When most adult cartoons take on the topic of race, the jokes are often raunchy and offensive, allowing their animated characters to break all the rules of common decency. From “South Park” and “Robot Chicken” to “Family Guy,” these animated shows rely on some form of jaw-dropping distasteful humor to carry their best racial gags, an easy way to draw laughs and be controversial.
But one cartoon manages to pull off jokes about race relations without resting on offensive laurels. That show is Fox’s “American Dad.” It’s
quietly becoming more popular among African Americans, and the seemless way the white characters reference black slang, music and expression represents an emerging sophistication in how mainstream shows treat African American culture. No longer a gag or appendage, black cultural references are a central part of “American Dad’s” DNA.
Created by “Family Guy’s” Seth MacFarlane, Mike Barker and Matt Weitzman, “American Dad,” now in it’s eigth season, focuses on the Smith family of fictional Langley Falls, Va. The father, Stan (voiced by MacFarlane), is a super-conservative CIA agent who uses his twisted idea of patriotism to justify hilariously bad behavior. His wife, Francine (Wendy Schaal), is usually the voice of reason, but occasionally loses her way. Daughter Hayley (Rachael MacFarlane) is a marijuana-smoking, liberal 20-something, and their son, Steve (Scott Grimes), is a nerd with a love for R&B.
Because Stan is in the CIA, they have two interesting houseguests: Klaus (Dee Bradley Baker), a goldfish with the mind of a German ski jumper thanks to a CIA experiment gone awry, and Roger (also MacFarlane), the incredibly offensive alien the Smiths have been harboring for years.
Both the plot and the characters are funny, but spot-on jokes about black culture are where “American Dad” truly excels, employing nostalgic cultural references instead of only relying on easy gags hinged on stereotypes.
In the “Hot Water” episode, Stan leaves his family for a seductive, talking hot tub (Cee-Lo Green). Distraught, Francine moves back into her adoptive parents’ house with Klaus, Roger and the kids.
It results in Steve and Roger bursting into an original song, “Daddy’s Gone,” and the scene turns into a full-on music video. Roger and Steve are in the middle of the desert, their unbuttoned, billowing white shirts exposing airbrushed six-packs. There are sweeping shots of the desert, and Steve and Roger are performing dated choreography. In short, it looks like a cross between Boyz II Men’s “Water Runs Dry” and Jodeci’s “Cry for You” videos.
“Daddy’s Gone” turned into a hit. It is available on iTunes and has been dubbed by fans half a dozen times on YouTube.
The funniest part is: The show’s writers say they aren’t doing it to intentionally rake in more black viewers or make any political statements. It’s all for laughs.
“One thing we tap into a lot here is nostalgia. Steve tapping into those R&B songs from our childhood, it’s just something that we think is funny — this 13-year-old nerd singing Keith Sweat or Johnny Gill,” says “American Dad” writer Parker Daey, referencing a gag from the “Ricky Spanish” episode.
While in a diner with Roger, Steve hops up to see if “they have some Keith Sweat in this piece.” Cut to Steve singing “My Body” by LSG while a trio of middle-aged black women swoon and sway in their seats.
As a result, five months later, one of the top comments under the YouTube video of the 1996 LSG single is still “Steve from American Dad brought me here.”
“I guess that translates, and everybody likes to see little snippets from the past of something they used to like. That specific sector of music has done us well,” says Daey.
These jokes may be resonating with black viewers in particular. According to a March 2012 survey by ReachingBlackConsumers.com, “American Dad” was the 8th most watched show by black viewers ages 18 to 24 between Feb. 27 and March 4. It was ranked 16th among white viewers in that age group.
The divide is even greater among viewers ages 18 to 49. “American Dad” is the 15th most watched show among black viewers in that age group, but it’s ranked 46 among white viewers.
And yet, it’s treated like the ugly stepchild of Fox’s Sunday Animation Domination lineup. When Seth MacFarlane was doing interviews in the weeks before “Ted” released, interviewers mentioned “American Dad” and “Cleveland Show” as afterthoughts.
“I don’t understand why more people aren’t making a big deal about our show. At certain point, you just accept that no one is going to ask you to the dance, and you make other plans for that night,” says Barker, executive producer and lead writer of “American Dad.”
The negative reviews “American Dad” received after its 2005 premiere may be largely to blame. “Family Guy” was at the height of its popularity, having just gotten back on the air. Viewers were excited to get something new from the mind of MacFarlane, but felt “American Dad” was disappointing in the beginning.
It was then that some viewers wrote “American Dad” off as a lazy MacFarlane side venture fueled by greed.
“I interviewed Mike Barker and Matt Weitzman when the show was going to come on, and I realized, this isn’t really a Seth MacFarlane show. He’s in there and got it green-lit, he is a voice, and it’s his style of animation, but it’s really these two guys in charge of this show,” says Nancy Basile, an animated TV expert for About.com.
Basile believes that flying beneath the radar may be helping “American Dad.” The writers are given more freedom, away from the criticism of legions of vocal fans, in a manner similar to the late “King of the Hill.”
Which could explain why the writers are able to stray from the racial-stereotypes-equals-laughs formula that has been widely successful for similar shows. They aren’t compelled to feed the public easy jokes or rely on cutaway gags. Instead they dig a little deeper.
That could be why the direct refences to black pop culture are having an impact. Take Steve’s random, soulful outbursts. They all hinge on audiences remembering those songs and laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of a suburban preteen loving a song by Gerald Levert. They also play off of the awkwardness of virginal Steve singing overtly sexual lyrics.
Yet Steve’s love of old-school R&B isn’t a concerted attempt for him to seem hip. He feels as comfortable playing Dungeons & Dragons as he does grinding to Ginuwine’s “Pony”. It’s more a facet of who he is, and less an appropriation of black culture.
Plus, it’s hilarious.
We didn’t see too much of Steve in the Season 8 opener last Sunday. (Instead, we saw Roger’s best Buffalo Bill impression while he tried to woo a terrified Hayley.) The wait won’t be long. Steve and his buddies are set to join a boy band in the “Can I Be Frank (With You)” episode airing Oct. 21.
Please let there be another Jodeci reference. Please let there be another Jodeci reference.
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