Wednesday, September 26, 2007

An Open Letter to Seth McFarlane: The O.J. Simpson Solution

Okay, folks, this is a long post. Before I start, yes, I am working on the next Cartoon Geeks podcast, wrapping up Comic-Con and talking about some of Dragon*Con. Anyway, here's the rant:

Seth McFarlane
Fuzzy Door Productions
c/o 20th Century Fox Animation

Century City, CA

Dear Seth:

First of all, I know that addressing you personally – even in this impersonal open letter – is probably upsetting to you. Get over it; given how many people feel about your cartoons, you should be used to that by now.

I have to touch on the reasons for that contempt, though, for the sake of those reading this letter over our shoulders. We have to establish the ground rules of this relationship. Well…since the beginning of Family Guy, you’ve hated plot and coherence, dumping them whenever you can do a cheap laugh instead. This wouldn’t matter if you were writing a sketch comedy like Saturday Night Live, where continuity doesn’t matter. But you’re writing a sitcom that people are expected to revisit, week after week. In continuing forms, plot and consistent characters are essential.

That was why, when Trey Parker and Matt Stone tackled Family Guy in two episodes of South Park, the attack hurt. As conceited, stupid and racist a character as Eric Cartman spoke coherently – yes, Cartman spoke coherently! – about the faults of Family Guy. They weren’t doing affectionate mocking, or even the contempt they hurled at O.J. Simpson and the parents of Jon Benet Ramsey, whom they outright called murderers in past episodes. Parker and Stone were mad, and they weren’t alone. They reported that they “got flowers” from Matt Groenig and other animators after the show aired.

On my part, I’ve tried to be tolerant. I liked the somewhat nostalgic audio CD you released, “Family Guy Live in Las Vegas,” because you let your characters sing and be “themselves.” That bought you a pass from me for a long time. But it was spoiled by another fault of yours, your nostalgia for the 1970’s. It’s a fetish you worked to death, and it was expressed again in the current season opener, the one-hour episode with the highest rating of any Family Guy episode, your satire of Star Wars Episode Four: A New Hope.

The Harvest is blue...George and Seth too.

It puzzled me why George Lucas let you do this episode entitled Blue Harvest, even letting you show up at the Star Wars panel at San Diego Comic-Con to show clips from it. He did use The Force on you a little bit; reports are that you had to tone down the theme of incest between Leia and Luke from your original scripts. In the Family Guy version, that would have been between Chris and Lois – mother and son. But still, he let you do your parody, and the reason why became clear when Michelle and I saw the rest of the panel.

After watching Star Wars Episode Three: Revenge of the Sith, many of the mundanes in the audience called it “The end of Star Wars, thank God.” Lucas said everything he intended to say in that film, he closed the circle, he exhausted the subject, no matter how many novels and video games he lets other people create. At Comic-Con, Lucasfilm’s big new projects were Lego Star Wars games and other things, nothing even vaguely new or interesting. Not even the proposed animated Clone Wars TV series is setting fandom on fire. I think Lucas has given up. He only continues to crank out Star Wars stuff because it was his biggest success. This being the case, he saw little harm in your nostalgic, but wiseass, parody of it.

To close out this airing of personal complaints, so I can get to the point of this letter, I wonder if you knew how you appeared in front of the San Diego audience. In your previous public appearances, in your personal Adult Swim promos, your embarrassing speech at Harvard and your appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, you tried to project bravado and confidence – even looking like a street corner pimp in leather jacket on Kimmel’s show. But you couldn’t talk well and you weren’t funny. I suspect you are personally shy, as are most animators and writers, and you don’t hide it well. You didn’t really hide it at all in San Diego, facing an audience of a few thousand Star Wars geeks ready to take it out on your hide if you showed anything upsetting.

If you’re shy, Seth, just be shy and admit it. It didn’t hurt Chuck Jones, John Kricfalusi, or for that matter George Lucas. It might even make people hate you less.

The Bastard Daughter of a Thousand-Pound Maniac

Okay, now that we know where we stand, to the point. The clips you showed in San Diego showed most members of the Family Guy cast in some Star Wars role. You dodged the question of what Meg Griffin would look like in the finished episode. Now, we know. She was the Garbage Masher Monster. Again, you spit on her.

Of all the awful things you do in Family Guy, from the matricidal gay baby Stewie to the recurring appearances of Peter naked (with his huge gut hiding his penis for the Fox censors) your abuse of Meg Griffin is the most annoying to me. Always, she is dateless, she is theoretically ugly, unwanted, friendless, and the object of everyone’s contempt. About the only thing you did in apology (and given your disdain of continuity, maybe it “didn’t really happen”) was an episode where Meg got a makeover and actually had sex. So you could spoil that for her, her first sexual experience was part of the opening gag of a Saturday Night Live episode.

I’ve puzzled over why you hate Meg so much, making her peripheral to most episodes when not actually dumping on her. Maybe you have a sister you hated. Maybe her character was forced on you when you first pitched Family Guy to Fox. Their other failed animated show The Oblongs had an all-eccentric cast, and maybe they felt they needed a normal character as the center for the show. And maybe that irritated you, so you take it out on the “normal girl” whenever you can.

You developed her brother Chris from a mouth-drooler to someone who could hold a conversation and instigate plots. Heck, you made him Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars parody. Even Stewie, the most detestable character on the show, has grown; as The Great Luke Ski said in his tribute song, “Getting Giggity With It,” Stewie has become “the reincarnation of Doctor Zachary Smith,” a waspish homosexual intellectual. Hey, anything besides his constant attempts to kill his mother is an improvement. But you don’t really want to do anything with Meg.

Seth, take it to your logical conclusion.

Well, you’re a big guy now, Seth. You brought Family Guy back from the dead. Actually, Adult Swim did, by doing what the idiot programmers at Fox refused to do; running the show on a regular schedule and promoting it. But you’re taking the credit for the revival anyway, something you Hollywood types always do. While The Simpsons and South Park have been cranking out new and vital comedy for a long time, without being cancelled, fans haven’t appreciated their consistent quality; they want flash, and Family Guy returning from the dead was flash. You have “capital” now, Seth, the same way George Bush did after September 11. So I’m suggesting you use that capital for something you’ve clearly wanted to do for a long time.

Kill Meg Griffin. Kill her dead. Kill her deader than Kenny McCormick, who keeps coming back, like the South Park Jesus. Don’t even give her the benefit of a “big death” episode, with a tearful goodbye and tender last words said to her father, mother and brothers. Kill her the way the droopy-breasted teacher, Ms. Choksondick, was killed on South Park, summarily and with no lingering importance.

There’s an important reason why you should kill her, besides your obvious hatred of her. Every appearance of Meg Griffin “getting it” makes you look misogynistic. You can get away with impugning her mother Lois, since she’s an adult and clearly as eccentric as the rest of the cast. She earns what she gets. But Meg, who does nothing, gets abuse.

Your treatment of other female characters, even ones you could slam for overt sexuality, is relatively even-handed. But you enjoy beating up an innocent, frustrated teenage girl! That looks bad, Seth. Even O.J. claims he still loves Nicole.

(In discussing this with Michelle, she suggested that Seth got turned down for dates in high school, and this is his revenge. I don't think so. He doesn't treat other sexy females in the show like "skank-ass ho's" the way he does the quiet, despairing Meg.)

Without Meg on the show, you and your writer
s – the manatees, as South Park called them – can go forward without constraint. You can put the Griffins into really kinky situations without Meg tsk-tsking them, and taking crap for being nice. You could add a neighborhood teenage girl and get her involved with Chris. Sexually involved, giving Chris more character development and more kinky things to do. God knows that sexual reference is beloved by Fox; the only thing they censor is people like Sally Field who protest your unofficial CEO, George W. Bush.

And by killing Meg quickly and pointlessly, as pointlessly as nearly all of your plots, the fans won’t even notice she’s missing. It was like when Dan Blocker died on Bonanza, not like when John Ritter died on Ten Simple Rules. I have to explain it in terms of old TV shows, since that's all you understand, Seth.

And finally, you could even rub your fans’ noses in it. You can redo the “Broadway musical” open of the show, leaving a blank space where Meg used to be. Don’t rearrange the characters to fill in the hole left by her absence. Leave the image visually unbalanced. It would tell the audience that you’re daring, resourceful, and outrageous. That’s an impression you’re eager to project, to distract from your desperate shoveling of bad jokes onto your paper-thin plots.

So indulge your inner Phil Spector, Seth. Don’t kiss the girl, kill her. And never, ever feature anyone dressed in a pink hat again.


Thomas E. Reed

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Dragon*con 2007 Sunday: No Pix for now...

Very simply, I don't know how much time I have left on this Internet connection. Also, checkout will be early tomorrow and it's late right now. So I'll give a quick summary of this day.

I did not get into the Adult Swim panel. I arrived 15 minutes before the panel - since I desired food - and there was a line running outside the building and down the block. There was no way I could have gotten into that panel. But the only thing I believe I missed were pilots and clips from shows that will already be on AS in a few weeks anyway - Lucy, the Daughter of the Devil being the one they pushed the most.

So I went to the final panel for which I was scheduled, called "Classic Cartoons." An Indian lady named Smitha Prasadh used to do this panel, but spent time in Japan and Hawaii. Now that she's back, she organized this. This was a fairly lively panel, and I recorded much of it - although how much of the audience questions will be heard will depend on the miracle of audio processing.

There were many arguments about the definition of "classic" but it largely came down to things such as character, plot, quality of scripts and animation (roughly in that order). Some people suggested some cartoons that I thought were anything but classic - The Critic? But it was all in very good spirits.

I will attempt to contact the animation track director and help her throughout the year, if I can, to bring better animation panels and guests to Atlanta.

In other matters, I helped Luke Ski with his sales table, and bought the Filk Guest of Honor her dinner. (As I mentioned before, she is Carla Ulbrich, a lovely, petite woman half as tall as I am, with an amazing self-depreciating sense of humor.) As a personal treat, I stayed up late to listen to Luke in a live concert, down in the teeny room assigned to filk - and packed with more enthusiastic people than the hyperactive fire marshal would be happy with. I even dared to sing along with my favorite parts of "Grease Wars," his description of Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope told to the music of Grease.

In some ways, Dragon*Con has been disorganized, more than normal; shifting different groups to different places has made the convention harder to deal with than normal. But it's still one of the most friendly big conventions I've ever known. And I look forward to being part of the animation/anime program next year.

I'll tell you more when I get back to Orlando and have a chance to recover.


Saturday, September 01, 2007

Dragon*Con 2007: Yee-HAH!

For the first time at Dragon*Con, I decided to cosplay. Although I'd tried out the character at San Diego Comic-Con, and gotten a good response, I was not all that noticed at the Dragon venues.

Part of the reason was, I was surrounded by many good costumes. One that passed by - without me or anyone getting a picture of him - was a guy naked, except for a very slim flesh-colored Speedo. He was covering his crotch and dodging from one corner to another, honestly making himself look nekked and running for cover.

And against female flesh I have no allure. Bustiers, corsets, push-up bras, everything is used by all kinds of women - if they have even reasonable breasts, they always emphasize and reveal as much as possible. One even used the line (I think a Billy Connolly line) written across her half-exposed breasts, "HUUUGE Tracts of Land!"

This day, I stayed in much of the morning. I finally got out about 10:30 and dared to approach the Exhibitor and Dealer Rooms. The distinction escaped me until I saw them. The Exhibitors had large booths and specific lines of goods. One of the traditional Dragon*Con dealers is the Utilikilt people. These are similar to Scottish kilts, intended for men, except made of durable denim in various colors with pockets and equipment loops. They are very popular among the techies - and no, they do NOT wear them traditionally, they don't want to lose anything.

Before I knew it - and before I could find anything to buy - it was time for me to head back for my premier panel, Pre-Sweetened Playhouse. I was quite pleased that the room had the best turnout I've had in years - about 35-40 people. They also laughed - a lot - at this year's show, called "Fantastic S'mores." It included an episode of Filmation's Fantastic Voyage, the ancient Krantz cartoon Rocket Robin Hood, and the episode I first created for the Orlando PSP, the Hanna-Barbara Fantastic Four cartoon episode "Galactus."

This last had my "improvements" centered around the many gay/phallic references in the cartoon. Throughout the show the laughs grew and grew. It was very, very pleasing.

That afternoon saw a concert by The Great Luke Ski on an open venue, a large walkway in the Hyatt. It was before this show that I saw the greatest costumes yet - Dark Helmet and Barf from Mel Brooks's original movie Spaceballs. The Dark Helmet one had been promised for years, but this guy pulled it off beautifully, donning the glasses when someone commented he was not completely authentic.

The guy playing Barf said "It's a pity John Candy isn't around to do the new animated series." I said, "Yeah, but you have one advantage; you're alive." He shrugged and said, "Yeah, I didn't die in bed with a pizza by my side, but that's the way I want to go." I didn't want to tell him that I'd like to die in the midst of sex with...well, that would be telling.

Well, that evening, after I changed into Opie Ron (to little acclaim, as mentioned) I saw the first Dragon*Con concert by Carrie Dahlby, the lovely lady in pink - along with her new boyfriend, who is not pictured here - and a show by Grant Baciocco.

Grant, as we may have mentioned, is the only member of the four-man band Throwing Toasters, he's one of the brains behind the kid-friendly and very cartoony The Radio Adventures of Doctor Floyd, and he has recently been given work at The Jim Henson Company - in what aspect I don't know and wasn't told, but it has made him very happy.

And then, the most unusual animation panel I attended so far. It was entitled "The Disney Curse." Rory Gordon, a pleasant presence at my PSP panel earlier, did this one as an exposition. Almost the reading of a term paper. His thesis was that Disney, through its success, dominated and defined the way animation was accepted in the United States, and that's why we don't have serious dramatic animation - and why animation is still considered kid stuff.

Frankly, although his research into the subject was full of data, he didn't convince me and he didn't convince much of the audience. Most of us were ready to argue the moment we entered the room. The comments he got from many people - including me, still in Redneck Jedi gear but speaking in my normal Midwestern voice - showed that instead of coming to this conclusion, he built his panel by justifying a premise, a hard way to make a point.

Disney has been considered the premiere animation studio, but Mr. Gordon didn't really delve into why. I believe it was that Disney gave the public what they wanted - even if they didn't realize they wanted it, or if Disney didn't use intellectual means to discover those desired elements. In fact, throughout the panel Gordon was forced to concede that Disney had done a great deal of good in animation.

I have found fault with certain things at Disney, but I would be a cad to say they had "cursed" American animation. One of the most expected items, the diffident promotion and release of the Miazaki films, didn't get much attention. Gordon had a lot of good things to say about some controversial and "artistic" animators such as Ralph Bakshi, but was forced to concede that those films weren't financial successes - or that they often weren't artistic successes either.

Still, people stayed, argued and talked. This is a good thing. It means that people in Atlanta care about animation. And as I said the previous night, if people seek out and recommend good animation, and recommend animation and anime programming at Dragon*Con and other conventions, it will improve.

Some time tomorrow I'll make my last post, since this Internet is simply too costly and I'll be checked out of my room Monday.

(Note: the picture below has Rory Gordon on the left, with Kevin McKeever of Harmony Gold, from my panel yesterday.)

Sweeney Todd gets the unkindest cut of all from WB...

From RottenTomatoes.Com:

Looks like everyone who was looking forward to a gory and funny version of the Stephen Sondheim classic musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Steet is going to be sadly disappointed. Warner Brothers Pictures, one of the three studios involved with the production (Paramount and Dreamworks SKG are the other two) has mandated lots of cuts to bring the movie in as a PG-13 American release.

Of course, in this day and age of unrated video releases, we'll probably get to see everything cut from the theatrical release. Still, it's a goddamn Grand Guignol musical about a vengeful murderer and a meat pie cook who uses extra special meat (long pig) for her pies, for crissake! It wasn't meant as family fare. This is about as retarded as putting a sunny happy ending on Blade Runner.

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