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by Brandie Ashe

Sometimes incisive, sometimes irreverent, and oftentimes utterly, ridiculously stupid, the television series Family Guy (1999-2002, 2005-present) still manages at times to be a great source of modern social commentary (that, as the years go by, those times are fewer and more far between, is undeniable, but no different from any other long-running series). For all the flack the show receives for its reliance on cutaway gags or for being a purported knock-off of The Simpsons (which, incidentally, is one of my favorite television shows of all time), creator Seth MacFarlane’s flagship show has its share of brilliant-lite moments sprinkled amongst the pervasive fat jokes and offensive potty humor … especially if you’re a film fan.

Indeed, for me, one of the joys of watching the show is the constant stream of movie references in various cutaways and gags, and that’s what this essay will particularly focus on, as it’s honestly the series’ biggest draw for me. In any given episode, you may find yourself watching an homage (or twelve) to a wide range of movies, from Back to the Future to Indiana Jones, The Ten Commandments to Annie Hall, and everything in between. In particular, the series’ recreations of the original Star Wars trilogy have shown the best of what Family Guy has to offer, combining sincere tribute and gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) skewering.

But I, for one, have always been impressed by Family Guy’s frequent, generally loving attention to classic cinema. It’s obvious that MacFarlane and company have a great deal of respect for the films of ye olde Hollywood. From musicals to screwball comedies, drama to silent films, practically every episode of the show contains obvious (and not-so-obvious) references to some of the best films in cinematic history.

MacFarlane has a great voice, and it sometimes seems that the writers stretch themselves to find excuses to utilize it. I’m not complaining, though–I could listen to MacFarlane sing all day. The show’s creator voices several of the main characters, including Peter, Quagmire, Brian, and Stewie, and the latter two characters especially have frequent musical moments throughout the series. Many of these moments are drawn from classic musicals:

  • “Make ‘Em Laugh” from 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain is performed in two separate episodes: once by Quagmire, who changes the lyrics to befit the momentary setting (a sex toy shop), and once by Peter, Quagmire, Stewie, and Joe (voice by Patrick Warburton), with the lyrics unchanged.

  • In the segment “Stewie B. Goode” from the straight-to-DVD release Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story, Stewie channels Maria Von Trapp (from 1965’s The Sound of Music) as he strides down the sidewalk singing “I Have Confidence.”

  • The  episode “Wasted Talent” amusingly alters the lyrics of “Pure Imagination” from 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, creating a beer-soaked tribute to “Pure Inebriation.”

Some of the most enduringly popular segments of the show are found in the “Road” episodes, which take their cue, by and large, from the series of Road to… films featuring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. The first such episode, “Road to Rhode Island,” even features a tune that borrows heavily from the title tune of 1942’s Road to Morocco. Ultimately, it’s fitting that the show pays such frequent tribute to the “Road” films, seeing as how those movies’ self-referential Hollywood in-jokes are a precursor to the same self-parodying elements that make Family Guy a sometimes guilty pleasure. In fact, “Road to Rupert,” the third episode of that milieu, contains my hands-down favorite moment from the entire series. As Brian and Stewie attempt to track down Stewie’s stuffed bear, Rupert, whom Brian accidentally sold in a yard sale, they find themselves in Colorado and attempt to rent a helicopter in order to cross the mountains into Aspen. The rental agreement says that they can forego a deposit in exchange for a “jaunty tune,” which leads Stewie into a dance with none other than the master himself, Gene Kelly. The animators superimpose Stewie over Jerry Mouse in the iconic “Worry Song” dancing clip from 1945’s Anchors Aweigh, and it’s a silly, fun moment that never fails to bring a smile to my face.

Another inspired moment, in the controversial episode “Extra-Large Medium” (which drew ire from political pundit Sarah Palin for its depiction of a girl with Down Syndrome), is a brief recreation of the classic Abbott and Costello routine “Who’s on First.” Peter channels Lou Costello as he tries to “psychically” locate a man who has been buried with a bomb strapped to his chest:

Peter: All right, what’s the name of the guy we’re looking for?
Joe: Well, he’s an Asian fella–Melvin Hu.
Peter: That’s what I want to find out.
Joe: What?
Peter: The name of the guy.
Joe: Melvin Hu.
Peter: Are you a cop?
Joe: Yeah.
Peter: You handling this case?
Joe: Yeah.
Peter: Then what’s the name of the guy?
Joe: Hu.
Peter: The guy we’re looking for.
Joe: Hu.
Peter: The guy who’s buried.
Joe: Hu.
Peter: The guy with the bomb.
Joe: Hu.
Peter: What street does he live on?
Joe: First.
[The bomb explodes in the distance.]

Some of the more satirical bon mots are saved for the Disney canon. From Peter’s brief turn as Mary Poppins (in which he lands on–and subsequently crushes–his charges) to Peter’s fervent wish upon a star for a Jewish accountant to help with his taxes (“I Need a Jew”), Disney films–and Walt Disney himself–are skewered sometimes mercilessly.

 https://youtu.be/YeCp4zONZ1Q

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by Brandie Ashe

The great voice artist June Foray (who passed away last summer just two months shy of her 100th birthday) once told the story of how she came to embody one of the most iconic characters of her career. After her agent told her that two industry men named Jay Ward and Bill Scott–whom she had never heard of–wanted to take her to lunch, June met them at a restaurant in Los Angeles, where the two men were having martinis when she arrived. “And they said, ‘Well, have a martini,’ and I said, ‘Well, you know, I don’t drink at lunch.’ And they said, ‘Aw, come on, we’re having a drink!’ So I said okay. And on the first drink, they told me they had an idea of a moose and a squirrel and I thought, ‘Gee, that’s a real cockeyed idea,’ you know. But after the second martini, I thought it was great.”

When you think about it, Foray’s initial impression wasn’t wrong. The concept for Rocky and Bullwinkle is an odd one, even considering some of the crazier cartoons that made their way onto movie and television screens in the first half of the 20th century (I’m side-eyeing you, Max Fleischer). But as wild as the concept may have seemed in 1959–when the show premiered on ABC–it just worked, strangely enough. Rocky and Bullwinkle became a pop-culture phenomenon, one that appealed to both kids and adults with its wide-ranging humorous style. And even though the original show lasted only five years, it remains to this day a popular nostalgic series, one that Hollywood can’t seem to help from trying to adapt in various forms (including a number of big-screen live-action and animated adaptations, none of which quite capture the zany brilliance of that first incarnation).

The series is essentially a compilation of shorts featuring a diverse cast of characters, framed by the Rocky and Bullwinkle-starring serials, in which the moose (voiced by series co-creator Bill Scott) and squirrel (voiced by Foray) inevitably find themselves at odds with the inept Russian spy duo of Boris and Natasha (voiced by Paul Frees and Foray). These serials featured cliffhanger endings and tended to last over multiple episodes; in fact, the first (and perhaps best-known) of these series, called “Jet Fuel Formula,” lasted forty episodes and introduced the concept of weird misunderstandings and random happenstance that propel Rocky and Bullwinkle into many of their misadventures. In this initial series, Bullwinkle inadvertently discovers the recipe for a very effective rocket fuel while baking a cake … which leads one to wonder, just how much should we trust the cooking skills of a moose? (The answer to that question is “not at all, unless you want to find yourself flying ass-first to the moon.”)


Those Moose and Squirrel were the ostensible stars of the show, the other segments featured characters who would soon become immensely popular in their own rights. There were the “WABAC” travels of Mr. Peabody, a genius talking dog, and his somewhat less-intelligent boy, Sherman, who used their time machine to visit key events in the history of mankind; the tales of Canadian Mountie Dudley Do-Right, which parodied the kind of old-fashioned “damsel tied to the railroad tracks” serials that were particularly popular in the silent era; and two ongoing modernized takes on classic tales and legends featuring two great classic character actors: the “Fractured Fairy Tales,” narrated by the always-great Edward Everett Horton, and “Aesop and Son,” starring the vocal talents of the inimitable Charlie Ruggles.


In my previous essay for this countdown for the current television series Bob’s Burgers, I mentioned that its dialogue-driven episodes can almost function like an old-time radio serial, with the visuals sometimes secondary to the delightful wordplay between the characters. In this respect, I believe the creator and writers of Bob’s Burgers may have taken some influence from Rocky and Bullwinkle, a show that is not known so much for the crude artistry of its animation as for its witty humor, malapropisms, and pun-laden dialogue. It’s truly a show that is driven by the writers. The characters frequently break the fourth wall, acknowledging that they are starring in a television series (Natasha: “Boris, is Moose you said you killed in previous episode?” Boris: “Look, it’s his show. If he wants to be hard to kill, let him”), and drawing attention to the artificial–and ratings-dependent–nature of their existence (Rocky: “I’m not talking about The Bullwinkle Show.” Bullwinkle: “You had better. We could use the publicity”).


And, oh, those puns. The frequent, sometimes hilarious, sometimes groan-inducing puns, which the writers of the show knew were just plain painful. Case in point:


[Scene: Rocky and Bullwinkle bring a small, jewel-covered boat, named “Omar Khayyam,” to a local jeweler for appraisal.]


Jeweler: “You know what you have here?”


Bullwinkle: “We were hoping that you would tell us.”


Jeweler: “This little doll here is composed of ruby! Yes, sir, it’s rubies!”


Bullwinkle: “No, it isn’t! It’s mine!”


Rocky: “Well, my gosh, if it’s made out of rubies, then …”


Bullwinkle: “If you’re hesitating for me to finish the line, you’ve got a long wait!”


Jeweler: “And I don’t have the guts to say it!”


Rocky: “Okay, then, here goes. If it’s made out of rubies, then this must be the Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayyam!”


Bullwinkle and Jeweler: “UGH!”


To borrow the next line from the show’s Narrator: with that little gem, we bring down the curtain.

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by Brandie Ashe

It started out as a typical concept for an animated series: a man, his wife, and their children run a restaurant in a dingy seaside town somewhere vaguely in the Northeastern United States, and have many odd and entertaining adventures along the way. A slice of life portrait, really, of a typical American family, struggling to get by but keeping afloat with the help of good humor and good friends along the way.

Oh, and they’re all cannibals.

Perhaps not surprisingly, creator Loren Bouchard’s original concept for Bob’s Burgers was scrapped in favor of a straightforward family sitcom, with no human flesh burgers to be found. Still, that initial conceit forms the basis of the pilot episode of the series, in which the family’s youngest daughter, Louise, tells her class about the man-burgers crafted at her father’s restaurant, inviting an unwanted visit from the health inspector.

It wasn’t exactly an auspicious start. To be honest, those early episodes of the show struggle to find their footing, and it takes a while for the characters to really start to develop and grow on the viewer. But as the show moved into its third season, it finally hit its stride, and this weird, wonderful, wacky, and wholly witty series became, in my eyes, a modern-day classic that has cultivated a fervently loyal fanbase.

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by Brandie Ashe

Starlet O’Hara: “What brings you to Terra?”

Rat Butler: “You, you vixen, you. Starlet, I love you. That–that–that gown is gorgeous!”

Starlet O’Hara: “Thank you. I saw it in the window and I just couldn’t resist it.”

Arguably the most memorable sketch from The Carol Burnett Show, “Went With the Wind” remains a masterpiece of parody, hitting one hilarious beat after another with nary a misstep. And really, it all comes down to a single moment: the audacious, fantastic visual of Burnett, in that Bob Mackie-designed drapery dress, nonchalantly walking down the staircase with the curtain rod resting pertly on her shoulders.

It was this sketch that first introduced me to the show, long after its initial run ended in 1978. The show was one of my mother’s favorites, and this bit was one she particularly loved. In fact, several years ago, Mom made her own Starlet O’Hara curtain dress for a Halloween costume party, and it was an absolute hit. Even forty years later, “Went With the Wind”–and the brilliant show that spawned that sketch–remain beloved institutions of pop culture.

Carol Burnett was a star long before she exercised a contract option with CBS that granted her an Emmy-winning, self-named variety series in 1967. A novelty song called “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles” made her a household name in 1957, and in the wake of that success, she appeared on several television series and scored a starring role on Broadway in the 1959 musical Once Upon a Mattress, which landed her a Tony nomination. Her mentor and dear friend, the legendary comedienne Lucille Ball, offered to cast her in a starring role in a sitcom produced by her studio, Desilu, but Burnett declined in favor of creating a musical variety show that would allow her a certain amount of freedom of format. She gathered a cast that included funny folks like Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner, Tim Conway, and even the great Dick Van Dyke at one point. Rounding out the cast was the young woman that Carol herself had become a mentor to, Vicki Lawrence. And together, they made comedy magic. (more…)

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The Simpsons (Fox) TV Series
1989-
Shown from left: Lisa, Marge, Maggie, Homer, Bart

by Brandie Ashe

     From its humble beginnings as a series of intermittent shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show, through the over six hundred half-hour television episodes it has produced to this date, to its upcoming twenty-ninth (!!) season this fall, it remains a beloved pop culture juggernaut. Its achievements are numerous: it is the longest-running animated series, longest-running scripted primetime series, and longest-running sitcom on American television. A monster hit with audiences almost right out of the gate, it can be credited with finally making Fox a legitimate force among the major broadcast networks (after nearly five years of playing catch-up with CBS, ABC, and NBC). It has dominated the animation categories at the Emmys for years, winning a total of 31 awards to date; it has likewise dominated the annual animation awards, the Annies, winning 30 of those. The series even received a Peabody Award in 1996 for its “exceptional animation and stinging social satire, both commodities which are in extremely short supply in television today.”

It is, of course, The Simpsons, and frankly, I’m flabbergasted that the show did not rank higher on this countdown. Okay, yes, yes, I hear those of you who criticize the show for its admitted decline in quality in its most recent seasons–the satirical edges that marked the show in its first decade have been filed down in the last fifteen or so years, and the repetitiveness of the plots and the show’s flagrant disregard for series canon can be jarring to longtime viewers (then again, it is about a family that never ages yet celebrates multiple holidays, birthdays, and other age-related milestones, so what more do you expect from them?). Do we hold the show’s longevity against it, or do we recognize that, tired as it may be these days, those so-called “golden age” early seasons nonetheless contain some of the best-written, best-performed, and most cleverly-animated television episodes of all time?

I’m a huge fan of The Simpsons, and have been pretty much since it premiered in 1989, when I was ten years old. I don’t think I was supposed to be watching the show at that young an age (even though it’s downright tame compared to some of the shows floating around these days), but since my parents put a television in my bedroom at that young age–well, that’s all on you, Mom and Dad. I loved the show from the beginning, and while everyone else seemed to love Bart and his crazy antics (“Do the Bartman,” anyone?), I gravitated toward sensitive Lisa, finding in her a kindred know-it-all spirit, recognizing her as another misfit young girl who didn’t quite fit in with the rest of her family, but loved them all the same.

Hell, I’m 38 years old, and I still identify with Lisa more than most television characters I’ve ever come across in all my years of endless channel surfing. (more…)

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by Brandie Ashe

“Sunny day,

Sweepin’ the clouds away,

On my way to where the air is sweet–

Can you tell me how to get,

How to get to Sesame Street?”

If you are of a certain age, that song will bring back a lot of memories … and will likely be stuck in your head on a loop for the rest of the day.

Since its debut in 1969, the inarguable standard-bearer for televised educational entertainment for children has been Sesame Street. Winner of 166 Emmy Awards over the course of its nearly fifty-year run, the show and its iconic characters have become ubiquitous around the world. The show’s deft combination of humor and educational curriculum has long made it a valuable means of introducing young children to basic concepts such as the alphabet, vocabulary, and counting, while also teaching real-life lessons about such ideas as the importance of sharing, compassion for others, and tolerance.

One thing that sets Sesame Street apart from some of its competitors in the kiddie TV market, and has allowed the show to maintain its consistent quality and reputation over the years, is that it manages to reach children on their level without talking down to them. There’s no condescension coloring the lessons taught by the show; instead, there’s a camaraderie that is carefully constructed between the characters onscreen and the children watching from home, one that welcomes and celebrates the joys of childhood while encouraging imaginative play and intellectual curiosity. Viewing Sesame Street from an adult perspective, it’s easy to see why parents the world over have trusted their children to the Street gang for so many years. The shows are educational without being overly didactic; moral lessons are taught sans preachy overtones; and though the bright overacting of the adult human characters, admittedly, can be grating, they are nonetheless adept at engaging and maintaining the attention of their young audience.

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by Brandie Ashe

Oh, for the good old days, when almost every theatrical release was preceded by a cartoon. Nowadays, we pretty much have to rely on the folks at Disney and Pixar to get our theatrical cartoon fix, but in the 1930s and 40s, it was guaranteed that going to the movies—to see any feature—meant also seeing the latest adventures of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, Tom and Jerry, Superman, Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes gang, Mr. Magoo, Woody Woodpecker, and dozens of other animated troublemakers.

Things began to change with the so-called “Paramount Decision” of 1948, in which the Supreme Court decided that movie studios could no longer force theater chains to accept the practice of “block booking” a studio’s “lesser” products (short films and animated cartoons, namely), sometimes sight unseen, and exhibiting those shorts with feature-length studio productions. In other words, studios no longer had any sort of guarantee that their cartoons would actually be seen by audiences, so what was the point in producing cartoons anymore? It was the beginning of the end of the “Golden Age” of Hollywood animation. Many studio animation departments began to suffer in the wake of the decision, and animators at those troubled and soon-to-close studios began to find refuge in television.

In 1957, MGM, home of the Tom and Jerry series of cartoons, closed its animation division, despite the continued popularity of the duo. Tom and Jerry’s “parents,” animation directors William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, soon decided to try their luck at the still (relatively) new medium of television, and started their own animation company, H-B Enterprises (eventually rechristened Hanna-Barbera Productions). They found early TV hits with two new characters: a drawling, Southern caricature of a canine named Huckleberry Hound, and a horsey Old-West sheriff called Quick Draw McGraw. But Hanna-Barbera’s greatest television success came when the duo decided to move to primetime, introducing the world to a “modern Stone-Age family” whose lives, funnily enough, came right out of the most familiar of situation comedies.

That fabled family, The Flintstones, debuted on ABC on September 30, 1960, at 8:30PM. Its timeslot competitors? On CBS, the anthology drama series Route 66, and on NBC, yet another entry in the TV cowboy sweepstakes, The Westerner. Neither of those dramas was exactly lighting up the ratings, and so The Flintstones, perhaps by default, not only won its timeslot that year—it would go on to be the eighteenth most popular show of the 1960-61 television season and be nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series, becoming the first animated program to ever receive a nod for that award.

Yet it did this largely without support from television critics, who dismissed the show as an unexceptional novelty. And even today, the position of The Flintstones on any countdown such as this can be expected to produce debate about the merits of the show. There’s a tinge of nostalgia to the show, especially for baby boomers who grew up watching Fred and Barney’s antics—my own father, born in 1953, counts this show among his favorites of all time, and introduced my brothers and me to its dubious charms in the 1980s via the joys of syndication. But does “nostalgia” equal “quality?”

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