Sarah Palin and "Family Guy’s" Family Values

Cartoon’s irreverent Down syndrome episode sparks controversy over Palin reference. But the show’s overall message has little to do with politics

By Jere Hester
|  Wednesday, Feb 24, 2010  |  Updated 2:48 PM EDT
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Did “Family Guy” cross the line?

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The latest episode of “Family Guy” – predictably and understandably – has sparked controversy over what is being seen by some as a joke mocking Sarah Palin’s 22-month-old son Trig, who has Down syndrome.

But what’s getting lost amid the gratuitous crack is the show’s overall message: that people with Down syndrome are just as human as anyone.

A quick recap: Chris Griffin asks out Ellen, a classmate with Down syndrome. During dinner, he inquires about her parents. “My dad is an accountant and my mother is the former governor of Alaska,” she says.

The line – clearly a Palin reference – quickly sparked Internet chatter and stories in the press. Some were watching Palin’s Facebook page for a response. (Palin has used the page to weigh in before – notably after David Letterman made a tasteless quip about one of her daughters.)

There’s some history between Palin and her fellow Fox employee, “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane. While campaigning for Barack Obama last year, MacFarlane lampooned Palin’s less-than-flattering interview with Katie Couric, imitating the pol in the voice of his buffoonish cartoon character Peter Griffin. In a “Family Guy” episode last year, Stewie and Brian travel back in time to 1939 Germany where they find a Nazi officer wearing a McCain-Palin campaign button.

Sunday’s “Family Guy” episode also follows the recent flap in which Palin slammed White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel for privately calling liberal health-care activists “f------ retarded” (he later apologized). She went on to admonish right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh for using the word as a slur, but inexplicably later gave him a pass, saying he was being “satirical.”

Some comedians have dared to tackle to the controversy – Stephen Colbert called Palin “a f------ retard” on “The Colbert Report” last week. “It’s satire,” he explained.

Sarah Silverman, meanwhile, stoked some outrage over the weekend during a monologue about adopting a retarded child, using the term repeatedly, TechCrunch reported. A few at the big techie TED conference found her act a smart riff on the Palin hullabaloo, an attempt to zap the hurtful power of what some now are euphemistically calling the “R-word.”

Others, including conference organizer Chris Anderson, weren't amused: “I thought Sarah Silverman was god-awful,” he reportedly tweeted.

“Family Guy” hews a lot closer to Silverman than to Colbert when it comes to a decided lack of subtly. Silverman, in her TV show and stand-up routines, plays a cartoonish character who is self-absorbed and foolish – not all that unlike the animated “Family Guy” cast. But Silverman's act and MacFarlane’s cartoon sometimes cloak messages in outrageousness and shock-driven humor – often to the point where the impact of any greater point is lost.

Which brings us back to Sunday’s “Family Guy.” The show ultimately had a point, which might have been missed by those who turned off the TV after the Palin reference.

It turns out Chris’ dream woman is a bossy nightmare. At the end of the episode, he loses his temper and yells, “I used to hear that people with Down syndrome were different than the rest of us. You’re not different at all!”

Sounds like a message with which even Sarah Palin can agree. 

PALIN REFERENCE CLIP STARTS at 15:40:

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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