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Just a Cartoon, But Still: Is Family Guy in Blackface Funny?

To strike a note I generally avoid, I am offended. And by a cartoon. Has anybody noticed what a patronizing mess Seth MacFarlane’s new The Cleveland Show is?

Cleveland is the pudgy, mild-mannered drawling pal of Family Guy’s Peter Griffin, who now has, in the parlance of the grand old days of the seventies television spinoff, “his own show.” And indeed, the whole notion of the show is in quotation marks in a sense. The premise, for example, is willfully as hokey as those of the old-time spinoffs (“Mary’s friend Phyliss moves to San Francisco to live with her ex-husband’s parents ...”).

Cleveland stops off in his hometown and ends up marrying his old crush, fortuitously available and interested. Meanwhile he is reconnected to his son, a hyperkinetic tot in a few early episodes of Family Guy who mysteriously disappeared (presumably taken by his first wife Loretta when they divorced in Season Four), who is now for some reason an obese, bespectacled, socially inept Rain Man-ish adolescent. The theme song with words – itself a winky gesture today – is inspired musically by the Diff’rent Strokes theme song, placing us in the seventies mindset. Okay, I get the joke so far.

But the show itself is dishwater, and part of the reason is Cleveland. A Type B Droopy-Doggish fellow, he’s no lead. Like most subsidiary characters in sitcoms, he was used perfectly as someone on the sidelines saying funny things here and there and serving as a plot device. Watching the early appearances of the characters who spun off from All in the Family, Beatrice Arthur’s Maude and Sherman Hemsley’s George Jefferson, they already had such presence that it’s almost hard to believe today that they ever didn’t have their own shows. A show built around Cleveland is as if The Jeffersons had been about Weezy leaving George in Queens and striking out on her own. “The Weezy Show” is a dorm room joke – as is “The Cleveland Show.”

Now – and here is where my irritation starts coming in – just maybe this could have worked out if MacFarlane and company had gone to the trouble of creating an interesting new world for Cleveland. Mary’s friend Rhoda, for example, did not take a job at a radio station with a grouchy boss and a vainglorious announcer – the show, recently released on DVD, worked rather well because the character was situated in a completely different life than Mary Richards’. Or, the geneaology of the spinoff traces back to the radio show Fibber McGee and Molly, which in the forties spun off The Great Gildersleeve and Beulah, a show about the McGees' black maid – as it happens, played like Cleveland by a white man. Both shows were hits – partly because neither aped the parent show at all.

Cleveland, however, has been plunked into a virtual blow-by-blow reproduction of Peter Griffin’s situation in Quahog. The bloated, goofy son is a Chris Griffin retread. The randy, hyperarticulate toddler, an especially shameless retread, is a dusky Stewie. The hillbilly neighbor (white, for the record) is a stand-in for sex addict neighbor Quagmire. The low-key Every-hombre Latino immigrant neighbor who happens to be a bear and yet is casually treated like a person is perhaps the funniest thing on the show – or would be if we hadn’t been enjoying the exact same bit from Family Guy’s dog Brian for ten years now.

And then Cleveland’s new wife barely has an identifiable personality, and differs from Lois Griffin largely in having a big butt. The show is basically Family Guy in blackface – and what isn’t black in it is so shamelessly ripped off from Family Guy that it’s hard to believe it’s the product of creators who are usually so studiously “post-” obvious stunts of the sort. It feels like something Family Guy itself would venture in one of their ironic cutaways, in which case it would have been a choice one. But this is intended as a franchise that will run for years, stacking up something like 200 episodes and running endlessly in syndication. In which case the joke will wear off, and in fact, by my lights, become irritating.

The question is: would the Family Guy people create a show where a white supporting character – say, paraplegic Joe voiced superbly by Patrick Warburton --  moves to another town and settles in with retreads of the Family Guy characters? No – it’d be seen as folly to let that get beyond a conversation over beers. The reason it felt right to pull this with The Cleveland Show is because of a sense that blackness is so much a “thing,” so diverting in itself, that painting the Family Guy people brown makes artistic and commercial sense.

And there was a time when it did – but it was a time we’re all happy to be past. The Cleveland Show is reminiscent of all-black productions of musicals in the old days such as the Hello, Dolly! with Pearl Bailey. The underlying notion was that because you couldn’t cast a black performer in a non-black role in a mainstream production, it made theatrical sense to concoct an occasion for there to be a black Dolly, a black Horace Vandergelder, a black Barnaby singing “It Only Takes a Moment.” What mattered was not the particulars of the performances – the names of the performers in these all-black mock-ups, other than the superstar leads, were quickly forgotten – but the fact that black people were doing them at all.

That was the best they could do back then. Today, that isn’t true. Popular culture is long past black characters held up as a genuflective novelty in their brown skin alone, à la Franklin in the Peanuts comic strip or even Homer Simpson’s drinking buddy “Carl,” with a dopey white working-class voice, and “black” only in tint, as a gesture of diversity 1989-style. Even Cleveland is a character of our own times in that the voice the white Mike Henry gives him is indeed one with a distinct and believable black American cadence, and on Family Guy he has been portrayed as a culturally black man in various ways.

But The Cleveland Show negates this up-to-date portrait of blackness, in that although the black characters are identifiably black in cadence and assorted cultural decorations here and there, no one saw fit to bother to make them interesting – as if the blackness alone was enough. If Family Guy’s troglodytic son Chris is a classic character as the result of a once-in-a-lifetime synergy between the artwork and Seth Green’s vocal performance, then the same character with brown skin and a few adjustments is automatically lame – he’s an instant old joke, like David Brent in the British The Office episode hoping to score with a comedy club audience by dressing as Austin Powers. The five-year-old making strangely knowing comments about sex isn’t funny when Stewie has been doing it forever. I sense that we’re supposed to think it’s funny because he’s doing it with a black accent and a black face. But is “black” so exotic in 2009 that years’ run of a whole show can be based on this sniggering “Hey, they’re black!” take on race?

To wit, Pearl Bailey’s Hello, Dolly! made sense in an America just a step or two past Jim Crow. Today, if The Little Mermaid’s sales started dropping on Broadway, the producers wouldn’t dream of trying an all-black cast (say, with Brandy in the lead). Imagine what a condescending take on blackness that would constitute, as if an all-black cast is somehow “something,” even if performing a show that has nothing to with blackness and gains nothing from being infused with it – especially when the show as it is includes two black leads.

“We can dress as you, but you can’t dress as us!” Cleveland objects when a character walks on dressed and made up as him – with this kind of thing the creators of The Cleveland Show think of themselves as ahead of the curve with the winkiness of it all, as if we are so past the conversation on race that we can just relax and make fun of it.

Which is true to a point. But reproducing a white show with black faces and voices (and sometimes butts) and presenting it as viable weekly entertainment of long-term standing? This is not ahead of the curve, it’s retrograde.

Seth MacFarlane and company are capable of so much better that it’s painful watching them put so much energy into a tired, reductive joke not worthy of their usual artistry. Mr. MacFarlane, just bring Cleveland home. I’ll be interested to see what funny explanation you and the writers come up with to get rid of his “new family” -- and maybe even let Cleveland bring the bear with him to serve as a springboard for some jolly irony in the relationship between him and Brian. But The Cleveland Show isn’t “lame” – it’s just lame, and worse.