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Not All Parody: The Treatment of Musicals in The Simpsons and Family Guy

Not All Parody: The Treatment of Musicals in The Simpsons and Family Guy

After a long, tough day, you come home to your couch and television just in time for The Simpsons: good humor, with both high parody and dirty jokes from the outrageous Simpsons life. Instead, the episode “All Singing, All Dancing” begins, a clip show filled with the exact content of the title. While cartoon sitcoms such as The Simpsons and Family Guy ridicule the conventions of other sitcoms every episode, the writers include special musical episodes as more than another target for parody. The writers make the musicals a vessel by using both the nostalgia of older audiences and the excitement of discovery in younger audiences to explain the larger themes of episodes.
The main success and focus of The Simpsons and Family Guy comes from their sitcom parody. Currently, people use several different definitions for parody. Today, general usage has transformed parody into a derogatory, derivative style intended to attack and make fun of another work. Harries, however, defines it as “the process of recontextualizing a target or source though the transformation of its textual (and contextual) elements, thus creating a new text” (Gray 44). Harries’ definition differs from the conventional definition in two major ways. First, the emphasis is on “elements,” which includes conventions, setting, and setup, but not content. Second, he does force a parody to mock another text. Extending Harries’ definition, Linda Hutcheon notes that “parody… is not always at the expense of the parodied text” (7). Within this broader definition, any parody includes reincorporation of one work in another is a parody, such as a musical in a sitcom. In this paper, I will argue from and use the narrower definition of parody (as a mocking device), though with a focus on conventions, which these animated sitcoms use with sitcoms.
The primary strategy of parody is to have the shows target and make fun of themselves as the audience realizes the connection between the source material and new argument from parody. Mittell comments, “Most critics… call attention to [the show’s] hyper-reflexivity and self-awareness” (15). The writers are painfully aware of sitcom conventions and do not avoid them in any way. Knox agrees on the importance of self-reflexivity, saying, “The Simpsons invests its parodic energies so that it always simultaneously is and observes/analyzes itself” (79). For example, the writers often target the triviality and simplicity of problems. For more complex plots, the writers intervene with convenient deus ex machina; for example, The Simpsons episode “Trash of the Titans” solved a garbage crisis by moving their entire town five miles down the road. Audiences might find this solution unacceptable on other shows, but it works in a sitcom because the plot is not the primary focus (Gray 51). The parody draws an easy laugh, but the humor ends there. Without meaningful extension of a possible “half-assed job” theme, the parody lacks deeper meaning. Also, with the pressures of a twenty-two minute episode, writers focus on the humor over a complete plot. Sitcoms also often reset each episode, with characters forgetting events of previous episodes. In the Family Guy episode “Da Boom,” the Y2K bug destroys the world with nuclear weapons, yet in the next episode, the Griffin family continues on as if nothing had happened. The self-reflexivity is a regular presence and expected by the audience.
In addition, the lack of restrictions from reality allows these animated sitcoms new methods of parody. According to Gray, The Simpsons alters the visual conventions of sitcoms subtly, but with parodic consequences. Instead of the unrealistic action in many cartoons, it “is ‘filmed’ like whatever genre it happens to be mocking… so visually almost everything… is potentially parodic…” (66). The shots maintain a familiar interface that audiences can relate to but still stretch the possibilities of action. The audience easily recognizes the parodic elements because they are so close to the original source. Gray explains that “an animated world is one of perpetual transposition,” where the transposition is the parody technique of first anchoring in the original source, then shifting to a new work (66-67). The exaggeration of the camera movements and other framing methods causes the audience to laugh at sitcom tricks. Knox claims that Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, initially wanted “to mimic live-action representation as much as possible,” yet since then, “the show’s animation style has turned to exploiting the possibilities of the form of animation more fully” (74). The style attacks live-action filming with its animation by showing the limitations of real filming. For example, in the episode “Deep Space Homer,” the “camera” spins around just behind a potato chip as Homer reaches to eat it. The sequence mocks the style of 2001:A Space Odyssey, though the scene has little importance to the episode theme of family relations. The Simpsons recognizes its place with a “sense of ironic knowingness, often considered a quality of postmodern television” (74). Knox focuses on the self-reflexivity as the method of reframing the sitcom. The sort of teasing reaction to modernism exhibited in postmodernism fits well with The Simpsons, yet the most common parodic sources of live-action and sitcom with simple parody are not well-integrated into the theme. Regardless, the constant reminder of live-action is the essential parody for these shows.
Another step deeper, The Simpsons and Family Guy uses shows within their shows to deliver more parody. Family Guy never fixates on a particular show, referring to shows from I Love Lucy to The Honeymooners. The Simpsons, however, focuses mostly on the cartoon show “The Itchy & Scratchy Show” to express parodic aspects more directly. Knox analyzes the episode “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show,” where the “The Itchy & Scratchy Show” must find new trends to continue its success (75-77). By the eighth season, when this episode aired, The Simpsons faced a similar problem after exhausting the classic plots of sitcoms in its earlier seasons. The catastrophe of a material shortage is entirely self-reflexive. It parodies itself, yet extends it to parody all sitcoms for having so few plot frameworks. Mittell interprets “The Itchy & Scratchy Show” differently and considers it an exception to the style of The Simpsons (20). While the rest of The Simpsons avoids impossible exaggerations of reality, “The Itchy & Scratchy Show” has the cartoon explosions and gruesome scenes. Because it restricts itself to only cartoon conventions, the audience sees Bart and Lisa Simpson laughing at mindless violence without other intervening factors. Thus, “The Itchy & Scratchy Show” acts as both an internal reflection of The Simpsons, and as what The Simpsons is not, and both of these aspects continue the emphasis on sitcom parody. As a mainstay of television, the sitcom presents an immediate target for these shows.
The effectiveness of this careful parodic use depends upon the ability of its audience. Gray notices a “Socratic” presentation because the audience must also recognize the altered parody material without direct explanation. Gray explains that it can “shift our frame of reference” as the audience must see the source material in a different way (47). The audience becomes a part of their own education and launches it in seemingly innovative¬–yet laboriously constructed–perspectives on other works. Groening says, “The Simpsons is a show that rewards you for paying attention” (Knox 75). Unlike many other shows where the audience passively reacts to situations, the writers integrate many hidden jokes that the audience must analyze to understand. When they understand the joke, a bond forms where the writers seem to reward that person for being “culturally conversant” (75). Knox thus sees these allusions as a way of bringing the audience into the parody as opposed to necessarily being actual parody. The requirement of knowing popular culture, however, returns to Knox’s main argument: The Simpsons works because it is new. It is strongly seated in current events, and it is successful because it is self-reflexive in popular culture. Music, however, occupies a slightly different space and is treated differently because of its extensive history as critical to the two base genres these shows work from: sitcoms and cartoons.
While the television musical today is often a special and rarity, music has been evolving on television since its conception. Early animation relied heavily on music to help present the story. Without distinct actors with lines, the producers instead added music and sound effects (Debruge). Beyond only variety shows, musical programs have been critical to television’s development (Forman 6). In the early days of television, before distinct television genres had been developed, the entertainment business did not know what to air. On early television, Arturo Toscanini led the NBC Symphony Orchestra on broadcast television to bridge the music of radio to television. Musicals, however, had more difficulty moving to television because of the audience mismatch; musicals are associated with a more elite audience than the general population of broadcast television. Television series, however, became an easy seat for musicals, “since television demands a certain familiarity with the characters not required by film or stage productions, and parody has become an effective means of incorporating new and familiar material” (Thorburn). I Love Lucy began special musical episodes with “Lucy in Scotland.” Thorburn points out, “While this episode may have owed its inspiration to the movie musical, it is in no way a parody of Brigadoon.” Even at the style’s inception, the sitcom honors the movie musical more than it parodies it. The writers maintained the situational humor of the sitcom over a parody. Similar musical episode followed later, prominently by The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gilligan’s Island, and Happy Days.
Considering the other major genre of The Simpsons and Family Guy, cartoons have also used music extensively. Walt Disney’s first attempted to integrate music into cartoons with the 1928 cartoon short Steamboat Willie (Care 22). Most audiences are familiar with the accompanying music in cartoons and do not have to stretch to accept music in animated sitcoms. Music adds another feeling to television to draw the audience closer emotionally to the action. Animation is an inherently distancing style; without the subtle cues from real humans, both the animators and viewers depend on imagination and interpolated characteristics to believe the reality of these characters. Music can create feelings within viewers and excite connections, such as sounds that relate to the taste of cheesecake (Debruge).
Later, Warner Brothers aired the famous Bugs Bunny short What’s Opera, Doc?, a parody of Wagnerian opera. While the music comes specifically from Richard Wagner’s original operas, the situation and archetypes range all of opera, including the Viking helmet and stormy weather (Goldmark 110). Alf Clausen, the composer for The Simpsons, draws a distinction from that work to his, agreeing that, “because The Simpsons is not Looney Tunes… the music can therefore be less in the Looney Tunes vein…” (Goldmark 242). While television cartoons may generally owe much to the Looney Tunes, Family Guy and The Simpsons must deal with a different audience and the other genre of sitcom.
Although the American musical and American sitcom are treated as distinct genres, they do converge on similar themes. Teachout describes, “And just as most Americans are both optimistic and idealistic, so do golden-age musicals, with their romance-driven plots and happy endings, reflect those twin attitudes” (48). Similarly, Gray judges the American sitcom by “its more glowingly optimistic and artificial, utopian versions…” (49). The “domesticon,” an American sitcom focused on domestic family life, has been associated with a happy life. While both of these genres have notable exceptions, such as the musicals Rent and Sweeney Todd, and the sitcoms Roseanne and Married…With Children, the stereotypes that most associate with the genres largely fits; more importantly, they are the ones that The Simpsons and Family Guy target. These archetypes are particularly useful as they reflect the attitudes of the American people. The genres, then, become more directed criticisms of American ideals.
While the settings of musicals often provide important frameworks for episodes, the music itself is a serious, non-parodic part. Ron Jones, a composer for Family Guy, says, “The music on ‘Family Guy’ essentially plays the straight man to the wacky dialogue and visuals” (Longwell). The music, then, cannot be the subject of parody because it is necessary for the credibility of the episode. The ridiculous nature of the show requires that the music be serious, lest the audience become entirely unwilling to connect to the show. When Peter Griffin goes into a cut-away gag as a ballerina, real ballet music must play, or the audience will reject the music and the scene. Mark Steyn explains, “Funny music requires a certain amount of seriousness, which is why genuine examples of it are so rare.” Carl Stalling, the original composer for the Looney Tunes, largely wrote inherently silly music because the style of a complete cartoon required it. Family Guy and The Simpsons, however, are also sitcoms, intended to mock live-action elements. The audience must be willing to treat these animated characters as real people. If the writers descended into complete cartoon silliness with funny music, they would lose that edge to their shows.
The scenes, however, are not absolutely serious because the writers do shift the humor into the lyrics. In the Family Guy episode “Peter, Peter, Caviar Eater,” the Griffin family moves into a mansion, where the staff greets them with a song parodying “I Think I’ll Like It Here” from Annie. The cuts, dance, and music all match the style of the movie adaption of Annie closely, and the writers only majorly change the lyrics, adding lines such as, “Now that you’re stinking rich, we’ll gladly be your bitch.” Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy, commented on this musical number, “The lyrics are just so absurd and so filthy and yet such care is taken to make it a legitimate number otherwise.” The show is a sitcom and needs humor, but changing the lyrics instead of staging or dancing maintains the quality of the musical. In The Simpsons as well, Clausen mentions, “…the producers don’t want the music to make a statement–no musical jokes” (Goldmark 245). The lyrics are cheap laughs, but the writers integrate musicals for more important reasons.
When The Simpsons and Family Guy use musicals, they extend towards social commentary with the music. The Family Guy episode “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein” refers to the Pinocchio song “When You Wish Upon a Star.” In the episode, Peter Griffin begs for a Jew to manage his money and tutor his son. The episode, however, caused much controversy, and originally was not even aired. While the episode actually attacks anti-Semitic beliefs, FOX executives read the episode itself as anti-Semitic. The high satire of this matches the parody of the show as a whole, where the elements are so strongly embodied (and ridiculed) that the parody risks parodying itself (Terjesen 132-133). During this episode, Peter sings “I Need a Jew,” a parody of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” He sings desperately of his need for a Jew to do his taxes in spite of the fact that “they killed [his] lord.” The musical number is set up familiarly: Peter is caught in a dream-like state, where night instantly falls when the song begins and day returns when the song ends, and a giant dreidel carries him into space and the stars. These exaggerations are familiar aspects of tradition parody, but the cheap parody passes quickly. In the meaning of the entire song, the sad, desperate style of the song lessens the shocking impact of his words. Without the grounding of the song in the peaceful musical style, the words are just offensive. The song, however, fits within the larger issue of anti-Semitic belief. The larger issue in the episode, however, is anti-Semitic belief. The writers have Peter as the vehicle for this simply because he is an idiot (Samet 52-53). Peter, who has tried to feed Tom Selleck soup through the television screen, is established as a man unable to understand reality. The whims of the writers control his bizarre, narrow-minded attitude. Thus, the musical aspect, more than the constant sitcom parody, presents the larger theme of the episode.
The Simpsons’ “Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(Annoyed Grunt)cious,” based on the musical Mary Poppins, also intimately links songs to a classic theme. Shary Bobbins, a copy of Mary Poppins, comes to help Marge Simpson maintain the household. She sings with the Simpsons family as she tries to reform them. During her stay, their appalling nature bring her to despair, and they end by reversing roles in a song to her about their inflexible nature. The episode has several musical numbers, and they all closely match the original work. The audience laughs at the mismatch between the song and their memories. The episode has many parodic elements, including identical staging when the children present requirements for a nanny and a milk carton singing with Apu, yet the musical has deeper integration than parody. Shary Bobbins frames the real problem with the American way of life. Her comments on cutting corners and doing a “half-assed job” reflect the complacent and lazy image of Americans. Instead of a generous woman feeding the pigeons, she sings about Barney Gumble, the town drunk, in “A Boozehound Named Barney.” Her romanticized image of him even entrances Bart, who asks Homer if he can be like Barney. The cartoon style and singing distance the audience from the shocking presentation of values. The distance, however, is tempered, as it pushes the audience from reality, but brings them closer to the message: the corruption in the American way of life. The writers also did not arbitrarily pick Mary Poppins as the musical basis. The central conflict in the episode is Marge’s difficulty in raising her children. Similarly, Mary Poppins deals with Mr. banks’ difficulty in prioritizing his children over his work. While the connection may not come immediately to the audience, the writers made a deliberate effort to match themes.
Admittedly, I draw a fine distinction between the parody of sitcoms and musicals in these shows. The essential “Socratic” style is just as necessary with musicals as sitcoms. Friedwald argues that The Simpsons relies on this structure. As he examples, “…the parody element, while not essential, serves as a great framework for the writers to salvage any piece of pop culture that strikes their fancy” (254). The poignancy of musical episodes depends on familiarity from the audience. For example, in The Simpsons episode “Marge vs. the Monorail,” a man named Lyle Lanley comes to town offering to build a monorail, though he is soon exposed as a fraud. While the episode without context is funny, the audience appreciates it more when they realize that it parodies The Music Man, where a fraud named Harold Hill comes to sell musical equipment. “The Monorail Song” matches the spoken style of “Ya Got Trouble” as a way to set up the issue that gives Lanley his break in Springfield. For the laughs and nostalgia, the musical parodies are just like sitcom parodies; anything added to these shows is subject to parody. The surface parody, however, is not the distinction being explored.
The overall style of musical parody, however fits more closely with general, classic musical parody than the modern, mocking style. Giuseppe Verdi, a 19th century Italian composer, is known for his romantic Italian operas, but his final opera deviated from the set convention. Critics today see Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, as a parody of the genre. After the critical success of Otello, Verdi decided to write a comedy “with music that sounded both the same (for it echoed earlier operas) and yet sufficiently different from anything of Verdi’s that had preceded it” (Hutcheon 751). The explained form should be familiar; Verdi has worked from past musical work and put it into a comedic setting, just like the animated sitcoms. The setup is “highly ironic, and therefore not simply nostalgic or repetitive,” which matches the self-reflexivity of animated sitcoms (754). By changing keys and inserting ironic moments of tragedy into this comedy, Verdi morphs and parodies all operatic work, particularly his own. And his ultimate purpose in writing Falstaff was not to insult at Italian operas, but to “to influence the future of Italian opera and its hallowed tradition that he felt was increasingly under threat from what was called ‘Wagnerism’” (752). Therefore, the goals of parody can extend beyond cheap laughs into true social commentary.
Ultimately, musical episodes work at the same level as much of the humor: it is a fun, nostalgic, familiar way to present an episode. Instead of actively mocking the musical genre for parody, Family Guy and The Simpsons celebrate the contributions of musicals. While the shows may, at times, seem very aware of the nature of musicals, their reflexivity implies a deep familiarity of the culture. To build upon another work, one must know the original material. The difference of sentiments is noticeable in the presentation of musicals compared to that of sitcoms. While the writers constantly aim at the limitations and problems of sitcoms, as described above, the musical numbers are presented similarly to their original design. In the Family Guy episode “Mr. Saturday Night,” the Griffin children are set up to each sing a verse of “So Long, Farewell” from The Sound of Music, with an almost identical situation to the original. The only sign of the sequences’ self-awareness is when Stewie calls himself “Liesl.” Steve Callaghan, the writer of this episode, said, “When you do something like this of this caliber, you can’t make fun of it.” Such nobility may seem incongruous with the generally coarse and flagrant humor of Family Guy, yet the music is taken quite seriously. Clausen says, “I always take the approach that we’re paying homage to these things… rather than trying to totally poke fun at it” (Goldmark 246). Episodes such as “Road to Rhode Island” and “Brian Wallows and Peter’s Swallows” integrate original music without direct reference to previous musicals. Pure embodiment, more than imitation, is the sincerest form of tragedy. The song “You’ve Got A Lot to See” maintains the upbeat style of a musical number, with the only humor in the text. Quick cuts into a montage sequence are well-crafted and maintain the style–without exaggeration–of musicals.
While celebrating the genre, The Simpsons and Family Guy have further intentions. According to MacFarlane, “What truly made the musical numbers subversive wasn’t their naughty lyrics but their ability to expose an audience of mostly young male viewers to a wider world of musical styles” (Itzkoff). Verdi wanted Falstaff to champion the Italian operas against German operas, and MacFarlane wants Family Guy to champion musicals against popular music today. While a strong connection between their intentions seems tenuous, the more noble purpose proposed by MacFarlane emphasizes the greater meaning of musical parody in animated sitcoms
My primary interest in musicals has likely come from the upbeat musical tunes on Family Guy, after which I discovered the actual sources of my delight. Having produced music CDs for both Family Guy and The Simpsons, the producers of these shows take musicals seriously for both their artistic and thematic merits. While the sitcom is a familiar cornerstone of modern entertainment, musicals have, in many ways, slipped out of primary entertainment into a niche audience. The treatment of musicals in The Simpsons and Family Guy is an unusual change from the typical attitude of these shows. While they are known for their social commentary and sitcom parodies, musicals particular highlight a particular perspective on popular culture. By looking fondly backwards to favorite American musicals, they reintegrate musicals back into common entertainment and shape its future presence in society.

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