, it kept flopping out. And, unlike my description, it was very, very funny. Like when Peter fought with a giant chicken for no reason, right in the middle of an episode, then went back to the plot after.

This went on for FIVE AND A HALF MINUTES. Watch it here:

They do this kind of thing all the time - it's as if the freedom they have from (a) being successful; and (b) having a powerful man the network love as showrunner from the start means they ain't scared of anything.

In other reasons-why-it's-good, I'd have to cite the lovely animation (Youtube does it no favours above, but look at the 2D/3D mixes in the background), great voices and - so important here - fantastic score. I think in the latter it bests The Simpsons. Although the latter's musical spoofs are just incredible - watch the Sherry Bobbins one for a perfect pitch Disney pisstake.

Anyhow, raise a glass to the two Matts, Seth and Trey - here's to many more years of sitcom-making tomfoolery. The Matts have said they won't be making any more movies to concentrate on the show, as it's too hard to do both. I understand that, but South Park: The Movie and Team America are two of my favourite films (musicals in a way, hmm, I see a theme). I loved The Simpsons Movie as well, unlike most people who said it was just an extended episode. Well, it was in a way, in that it was longer therefore 'extended' over the telly. In other ways - the animation and plot being just two aspects - it was much more complicated.

The only bad thing I have to say about these three series is that they set the bar so high that the rest of us who work in telly and/or cartoons shy away from competing. There have been efforts but they've all been more niche-y, smaller concepts, piddling away round the edges.

And don't get me started on why we can't make something like these shows here.


No comments: