Parsing Seth MacFarlane's comedy.

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Sept. 12 2008 3:48 PM

Seth MacFarlane

Why is he funny again?

Seth McFarlane. Click image to expand.
Seth MacFarlane 

A promo for Seth MacFarlane's Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy, a new Web video project from the creator of Fox's Family Guy, identifies MacFarlane as "the funniest writer in Hollywood," "a creative pioneer," "a genius of parody," and "T.V.'s most innovative mind." Note the periods there in T.V., the dots pointing toward the past, as do the grand term cavalcade and that Barnum-esque string of not-quite-winking self-praise. MacFarlane, in his tastes for gross-out sprees and attempted taboo-smashing, is an exemplary 21st-century boy, but with the heart of a cane-twirling entertainer of the old school and a booming voice to match.

This retro flair has been essential to the success of Family Guy, which plays like a sketch show fitted into the vessel of a sitcom. Powered by a crassitude reminiscent of Fox's Married With Children and by a libertine misanthropy that is MacFarlane's own, Family Guy rewinds past the influence of Saturday Night Live to stop at the era of Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. It would be impossible to accept a cutaway musical number like "Prom Night Dumpster Baby"—a throwaway joke in every sense, with its chorus of newborns crooning as they dangle from umbilical cords out behind a high-school gym—unless the mind that conceived it had not been wondrously demented by the serious study of show tunes.

Still, to hear MacFarlane—seconded by a passionate cult—call himself the "funniest writer in Hollywood" gives offense. (True, your correspondent must confess delicate sensibilities; two years ago, he walked out of Fox's presentation of its fall schedule after a MacFarlane-animated intro joked, pointlessly, about grinding the homeless of New York City into hot-dog meat.) It feels more correct to label him a savant of aggression, and occasionally—almost intentionally—a kind of idiot savant at that. He hates the debasing excesses of popular culture—the kind leading, say, to prom-night dumpster babies becoming the stuff of tabloid entertainment. Loving to air his outrage, he occasionally confuses the practice with simply inciting outrage in others. "You know, people often ask why there are so many pop-culture gags on the show," he once intoned. "Family Guy likes to hold a mirror up to society and say, 'Society, you're ugly.' " It sometimes feels like he'd be content if we just gaped or gasped in instant disgust.

For MacFarlane, the comedy of embarrassment is but a prelude to explosive farces of indignation—a theme to be developed through the initial 50-clip run of Cavalcade, if its first two installments are any indication. "A Dog on the $25,000 Pyramid" runs for 65 seconds, 10 of them given to manic word on behalf of the sponsor, with the crown-wearing figurehead of Burger King seen bursting through the show's logo, hotly pursued by some dart-blowing, spear-pitching tribal folk. On "Dog," Dick Clark tells Steve and Fido that their category is "things you find in the kitchen." Fido is giving the clues, and the first answer he needs is "blender." Steve guesses blindly ("Oven! Silverware! Cereal!" ...); Fido barks urgently ("Woof-woof-woof!") until the team is out of time, when the pup erupts into the English language, much of it bleeped. Being a joke about nothing beyond the logic of cartoon canines, the clip is just a gentle amusement guided by rim-shot timing. It's all in the twist of the dog's articulate rage—"It was blender, you [bleep]"—and it's a wonder that MacFarlane, given his sadistic streak, didn't go ahead and set Fido to mauling his partner.

The second clip, twice as long and three times as successful, is "Super Mario Rescues the Princess." Set in the world of the video game, it finds the player's avatar, that fat Italian plumber, mastering the final hazards of his quest and meeting the kidnapped princess who has been his grail and also, Mario has inferred, his reward. In his spaghetti-sauce accent, he asks, "How 'bout a kiss, yes?" But Princess Toadstool ain't having it: "You expect?—What kind of Samaritan are you? You rescued me just so you could get with me?" Relations disintegrate in a hail of embittered crosstalk and growls of cleverly deployed Nintendo-speak. The damsel grows increasingly hostile and the hero ever more whiny, the tension between them classically screwball.

Storming out, Super Mario leaves the princess to have her head bitten off by a dragon, and that's good for a guffaw. The laugh comes from a dim corner of the id where a video-game jockey's emotional investment in his thumbs intersects with his fear of women. This is MacFarlane's home turf: Golden Age gags meet contemporary low culture for the delight of perpetual adolescents of all ages.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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