It’s pretty easy to crack a Sarah Palin joke. (And I’m talking about “Why did the chicken cross the road?” easy.) When you live in Wisconsin’s liberal bubble, it’s even easier. But when you’re “Family Guy,” it’s easier still.
So it comes as absolutely no surprise to hear that Seth MacFarlane and company took a stab at Palin in Sunday’s episode of “Family Guy.” What comes as a (slight) surprise, however, is the national spotlight focused on the show as a result.
The episode in question is “Extra Big Medium,” in which Peter Griffin deludes himself into thinking he’s gifted with psychic abilities (and stupid hilarity ensues) and Chris goes out on a date with a girl with Down syndrome.
Now, this caught my eye initially because I have an older sister with Down syndrome and, knowing “Family Guy’s” history with sensitive issues (read: none), I was concerned that a) the episode would amount to tactless mockery, and b) that I’d have to hear my mother yell on the phone about how upset she was about it. So, I watched it.
Here’s the joke in question: Chris asks his date, Ellen, what her parents do for a living.
“My dad’s an accountant, and my mom is the former governor of Alaska,” she says.
For those of you who don’t keep close tabs on the life of America’s favorite maverick (and I wouldn’t blame you if you don’t), Sarah Palin has a son, Trigg, who has Down syndrome.
After the episode’s aired Sunday, the blogosphere waited with baited breath for a reaction from Palin, which came the next day in the ever-eloquent form of a Facebook note. She described the joke as a “kick in the gut,” and one that “begs the question, ‘when is enough, enough?’”
The answer is that “enough” doesn’t exist. For “Family Guy,” the world of Quahog is one in which absolutely nothing is sacred. And the moment lines are laid between what subjects can and can’t be made fun of, the whole objective of being an irreverent show is defeated.
“South Park” was faced with the same dilemma when Isaac Hayes, or the voice of the beloved Chef, took issue with “Trapped in the Closet,” the episode that unapologetically mocked Scientology and unforgettably featured Tom Cruise, John Travolta and R Kelly literally trapped in a closet. After the episode aired, Hayes left the show, and Chef was then killed off with the help of lightning, a bear and a mountain lion.
Were shows like “Family Guy” or “South Park” to tell their writers what can and cannot be written about, the results would be more hypocritical than Miley Cyrus wearing a purity ring. To the contrary — a show without sacred cows creates a level playing field where everything is up for taking a hit. Think of it as equal opportunity.
Although the media’s attention in this issue has focused on Sarah Palin’s reaction to the joke, little attention has been paid to special needs organizations and their reactions to the episode. Perhaps it’s the total media eclipse that is Sarah Palin, or maybe they saw the episode and discovered there was nothing to worry about.
As it turns out, for a show that’s known for its defiant tactlessness, the writers at “Family Guy” handled the Down syndrome plotline with surprising sensitivity.
For example, after learning what’s “up with her,” Stewie doesn’t make fun of Ellen. Instead, he just accepts it and moves on, encouraging Chris to ask her out and helping him getting ready in the best way he knows how — through a classic Hollywood song and dance sequence.
Of course, there are jokes. In the musical number, Stewie takes advantage of a common stereotype — the idea that people with Down syndrome like to hug — and says Ellen’s hugs are “tighter than a vice and they go on for an hour.” And there are references to her distinctive, almond-shaped eyes, which Stewie calls “kitty cat impersonating.”
Unlike other “Family Guy” characters who have their one main “thing” from which all of their jokes derive — like Quagmire’s insatiable sex drive, Joe’s disability or Cleveland’s race — Ellen is a well-developed character who isn’t there just because she has Down syndrome, nor is she there as an excuse for people to make fun of Chris. As the episode continues, viewers learn that what ultimately breaks up Chris and Ellen’s budding relationship is her pushiness, not her disability.
Furthermore, when pushed off the edge by her attitude, Chris delivers the lesson of the episode in a way that’s as close to an after school special as “Family Guy” will ever get.
“I used to hear that people with Down syndrome were different from the rest of us, but you’re not,” he says. “You’re not different at all! You’re just a bunch of assholes like everyone else!”
Now if that isn’t equality, I don’t know what is.
Yet the most compelling piece of evidence is the voice behind the cartoon. The woman with the microphone is Andrea Fay Friedman, an actress who has Down syndrome herself. Knowing that MacFarlane chose to be authentic in his casting decision as opposed to having a regular cast member read her lines is indicative of a layer of respect most people probably didn’t know he had. I sure didn’t.
While Sarah Palin may feel like she got a “kick in the gut” because of “Family Guy,” she’s just a maverick that needs to cool her jets a little. Taking the joke in the context of the episode as a whole, she should consider how a character with Down syndrome — someone from a marginalized group of people — was brought to primetime TV and treated on a level plane as her peers. And for someone like Palin, who considers herself a champion of the special needs community, she should really consider how important of a milestone that is.
And like I said, making fun of her is just irresistible.
Cailley Hammel is a junior majoring in journalism and communication arts. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editing errors from the original copy have been edited. Seth MacFarlane’s name was spelled incorrectly, and we sincerely regret the error.