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Family Guy

October 2009

Has Family Guy gone stale in the second episode of the new season?  Or has the seemingly cutting-edge series revealed a staleness that was always there?

In a meandering and interminable episode written by Mark Hentemann, Lois, the wife of the title cartoon character, family guy Peter, the simplest of simple Joes, needs to consult her medical history after a breast cancer scare and discovers that her grandmother was a Holocaust survivor.  The problem is that Lois has always regarded herself as a good Christian.  Hearing the news, hubby Peter comments, “Breast cancer is starting to look pretty good.”

Lois questions her mother, whose upper crust (White Anglo Saxon Protestant—or Catholic?) husband made his wife conceal her Jewishness (“It was the right thing to do”) in order to be admitted to the right country clubs.  Unlike his father-in-law, who still tests his wife’s “Jewish” response to dollar bills (!), Peter embraces the idea of being Jewish.  He purchases a Jewish star necklace (equipped with chest hair), and dons a tallit and kippah.  He decides to change his name from Peter to “Chhhh” (Hebrew guttural sound).

Confused and disconcerted, Lois calls in Max, the Jewish accountant, for advice from an “actual Jewish person.”  Max’s “Jewish” gut reaction is that “Being Jewish does not have to change you or your family’s life.”  (Does the writer intend this as a critique of American Jewish attitudes or as a “healthy” attitude?)  Yet Max does change his rhetoric a bit when he informs Peter later that becoming Jewish is a process that “involves spiritual education and good works.”  Impatient with Lois’s desire to keep things as they are and Max’s rather contradictory insistence that one must work to become Jewish in order to be like everybody else, Peter complains, “Leave it to a Jew to take all the fun out of being Jewish.”

Peter drags the family to the synagogue, complete with Ben Stein as the rabbi.  As Peter enters, he announces, “I’m one of you guys now. I’m Jewish.”  He then shouts, “Holocaust!  We’re Number one!”  A boy who sits behind Peter’s daughter greets her with a whisper that makes her recoil (the lewdness of Jewish boys?).  Pete immediately enrolls his sons (but not his daughter?) in a Jewish school where the wise-guy baby learns about Chanukah and then questions, “How long before we play pin the eviction notice on the black man’s door?”  He thinks up another question: “What are you going to do when Jesus comes back and puts a boot up your…[derriere]?”  Not unexpectedly the Jewish school sequence mocks Jewish boys in gym class.

Peter is convinced that a change in religion can bring spice to his marriage.  He cannot wait to be aroused by his wife seducing him with the line, “Tell me why you don’t earn as much as my friend’s husband.”  Yet in his dreams he is visited, Fiddler-on-the-Roof style, by his sainted Irish father, who chides him, “Knock off all the Jewish stuff or you’ll spend eternity in hell.”  Finding his old time religion once more, Peter warns his wife at breakfast, “Jews are gross, Lois.  It’s the only religion with ‘ew’ in it.”  At night he ties his wife to a cross and in the morning he takes rifle shots at his wife and at a Jewish neighbor near the mail box.

Lois runs to her mother for moral support.  Her mom confesses, “I let your father take my Jewish identity.”  Lois then announces that she will have a Passover seder and that there will no longer be Easter in their house.  Peter dresses up in an Easter bunny costume and declares his intention to mess up the seder.  He says, “I’m a Catholic, and I want to live in a Catholic house.”  She responds, internalizing the beliefs about Jewish materialism of the men in her life, “Well, I’m a Jew and I want to live in a nicer house.”

The moment Peter refers to the importance of believing in Jesus, the Christian savior appears, with beard and robe, to remind Peter that Jesus was a Jew and to tell him that Judaism and Catholicism are “two sides of the same coin” and that the essence of all religion is to treat others the same way you want to be treated.  When, in the final moments of the episode, entitled “Family Goy,” Peter asks Jesus (who, by the way, is depicted as a believer in 9% tips) which is the best religion, Jesus replies, “Six of one. They’re all complete crap.”

What is the moral of this story?  Peter interprets “Treat others as you want to be treated” to mean “an eye for an eye.”  Is the writer offering a critique of religion or is he setting up a contradiction in religion (when the two sayings are not necessarily contradictory)?  Or is his depiction of all these stereotypes of Jews all about contradiction—to show that stereotypes are contradictory, or to use contradiction for easy laughs?  Or is he piling up all the contradictions to make the point that religious differences breed more contradiction than conciliation and the answer to anti-Semitism or anti-Catholicism is Lois’s sigh:  “I just want to be a good person on my own.”

To get to this profound (?) conclusion, writer Hentemenn recycles old jokes and inverts cliché Brotherhood Week sermons.  Fair enough, I suppose, but not very creative or entertaining.  It simply makes stale lines and stale themes (including the anti-religion tag lines) more stale:  I want to be Jewish because Chanukah has eight nights of presents while Christmas has only one.  The half hour mocks mockery of Hebrew names, thus making a mockery of mockery, or perhaps making mockery unfunny.  (“Grandma Hebrewburg is Jewish?” “It was originally Hebrewburgmoneygrabber.”)

In the end, there are two messages here.  The first is that all religion is the same and that it’s all a matter of baggage from one’s parents of which one needs to let go.  After all, Lois admits that she wants to make up for her mother’s mistakes, and Peter attributes his aggressive behavior to his dead father’s threats of eternal damnation.

But Peter may need no excuse, anyway, for his bad behavior with regard to religion.  The second and overriding message of this episode as of the show in general is that the “common man” American father trips from one obsession to another; is disposed toward debasing his neighbor, morally speaking; and is capable of burying a cut-out of a pin-up in the back yard, if not an actual person.  (Yes, this episode about “Judaism” begins with Peter’s affair with a cut‑out photo of a famous beauty.)

When Family Guy was first broadcast in 1999, “Washington Post” TV critic Tom Shales described it as “utterly excremental.”  He warned that it would lower standards of entertainment and that such an effect is not conducive to genuine, reflective, wholesome humor.  He was right.

—Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel, published in The National Jewish Post and Opinion, October 21, 2009.

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