'Family Guy' Prompts The Question: Ten Years Later, Is It Okay To Have Fun With 9/11?

Ten years later, is it too soon for television to have some fun with the events of Sept. 11, 2001? I’ve been wondering about this since the Nov. 20 episode of Fox’s often controversial “Family Guy," a hugely popular animated comedy series that is known not only for its razor-sharp humor but also its merciless lack of sensitivity. In that episode, two of the characters took several trips back in time, at one point preventing 9/11 and at another making sure that it happened.

Clearly, “Family Guy” goes too far on so regular a basis that a vague sense of offense-fatigue shields it from critical or cultural attack. Everyone and everything has been the target of series creator Seth MacFarlane and his cohorts throughout the history of the show, so if everyone is equally offended then we should all be OK with it, right?

I’m guessing a number of people might answer “wrong,” given a full review of that episode’s storyline. From where I sit, 9/11 is still off-limits, and I really can’t say how much time will have to go by before I’ll feel otherwise, if indeed I ever will. And yet, I can’t say I was deeply offended by what I watched. I understand that sensitivities to such terrible events vary from person to person, but I have to ask: In general, how many years have to pass before unthinkable horror becomes comfortable comedy material?



There was much of MacFarlane’s usual comic genius on display during the Nov. 20 show, which found Stewie and the Griffin family dog Brian traveling back in time on a mission to locate a tennis ball Brian had buried many years earlier. They landed in the Griffin yard in January 1999, smack in the middle of the “Family Guy” pilot, where they watched themselves play out much of that long-ago episode, including the moment when Lois interrupted Stewie’s efforts to build a mind-control device and he horridly snarled, “Damn you, vile woman! You’ve impeded my work since the day I escaped from your wretched womb!”

Before Stewie and Brian returned to the present, Brian violated the No. 1 rule of time travel -- do not alter the past in any way or the consequences could be dire -- by telling his January 1999 self about the September 2001 attacks. They returned to the altered 2011 just in time to catch a news report about the unveiling in their town of a statue of Brian, a national hero because he indeed prevented 9/11.

The news report included an amateur video that showed Brian, presumably on American Airlines Flight 11 (the first plane to be boarded by terrorists that morning), retrieving a bat he had hidden in the compartment above his seat. “Time to terrorize the terrorists!” he cried before beating two of them senseless. “Mohammad oughta’d stayed home!” he boasted, taking a not-so-subtle swipe at 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta. Brian then radioed the control tower. “Tell them to ground every plane out of the East Coast!” he commanded as the passengers cheered.

A very tasteless joke followed the news report, as one of the anchors announced, “Coming up next in sports: Arizona Cardinal Pat Tillman tackled by his own team!” (There was no excuse for that one.) 

Stewie’s fears about altering the future by changing the past proved true, as a subsequent news report revealed that nine Southern states had declared that they were seceding from the United States and that George W. Bush had reformed the Confederacy after a bitter loss in his re-election bid.

“Bush lost in 2004?” Stewie asked.

“He probably couldn’t exploit people’s fears with no 9/11,” Brian surmised.

Stewie and Brian then traveled five years into the future to see if the world really had gone to hell. Sure enough, there was war-torn devastation as far as they could see; the result of concentrated nuclear strikes up and down the Eastern Seaboard that resulted in more than 17 million deaths during the New American Civil War. Then they hurriedly went back to their original 1999 destination to put the past back in order. When they returned once again to 2011, Stewie hopped online to see if 9/11 had indeed happened. It had.

“We did it!” he happily exclaimed. “We made 9/11 happen! High five!” Then, in hushed voice, he added, “Wow. That probably wouldn’t look very good out of context.” The story continued, with Brian altering the past once again by becoming the author of the Harry Potter books. 

All the 9/11 stuff was very smart and clever, and not significantly tasteless (like the Tillman joke -- or, some might argue, the bit about a bitter Bush blithely starting another Civil War), but it was somewhat troubling just the same. Was I uncomfortable because “Family Guy” went there or because I wasn’t as put off by it as I thought I should have been? I also wonder if MacFarlane himself was at all uncomfortable given the fact that he was supposed to be on Flight 11 that morning -- but arrived at Logan Airport too late to board the plane.  

7 comments about "'Family Guy' Prompts The Question: Ten Years Later, Is It Okay To Have Fun With 9/11?".
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  1. Jonathan Hutter from EMHS (Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems), December 2, 2011 at 1:32 p.m.

    Interesting column. I agree with you on almost all points. I think Seth MacFarlane's take probably reflects his personal proximity to 9/11, although he would deny it. And he does get license because of his general approach to all subjects. I think the larger subject he was trying to cover was, "be careful what you wish for." This is a recurring theme of his, and it reflects that, as terrible as 9/11 was, could there be worse? Playing what ifs with the future is a constant trick. His magic is making it funny. While the Tillman joke wasn't great, it wasn't totally tasteless. It's just small reminder of where the what ifs can go.

  2. Wayne Ens from ens media inc, December 2, 2011 at 2:02 p.m.

    I've never watched Family Guy. It's not my kind of humor. Having said that, it's time everyone lightened up. I can't think of any subjects that are out of bounds for humor. I checked the definition of humor;"[hyoo-mer or, often, yoo-] noun . a comic, absurd, or incongruous quality causing amusement: the humor of a situation."
    So by definition, it's partially 'absurd'. Clearly the creater of that show thought the episode was funny, and everyone should have the freedom to decide for themselves what they deem to be humerous.
    I'm tired of the politically correct, and think everyone would be better oof if we looked for more humor in every tragedy or fault.
    My grandmother always said "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me." Let's lighten up folks.

  3. Rob Frydlewicz from DentsuAegis, December 2, 2011 at 2:12 p.m.

    The fact that the episode aired 12 days ago and this is the first I've read about it suggests that the viewing public dealt with it just fine.

  4. T Y from Freelance Producer / DP, December 2, 2011 at 2:24 p.m.

    I have not seen the episode but I'll weigh in anyway. Kings tended to give much leeway to court jesters. Comedy is a common scalpel used to eviscerate politicians and pundits in order to make a point. My take on that Pat Tillman joke is to highlight the fact that Tillman was killed by American troops and then a massive cover-up going to the top echelons was developed. I sincerely doubt that MacFarlane was making light of his death. Poking at Bush seceding is totally fair. Presidents are always fair game. (First Families not so much.) Frankly, the program does sound to be all about the “what if” aspects of the country’s recent history and not in getting laughs from the deaths of 3 thousand people. I’m guessing that it’s challenging in 22 minutes for a cartoon to parody the creation of the massive Dept of Homeland Security, the warrantless wiretapping of Americans’ phones and the start of the Iraq war without justification. But hey, here’s to the jester for trying.

  5. Mark Burrell from Tongal, December 2, 2011 at 7:34 p.m.

    No real right or wrong here. I think comedy is the ultimate form of free speech and essential to functioning democracy so I get annoyed when people get politically correct about any of it (Kramer, Tracy MOrgan, Lenny Bruce etc.) I'm more surprised that the manner in which he used it here was actually clever as opposed to most of MacFarlane's humor which is just a series of low hanging fruit awkwardly strung together.

  6. Tim Orr from Barnett Orr Marketing Group, Inc., December 4, 2011 at 3:47 p.m.

    I haven't seen the episode either, but I am just thrilled as can be that you said, "prompts the question," instead of the more common and completely incorrect, "begs the question."

  7. Darrin Stephens from McMann & Tate, December 13, 2011 at 3:30 p.m.

    Interesting side note: Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane was supposed to be on one of the hijacked planes on 9/11 but he overslept and missed his flight.

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