Dramaturgy Case Study: Family Guy, episode #198

I’m totally biting Colin’s idea. I can live with that though because if Family Guy is going to the theater world as the setting for an episode, I’m going with them. It sorta pains me to admit it given its plummeting credibility, but Family Guy is a perennial regular in my TV viewing line-up. The show and I share a healthy appreciation for crudity, anthropomorphized animals and the Kool-Aid Guy. We also share a healthy appreciation for live performance. The creator of Family Guy, Seth MacFarlane, has always fancied himself somewhat of a next-generation Bob Hope/Bing Crosby kind of guy. He recorded an album crooning old-timey favorites and, improbably, he’s going to host the Oscars. And the show has dipped its toe into the theater world before, notably in the second season episode “The King Is Dead,” in which family patriarch Peter takes over a local production of The King and I, awesomely turning it into a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi thriller. Going in, I knew that the show reserved a soft spot in its heart for theater. Dramaturgically, I hoped it would offer us an unvarnished but sympathetic look from the outside in.

On the other hand, Family Guy makes a lot of its hay out of satire, and it has a healthy mean streak too. As an episodic plot device, theater is also already inherently a little dangerous. The popular perception of the theater world is that it is pretty insular and full of melodramatic oddballs whose simultaneous insecurity and need for validation has led them to seek out a land of pretend to hide in. So, pretty accurate. Really the only thing you can do with that though is make fun of it. One could almost hear the knives being sharpened. Steel yourselves:

The episode begins outside a theater. It is opening night of A Passing Fancy, the new play written by Brian, the titular Griffin family’s dog. Brian is mostly portrayed as an alcoholic, wannabe intellectual. He is one of two alter-egos for McFarlane on this show, the other being the sociopathic and foppish infant, Stewie.

0:50: Peter mentions that he “was kind of one of those theater kids in high school.” There’s that insular world. It’s revealing that one of the most recognized ideas about theater people is that they usually first emerge inside a clique of adolescent outcasts. Anyway, we flashback to Peter’s high school performance of Little Shop of Horrors. This isn’t the first time Family Guy has done a Little Shop gag. In fact, their full-on tribute to the musical’s “Somewhere That’s Green” featuring lecherous old man Herbert singing to the object of his affection, the teenage Chris Griffin, is one of my favorite Family Guy bits, a testament to the show’s admirable commitment to its own ideas and obviously an ode to a show MacFarlane and co. love. It’s a telling choice too. Little Shop has always felt like the kind of musical that people who don’t like musicals could safely love. It’s goofy but not in the usually flamboyant way a musical is and it’s more twisted too. It’s something about the puppet. Avenue Q pulled the same move years later. Of course, this entire flashback turns out to be in service to an unrelated poop joke, which kinda sums up Family Guy in general.

3:20: A Passing Fancy begins. The set looks like it’s from Burn This. Its first line: “Donna, it’s Grant, your new husband.” Ha ha, yes, exposition can be awkward. But if a fucking cartoon is going to call out playwrights for being clunky, then it’s going to be a long night of pots calling kettles black, that’s for sure.

3:43: Grant is an actor, set to audition for a play entitled, of course, A Passing Fancy. The crowd gasps at the play-within-a-play acrobatics. Incidentally, I’m on record as being a sucker for this particular trick. I gasp on the inside every time someone pulls it.

4:30: Okay, so it turns out we’re supposed to understand that A Passing Fancy is terrible and hacky. Admittedly, its story, about an actor who makes it big in Hollywood and then becomes an asshole, is uncomfortably similar to many scripts I have read. And extra credit too for noticing the theater world’s complicated and obsessive relationship to Hollywood; our simultaneous dream to make it big in Hollywood and our complete revulsion every time we realize this is true.

The plot of the episode is that Stewie is inspired by Brian’s success and so endeavors to write his own play. Brian is initially dismissive but, upon reading the play, he discovers that it’s amazing and becomes insanely jealous. So we’re on an extended, lukewarm Amadeus riff here. I have no problems with this. Amadeus is awfully close to cracking my personal Top 10 and, combined with Equus, makes for a back-to-back from Peter Shaffer that is as good a combo as you’re ever going to find in modern theater and pretty much defines Broadway in the ’70s for me.


8:00: Brian is at his most pretentious and is holding forth at the local bar with other theater types. He is wearing a scarf and a tweed jacket with the suede patches. Some other dude is rocking the sportcoat-over-the-turtleneck look, complete with the accompanying gold chain and soul patch. So apparently, theater people have bad fashion sense? This seems illogical. Brian: “The American play was dying. Have we brought it back to life here? I can’t say that. But it has a pulse.” I fear that I have proclaimed those very words before and now just don’t remember it.

8:50: Stewie’s play is entitled An American Marriage. That…that is not a good title. If you’re to have me believe that Stewie is a gifted writer, you are not off to a good start.

12:00: So Stewie plans on submitting his play to the Roundabout. I feel like a Trekkie calling out Shatner for some random continuity error in a 40 year old episode of Star Trek, but I am afraid that the Roundabout does not accept unsolicited submissions. Though, to be fair, An American Marriage does sound like the kind of play that they would do.

17:15: Stewie and Brian go to a party in honor of Stewie and the opening of An American Marriage on Broadway. A mustached Stewie is dressed in a suit, cape, and wide brim hat. Somehow, this became the stereotypical outfit for the theater dandy. Stewie explains that he won’t wear anything he can’t take off with a flourish. That doesn’t explain the dude’s turtleneck though. That was just offensive.

17:32: There’s a joke about how the party must have been a success because many of the famous playwrights in attendance have already killed themselves. Now that is a funny joke.

18:00: I’m calling bullshit again. At the party, Stewie and Brian chat with three playwrights meant to represent the kind of elite company Stewie now keeps. The three playwrights are David Mamet, Alan Bennett and Yasmina Reza. I think we can put a fork in Mamet at this point, yes? I had to look up who Alan Bennett is. And I’m still not fully convinced that Yasmina Reza actually exists. My conspiracy theory is that it is actually the nom de plume of John Guare in drag. If the idea was Man-Woman-Brit, I say you go with Tracy Letts-Teresa Rebeck-Martin McDonagh if you want Commercially And Critically Successful or, say, Sam Hunter-Annie Baker-Nick Payne if you want Up And Coming.

18:35: Bennett, slamming A Passing Fancy: “We have this thing where we go to the worst regional theater we can find and laugh ourselves sick.” Oh, if only it were funny, Alan. If only…

19:10: The show ends with its weekly, two-minute scramble to resolve all its plotlines. Brian comes clean to Stewie about his jealousy while they sit on the TKTS steps. There’s actually a nice moment of poignancy as the two look out over the bright lights of Times Square.

It’s reassuring, I suppose, that theater gets bathed in relatively warm light here. The episode took its shots, to be sure, at the usual targets: the posturing and inflated sense of importance and irrelevance (from the review of A Passing Fancy: “If you see only one play as an adult, I urge you to see this one.” Ouch) But the world it portrayed was a rarified one too, exciting and special. It’s nice to know we still have something to look up to.


Filed Under: dylan southardFeaturedPonderings

Dylan Southard About the Author: Dylan Southard is the co-Artistic Director of Needtheater and the resident dramaturg for The Robey Theatre Company. He has worked with The Center Theatre Group, The Geffen Playhouse, The Theatre @ Boston Court, Centerstage Baltimore, Native Voices at the Autry, the Network of Ensemble Theatres, Theatre Dybbuk, Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble and LoNyLa among others. He can be found @dylansouthard.

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  1. Jason Rohrer Jason Rohrer says:

    Fuck you. I like turtlenecks.