Sunday, May 30, 2010

Cartoon comedy copyrights

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. Everyone has heard this saying. However, it so happens there are only two groups of people who ever use it. The first group is someone consoling a friend/associate whose ideas have been ripped off. The second group is anyone doing the ripping.

This day and age sees many examples of imitation, plagiarism, copying, whatever you want to call it. Some instances are common place and generally accepted. When a movie or tv show is remade, people are usually fine with this. Perhaps the first time didn't live up to expectations and a writer wants another crack at the script. Perhaps the first time was a smashing success and a new director wants to benefit from that.

Other types of 'plagiarism' are only accepted depending on the situation. Copying music beats is an everyday thing in hip hop. People reuse beats from songs of decades past. Mos Def is known for this. He uses old beats from songs as odes or callbacks to artists he listened to. Other times in the music bus, this is frowned upon, such as when Vanilla Ice ripped his background beat to Ice Ice Baby.

The form of imitation I have a problem with today is in the world of cartoon comedy. I know what you're thinking. 'Aren't there worse things than copying the plot to a cartoon?' Well, yes and no. Mostly yes. But it still bothers me. Mostly because the program doing the copying is suddenly more highly thought of than the show getting ripped off.

A kid under the age of 17 probably thinks Family Guy is great and The Simpsons is something people in their 30's used to watch when they were in high school. These statements are both true. But the thought process is wrong. The Simpsons was king, at one time. Family Guy is a very funny show, but I find that, too often, it seems to ride the coat tails of a plot Matt Groening wrote for Simpsons episodes half a decade earlier. In one more recent episode, Groening and the other writers actually alluded to this, making a joke that Peter Griffin was wanted by the police for plagiarism. Now I don't know if they were giving the public what they wanted, or if it actually bothers them. I just know that it seems obvious to me where Seth Macfarlane gets lots of his brilliant Family Guy ideas.

To paint the scene, let me establish that The Simpsons has been running for 23 seasons. That is a lot of cartoon episodes. Family Guy also has passed the 100 episode plateau. Both shows have aired many ideas. There is bound to be some overlap. It just seems like too much to be coincidental.

For starters, both main characters are fat, stupid, alcoholic, married, white, males, whose wives are made out to be 'out of their league.' I guess, with the exception of being drunks, this setup was even done before Homer Simpson. Fred Flintstone fits all those other descriptions; I just don't recall him being a huge drinker. So maybe we can let that one pass. It's a nice gimmick and is easy to ride with/write for.

What about some of the side characters? Well, both shows have a family doctor that they always use. Dr. Hibbert, on The Simpsons, is always laughing, having fun, usually in situations that don't warrant it. The Family Guy doctor, Dr. Hartman, meanwhile, uses lots of shtick and jokes every time Peter goes to see him, even for very serious ailments. Are these different enough to let slide? Perhaps.

So how about we delve into the plot of specific episodes, where the similarities seem almost endless. In 1993, The Simpsons ran an episode where the wife, Marge, developed a gambling problem. Six years later, in 1999, the wife on Family Guy, Lois, is seen in an episode developing a gambling problem.

In a different episode in 1993, The Simpsons again hit jackpot by having witness protection move them to another town because a killer was after their son, Bart. In 2005, Family Guy writers strike similar gold by having the police move the Griffins to another town because, you guessed it, a killer was after their son, Chris.

In 2003, The Simpsons created a plot revolving around the daughter, Lisa, getting a makeover, and being seduced by the glamor. Just two years later, Family Guy ran a similar story where the daughter, Meg, gets a makeover and is seduced by the glamor of it.

There are still more examples of episode imitation. Both husbands ended up building a bar in their house. Homer decided to put his in the garage. Peter used his basement. I guess that was simply due to the architect's designs. Both families had to experience the horror of having their babies taken away by child services. Thank goodness both baby Maggie and little Stewie made it back to their families by episode's end. We even witnessed both show's husbands get a job at their respective Walmart store imitations. Homer was employed by the not-so-cleverly-named Sprawl Mart. Peter Griffin, on the other hand, got his employment check from Superstore USA.

There are many more examples of this in the shows' history. These were just what I could come up with off the top of my head. (Note: 'top of my head' in this case, refers to a handful of days where I was trying to think back on all the times I was watching Family Guy and got an odd feeling the story had been done before.)

But maybe I am making too much of this. Maybe they were all just really good ideas that should be used again. Why let a funny concept go unused? I mean, this isn't even just held to the world of electronic media. Books have been known to copy ideas from prior authors. The peerless J.K. Rowling may have borrowed an idea for her famous dementors from the Barrow-wights of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series. Who knows? The only thing I can be sure of is that Matt Groening's friends must constantly tell him how flattered he should feel.

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