Sometimes incisive, sometimes irreverent, and sometimes ridiculously stupid, Family Guy is a great source of modern social commentary. For all the flack the show receives for its reliance on cutaway gags or for being a purported knock-off of The Simpsons (which, incidentally, is one of my favorite television shows of all time), creator Seth MacFarlane’s flagship show has its moments of sheer brilliance.
For me, one of the joys of watching the show is the constant stream of film references. In any given episode, you may find yourself watching an homage (or twelve) to a wide range of movies, from Back to the Future to Indiana Jones, The Ten Commandments to Annie Hall, and everything in between. In particular, within the past couple of years the series’ recreations of the original Star Wars trilogy have shown the best of what Family Guy has to offer, combining sincere tribute and gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) skewering.
But I, for one, have always been impressed by Family Guy’s frequent, generally loving attention to classic cinema. It’s obvious that MacFarlane and company have a great deal of respect for the films of ye olde Hollywood. From musicals to screwball comedies, drama to silent films, practically every episode of the show contains obvious (and not-so-obvious) references to some of the best films in cinematic history.
MacFarlane has a great voice, and it sometimes seems that the writers stretch themselves to find excuses to utilize it. I’m not complaining, though–I could listen to MacFarlane sing all day. The show’s creator voices several of the main characters, including Peter, Quagmire, Brian, and Stewie, and the latter two characters especially have frequent musical moments throughout the series. Many of these moments are drawn from classic musicals:
- “Make ‘Em Laugh” from 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain is performed in two separate episodes: once by Quagmire, who changes the lyrics to befit the momentary setting (a sex toy shop), and once by Peter, Quagmire, Stewie, and Joe (voice by Patrick Warburton), with the lyrics unchanged.
- In the segment “Stewie B. Goode” from the straight-to-DVD release Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story, Stewie channels Maria Von Trapp (from 1965’s The Sound of Music) as he strides down the sidewalk singing “I Have Confidence.”
- The episode “Wasted Talent” amusingly alters the lyrics of “Pure Imagination” from 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, creating a beer-soaked tribute to “Pure Inebriation.”
Some of the most enduringly popular segments of the show are found in the “Road” episodes, which take their cue, by and large, from the series of Road to… films featuring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. The first such episode, “Road to Rhode Island,” even features a tune that borrows heavily from the title tune of 1942’s Road to Morocco. Ultimately, it’s fitting that the show pays such frequent tribute to the “Road” films, seeing as how those movies’ self-referential Hollywood in-jokes are a precursor to the same self-parodying elements that make Family Guy a sometimes guilty pleasure.
“Road to Rupert,” the third episode of that milieu, contains my hands-down favorite moment from the entire series. As Brian and Stewie attempt to track down Stewie’s stuffed bear, Rupert, whom Brian accidentally sold in a yard sale, they find themselves in Colorado and attempt to rent a helicopter in order to cross the mountains into Aspen. The rental agreement says that they can forego a deposit in exchange for a “jaunty tune,” which leads Stewie into a dance with none other than the master himself, Gene Kelly.
Gene Kelly’s cameo comes courtesy of 1945’s Anchors Aweigh, in which Kelly originally danced with Jerry Mouse. The clip above shows both versions of the dance side-by-side. As you can see, the Family Guy crew (thankfully) maintained the spirit of the original throughout the entirety of the segment. It makes for a silly, fun moment that never fails to bring a smile to my face.
Another inspired moment, in the controversial episode “Extra-Large Medium” (which drew ire from political pundit Sarah Palin for its depiction of a girl with Down Syndrome), is a brief recreation of the classic Abbott and Costello routine “Who’s on First.” Peter channels Lou Costello as he tries to “psychically” locate a man who has been buried with a bomb strapped to his chest:
Peter: All right, what’s the name of the guy we’re looking for?
Joe: Well, he’s an Asian fella–Melvin Hu.
Peter: That’s what I want to find out.
Peter: The name of the guy.
Joe: Melvin Hu.
Peter: Are you a cop?
Peter: You handling this case?
Peter: Then what’s the name of the guy?
Peter: The guy we’re looking for.
Peter: The guy who’s buried.
Peter: The guy with the bomb.
Peter: What street does he live on?
[The bomb explodes in the distance.]
Some of the more satirical bon mots are saved for the Disney canon. From Peter’s brief turn as Mary Poppins (in which he lands on–and subsequently crushes–his charges) to Peter’s fervent wish upon a star for a Jewish accountant to help with his taxes (“I Need a Jew“), Disney films–and Walt Disney himself–are skewered sometimes mercilessly.
And yet another “Road” episode, “Road to the Multiverse,” features an insanely funny parody of the Disney song canon. In the episode, Brian and Stewie travel through a series of increasingly absurd universes, one of which is designed with the traditional hand-drawn animated look of classic Disney films.
The Family Guy characters are depicted as popular Disney characters ranging from Ursula in The Little Mermaid (poor Meg) to Flower the Skunk from Bambi (Cleveland). As they all sing a song, waxing rhapsodic about the joys of pie, it seems idyllic to Brian and Stewie … at least until the other characters attack their Jewish neighbor, Mort (a reference to Walt’s supposed antisemitism). Innocence dissolving into shocking chaos–the hallmark of the Family Guy sensibility, if there is one.
If you’ve never seen the show, it’s worth a look. After all, what other modern shows can you think of that routinely make references to classic film figures like Fatty Arbuckle, Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Karl Malden, Mickey Rooney, Lucille Ball … I could easily keep going here …?
At the very least, picking out the pop culture references sprinkled throughout each episode is a fun game within itself. I’m sure there’s some kind of drinking game associated with the show in that respect, although you should expect to get drunk off your ass should you participate. You may be offended at times, or disgusted at times (seriously, there’s a big reliance on vomit humor in a couple of episodes that I could do without), or shocked at times, but if you’re a classic film fan, you’ll also be delighted when you recognize even the most obscure movie references.
So kudos to Seth MacFarlane, from one classic film fan to another. The Simpsons may have done it first, but these days, Family Guy is arguably doing it better.