overthinking the idiot box

December 6, 2005

TV Makes You SMRTer

Cultural References and Family Guy
by Vicki Karigiannis

I'm not even sure we're spelling this guy's name right.
In the Family Guy episode One If By Clam, Lois Griffin informs her husband, Peter, that a new neighbor of theirs is rather charming, to which Peter replies: "Yeah, right. That's what they said about Benjamin Disraeli." Cut to Disraeli looking up at the screen, stating "You don't even know who I am!"

That was aimed at Peter who, surely, had no idea who Benjamin Disraeli was. It could've also, however, been aimed at the number of viewers watching the program thinking, "Yes, I have no clue who you are!" and who proceeded to Google his name.

The above was an example of a cultural reference, standard on most television shows today, particularly on the cartoon sitcom starring Quahog, Rhode Island's Griffin clan. Cultural references are any mentions made regarding television, film, music, history, politics, literature, anything.

Not to get into an in-depth lesson in semiotics and have all of you fine readers comatose on your keyboards, but the use of cultural references can be described as what semioticians call intertextuality, where one text is read (or, in this case, viewed) in relation to other previously-read texts. Intertextuality occurs when two texts are co-present in the forms of plagiarism, allusion and quotation. In the case of Family Guy, it makes use of these three, brilliantly showcasing their multi-layered references on a weekly basis.

Plagiarism is known as an unsaid yet understood borrowing from another text (although not the type of "borrowing" that comes with nasty consequences). In TV terms, it could be a parody of other texts. In both A Fish Out of Water and Perfect Castaway, Tom Hanks' Cast Away is spoofed by having Peter re-enact various scenes from the film, from talking to a volleyball (and gets its name, Wilson, wrong) in the former, and having Lois remarry after she thinks her husband is dead in the latter.

Family Guy has gone on to parody Back to the Future, Scooby Doo, Grease, The Honeymooners even going as far as to changing U.S. history by spoofing various events throughout its course and having Peter claim himself as a relative of various figures and heroes of American history.

Allusion is the use of a reference whose full meaning presumes the perception of a relationship between it and another text. It could reference a name, object or place from any other text, from fiction or real-life. Family Guy has a habit of referencing many other texts in the episode titles alone: Mr. Griffin Goes to Washington (as opposed to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), Fast Times at Buddy Cianci Jr. High (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), 8 Simple Rules for Buying My Teenage Daughter (8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter), and so on. The titles insinuate and foretell viewers what is to come, alluding to spoofs of their favorite classics. Just the thought of Peter Griffin attempting at being Jefferson Smith will have film buffs waiting to howl with laughter.

Quotation is, as it is obviously implied, the most literal use of intertextuality of all. Various quotes have been used, either bastardized versions of their original forms or reusing them word-for-word. Carol Burnett is quoted in I am Peter, Hear Me Roar, with her anecdote of childbirth pain being the equivalent of "taking your bottom lip and stretching it over your head to the back of your neck". As for a altered version of a quote, Peter does it well in DaBoom with "A chicken in every pot and a cap in every ass," which is in reference to Herbert Hoover's "a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage".

So what is the point of them? Is it random trivia thrown in for the heck of it? Is it the writers' way of showing off how smart and witty they are? It is more than just "getting the reference". Some "smart" programs demand quite a high level of engagement, and the use of cultural references is a tool that makes viewers feel connected to the show, heightening their television-viewing experience. It is rewarding viewers for their level of engagement and close attention to this and other cultural products.

Take the above quote from Family Guy: the joke would be understood only by those who know their 19th century British politics. For those who don't, they won't get the reference and will feel a little bit distanced from the program, thus having the ability to hinder their enjoyment of the episode.

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who wrote the book on taste, experienced pride and what he called "egoistic self-regard" after reading some Marcel Proust, where he referenced John Ruskin's Stones of Venice. As a well-read and culturally-aware man, he was qualified in comprehending the reference. As smart and culturally-aware television viewers, we are qualified to understand even the most obscure of references that Seth MacFarlane throws at us.

Thus, Family Guy aims itself to the culturally-aware portion of television viewers. Yet what makes some people classier in their television-viewing habits? Even further, what makes one cultural product, one television show, more high-brow than others? Popular culture itself has many definitions, such as it being aimed toward the masses, created by the people for the people, and the antithesis of high culture.

For every Helen Keller, Van Gogh and Lou Gehrig reference, there is the insertion of low-brow humor: a fart joke here, a poop joke there, and others that are borderline offensive and politically incorrect.
Bourdieu himself stated that only a select few can partake in high culture, that it is through years of investment in education, art and other goods that they can appreciate higher-valued goods and products. So maybe it is going a bit too far in saying that Family Guy is high-brow comedy. For every Helen Keller, Van Gogh and Lou Gehrig reference, there is the insertion of low-brow humor: a fart joke here, a poop joke there, and others that are borderline offensive and politically incorrect. Plus, it and other TV shows are easily accessible to anyone with basic cable, and with great DVD sales and decent ratings, it isn't exactly a rarity that only a select few can appreciate. But with the references going beyond the popular to the obscure, then at least the well-learned can appreciate the program fully whereas others just won't. It is easy for just about anyone to laugh at your basic Dubya joke, after all.

In hindsight, it may seem as a form of cultural elitism, appeasing the smarter viewers and filtering out those who just can't keep up. But their use is to not demean non-intellectual viewers. It could just be a way to expand their interests. And also to get people to turn off the TV for just a little bit, to read and research and learn a little something, and then tune in again with greater knowledge than before.

Think this writer knows all? Ha! When you want to appear intelligent, feign it with the help of the Family Guy Reference Archives. These references run quite the gamut, so it is normal to not know every single reference that runs past us. People have their strengths and weaknesses, so if there was a reference that went over your head this time, don't fret, as it doesn't imply that you're stupid; you'll just get 'em next time around!

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Return to Season 2, Episode 7.