In our post-“Nipplegate” era, censorship and television have become as inextricably linked as Laverne and Shirley. In recent weeks, fear of Federal Communications Commission fines led 65 ABC affiliates to nix an unedited version of “Saving Private Ryan,” while the bare backside of Nicolette Sheridan for a Monday Night Football spot was nearly enough to cause a red state riot.
Against this backdrop, Fox has made a surprising decision to air an episode of “Family Guy” — a half-hour cartoon so raunchy it makes the Simpsons seem like the Waltons — that previously was banned from the network for being offensive to Jews.
As part of an hour-long holiday special — in honor of Hanukkah, perhaps? — Fox will air the questionable episode, “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein,” followed by “A Very Special Family Guy Freakin’ Christmas,” featuring members of the 1970s rock band Kiss.
Let’s just call it “Chrismukkah” on crack. The “Weinstein” episode revolves around Peter Griffin — the family guy, a bumbling fool who has a penchant for porn and a tendency to soil his shorts — and his inability to hang on to, or make, money. Once he discovers that his friends have cash thanks to their Jewish stockbrokers and accountants, he decides to kidnap a Jew in order to learn the secrets of the trade. From there, Peter has his “a-ha!” moment: If his idiot slacker son, Chris, converted to Judaism, then he’d become smart, too.
None of this represents a dramatic departure from the usual “Family Guy” repertoire. The show’s creator, Seth MacFarlane, once called himself “an equal-opportunity offender,” and he takes aim at everything — and everyone —from blacks to Native Americans to women to homosexuals to the Irish… you get the idea.
After two seasons, the show was canceled in 2001, but it became a cult hit in syndication on the Cartoon Network, where it was the most-watched program on the network’s “Adult Swim” evening lineup. Last year, Fox took the unusual step of bringing it back, and the show is currently in production for new episodes that will run in 2005.
Fox officials declined to comment about why they okayed the “Weinstein” episode this time around, although a spokesperson indicated that since it aired without incident several times on cable, Fox felt comfortable giving it the green light.
Nonetheless, the episode’s arguably most controversial line was edited to make “Weinstein” network-worthy. The lyrics of Peter’s wistful paean, “I Need a Jew,” were changed from “Hebrew people I’ve adored/Even though they killed my Lord,” to “I don’t think they killed my Lord.”
As in Jewish tradition, oftentimes it’s the commentary that proves more enlightening than the initial subject matter. On the “Family Guy” Volume Two box set — itself an enormous hit that likely prompted Fox to rethink the series’ cancellation — a special bonus feature is the “Weinstein” episode, with commentary from various crew members, including writer Ricky Blitt and director Dan Povenmire.
Comparing Peter Griffin to a classic television ignoramus, Archie Bunker, the show’s creators lambasted Fox for yanking it. “There’s a few people at business affairs at Fox who should be absolutely ashamed of themselves,” one said.
“I found it offensive we could make fun of every ethnic group but one,” another said.
Which brings us to the “o” word. Is this episode of “Family Guy” particularly offensive?
Early on in the episode, it seems the show’s writers attempted to diffuse the touchy subject at hand with humor. Once Peter discovers the “Jewish” “secret,” he feigns horror. “There’s edgy, and there’s offensive,” Peter says.
True enough, but there’s also insipid and pointless. Of the minefield of opportunities to poke fun at Jews and Jewish stereotypes, the “Family Guy” folks limit the scope almost entirely to Jews and money. It doesn’t quite work because, as we know, not every Jewish person is good with money — some just happen to be successful doctors and lawyers.
That doesn’t mean the show doesn’t generate a laugh or two.
“Thanks for letting me use the phone!” accountant (and hapless victim) Max Weinstein says.
“Thanks for ‘Spaceballs’!” Peter replies.
And though, on the DVD, the creators take pains to note that 70% of the show’s writers are Jewish, parts of the episode smack of ignorance. During Peter’s song, a giant dreidel descends from the sky and he hops on board. But something’s amiss: There’s nary a real Hebrew letter on the dreidel, just vaguely Hebraic-looking numbers and symbols. Why not go authentic here? And if we’re going with the Hanukkah theme, why does the giant menorah in the sky only have seven candles?
Perhaps “Weinstein” could have worked — and maybe even gotten past Fox’s censors — had it felt more like inside humor than like a tired, one-joke pony that misses many opportunities for satire. Sure, Peter’s an idiot and a lot of the so-called “offensive” humor comes at his expense, but why not take this opportunity to send up all Jewish stereotypes as well as to skewer those very people who propagate them?
Indeed, watching this made me yearn for the insider humor of “Seinfeld”— itself a target of flat humor on “Family Guy.” I was reminded of the classic episode “The Yada Yada”— which hilariously takes on racists, antisemites and, of course, anti-dentites — in which Jerry thinks his dentist has converted to Judaism simply to make Jewish jokes. Perturbed, he decides to go to confession and tell a priest about what the dentist has done.
“Does this offend you as a Jewish person?” the priest asks.
“No,” Jerry replies, “it offends me as a comedian.”
Therein lies the problem with “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein”: While not necessarily demeaning to Jews, it’s too vapid to be funny. And that’s truly offensive.
Lisa Keys is a staff reporter for the New York Post.