'The Simpsons'/'Family Guy' crossover is fascinatingly weird | EW.com
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TV | Inside TV

'The Simpsons'/'Family Guy' crossover is one of the most fascinatingly weird things to ever happen to television

FAMILY GUY SIMPSONS

(FOX)

The first thing to remember when you watch the Simpsons/Family Guy crossover is that it is an episode of Family Guy. This is when you groan, because Family Guy is an unoriginal rip-off of The Simpsons that retells tired old gags with an ironic approach. Or maybe you cheer, because you’re over The Simpsons: It hasn’t even been good in 13 years. Those aren’t my opinions. Those are the implicit opinions of the Simpsons/Family Guy crossover–or at least, those explicit self-mocking assertions are how “The Simpsons Guy” portrays every possible critique you could have about the two shows. “It’s just a lousy rip-off!” screams Homer Simpson. “I think I speak for all of us when I say I am over the Simpsons!” screams Peter Griffin back at him.

There are whole stretches of dialogue where Simpsons characters and Family Guy characters are talking about The Simpsons and Family Guy. The centerpiece of the episode is a conversation about how Peter Griffin’s favorite beer tastes a lot like Homer Simpsons’ favorite beer–in fact, Pawtucket Ale is literally just Duff beer, the same bottle with a different label. “This beer tastes exactly like Duff!” says Homer. “It may have been inspired by Duff, but I like to think that it goes in a different direction,” argues Peter. But soon, the Family Guy guy gets angry. “I used to prefer Duff when I was younger, but I haven’t even had it in 13 years,” he exclaims–which roughly translates into checking out of The Simpsons when the show started to frequently make Moe-centric episodes. “Maybe DUFF should be in trouble for NOT BEING THAT GREAT!” Peter exclaims.

The Simpsons was, for much of its early life, a cultural phenomenon and a critical sensation. In 2007, The Simpsons Movie grossed half a billion dollars worldwide. There’s a consensus that The Simpsons isn’t as good as it used to be, and there’s a counter-consensus that The Simpsons is actually still pretty good, all considering. It has never really gone away. This makes its history radically different from Family Guy: The whole origin myth of Seth MacFarlane’s cartoon is its early cancellation, followed by its DVD-era rediscovery and ensuing resurrection. Family Guy has never earned The Simpson’s critical raves, a fact that clearly rankles the Family Guy writing staff more you might think, given the show’s snarky-bro mentality. ”The Simpsons Guy” featured a gag where Homer attacks Peter by throwing Emmys at him. “That’s no fair!” screams the Griffin patriarch. “I don’t got none ‘a them!”

If you’re a fan of contrived culture conflicts, you may have—at some point—imagined that The Simpsons and Family Guy were in some kind of conflict. This sense may have been magnified throughout the 2000s, as The Simpsons became a faster, more raucous, less plotted show—more Family Guy-esque, kinda. And while Simpsons style-spin-off Futurama got cancel-demoted to cable, the MacFarlane-verse spread. First American Dad! then The Cleveland Show, neither of them mega-successes but all together granting MacFarlane’s voice near-complete dominance of Fox’s Sunday nights for four years.

For a certain generation of animation fans, the battle lines were probably most clearly drawn by South Park. The Comedy Central series crafted an entire episode as a loving, madcap tip of the hat to The Simpsons–and Family Guy received a lacerating two-part takedown, all of it building up to the remarkably sticky assertion that the Family Guy writing staff is an aggregation of manatees floating in an water tank filled with pop culture-referencing “idea balls.”

Nothing in “The Simpsons Guy” was as mean or as funny as those South Park episodes. (Then again, nothing on The Simpsons has done in the last 10 years has been as funny as those South Park episodes.) For all their bluster, Family Guy and its brethren can be quite sentimental. Anyone who compares Family Guy to The Simpsons has to face the fact that Seth MacFarlane’s most consistent cultural touchstones are actually more old-fashioned than anything on The Simpsons. (Matt Groening never released a big band album.) And if there were ever any sort of conflict between the two shows, it’s fair to say that an armistice has been reached. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that the two shows now need each other. Doesn’t this crossover smack of desperation? Aren’t the priorities of a crossover always driven by marketing? Sorry, again that’s not me—that’s the clear subtext of the first scene of the episode, when Chris Griffin exclaims, “A crossover always brings out the best in each show! It certainly doesn’t smack of desperation. The priorities are always creative and not driven by marketing!”

Was “The Simpsons Guy” just a craven marketing thing? One of the weirdest things about the episode was how all the rampant self-deprecation felt unnecessary. Make no mistake, this was Family Guy worshipping The Simpsons: a feast of fan service, even if it was mostly fan service for people whose major Simpsons touchstones happened almost 20 years ago. The best stuff in the episode focuses on Stewie and Bart, two characters who don’t really have anything to do with each other. Like all his family members, Bart was a recognizable human being in the first 10 years of The Simpsons, a funny and stupid and lovably vain child. Stewie was never an actual child, just like how Brian was never a real dog. (This may explain why, IMHO, the best episodes of Family Guy are the Brian-Stewie episodes.) Which means Stewie can do the kind of things Bart never does—like strike back against eternal bully Nelson Muntz. The one part of the whole crossover that felt next-level genius came during that torture session, when Stewie threw out the first great Simpsons catchphrase in a whole new, freaky context. For once, someone actually meant “Eat my shorts!” literally.

Was the episode funny? Probably more so if you like Family Guy than The Simpsons: There was an uncanny valley effect to hearing a joke about Bart and a camp counselor’s butt cheeks. Perhaps predictably, “The Simpsons Guy” did nothing with Marge and next to nothing with Lisa. You may have heard that Family Guy doesn’t know how to write women; if not, you probably got the idea when the entire Simpsons-free first act of “The Simpsons Guy” focused on Peter Griffin angering the shrill women of America by drawing a cartoon where a poorly drawn husband jokingly abuses his poorly drawn wife. (“This ain’t the first time I got in trouble for something I said about a woman!” said the show.)

The best parts of “The Simpsons Guy” came in the first half, when the two shows were just playfully interacting. But you could feel how this crossover wanted to be about something deeper. By the middle of the episode, Homer and Peter are in court for copyright infringement. The court is filled with the supporting casts of the two shows: Mayor Adam West hanging out with Mayor Quimby, Quagmire/Cleveland sitting next to Lenny/Carl. The judge is Fred Flintstone, who declares: “Neither of these beers is wholly original! They’re both imitations!”

This was kind of smart: An animated show staging a court case about the idea of plagiarism in animation, with a speech that ultimately declares that everything is just an imitation. If that sounds familiar, it’s because The Simpsons did the same thing, 18 years ago, in “The Day the Violence Died.” Quick memory jog: Bart meets the actual creator of Itchy & Scratchy, who received no credit for his work from credit-grabbing Walt Disney analogue Roger Meyers Sr. The actual creator sues Meyers’ son—and when it’s clear that he’s about to lose the case, Meyers the Younger makes a passionate speech in praise of an utter lack of originality:

Animation is built on plagiarism. If it weren’t for someone plagiarizing The Honeymooners, we wouldn’t have The Flintstones. If someone hadn’t ripped off Sergeant Bilko, there’d be no Top Cat. Huckleberry Hound, Chief Wiggum, Yogi Bear? Hah! Andy Griffith, Edward G. Robinson, Art Carney. Your honor, you take away our right to steal ideas, where are they gonna come from?

“It’s not like the internet to go crazy about something small and stupid” is another line from “The Simpsons Guy.” So I’m not going to even propose that “The Simpsons Guy” intentionally imitated a scene about the cultural importance of imitation, lest I fall into some ouroboros where bloggers rant about shows that rant about bloggers. The episode was most of all structured as a celebration of The Simpsons by a show that has maybe never quite gotten over its fundamental anxiety of influence. (ASIDE: Canon freaks should note that the presence of Kang and Kodos in this episode strongly implies that “The Simpsons Guy” should be taken as an extended “Treehouse of Horror” interlude, and not part of the mainstream Simpsons chronology. END OF ASIDE.)

If there’s one real complaint to make about “The Simpsons Guy,” it’s that The Simpsons doesn’t quite hold up its end of the bargain. The crossover was shepherded to some extent by Richard Appel, a Simpsons writer from the glory days who’s now a Family Guy producer. But I found myself wishing that this has been more of a true crossover, that the current Simpsons writers had tried to have their way with the Family Guy characters. (Surely, they could find something to do with Meg?) But that also makes “Simpsons Guy” fascinating—it’s like watching one band play a greatest hits set for another band. Both Simpsons and Family Guy might be far beyond their respective golden ages now, but there was still an undeniable frisson to seeing two kinda-similar-but-quite-different generational touchstones join forces.

It’s even more notable that it happened the same night that The Simpsons featured one of the single weirdest couch gags ever: A short surreal animation by Don Hertzfeldt, which seemed to suggest that, a hundred thousand million years from now, The Simpsons and maybe all pop culture will be a series of near-abstract tropes, with our Cthulhu-bodied descendants mumbling ancient catchphrases out of mouth-stalks and eye-brains. How different is that from “The Simpsons Guy,” an episode composed entirely of loving reheated cultural detritus, of characters replaying old jokes and self-deprecating themselves into the void? Or, put another way: Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin had a chicken fight over Springfield Gorge, and it wasn’t unfunny.