Can a TV show joke about 9/11 and get away with it?
Fox’s “Family Guy” put that question to the test Sunday night in an episode in which the 9/11 terrorist attacks were the focus of the show’s comedy. Titled “Back to the Pilot,” it was a fanciful episode about time travel that explored the age-old, sci-fi question about whether one can change what happens in the future by going back to the past and making a few, seemingly harmless tweaks.
Specifically, baby Stewie and the talking family dog, Brian, traveled back to Jan. 31, 1999, which happens to be the date “Family Guy” first premiered on Fox, following Super Bowl XXXIII.
The reason they did this was to find an old tennis ball Brian had buried, but in the process, they wound up changing the course of history. Among other things, Brian prevented the 9/11 attacks, but instead of that act making the world a better place, it actually led to events that were far worse, as Stewie showed Brian later.
The result was: At one point in the show, after Stewie and Brian went back in time and fixed what they’d done, they had a hearty high-five together over the fact that they weren’t preventing 9/11. It’s that kind of “comedy” that has some people scratching their heads today.
There was even a line in the show that tried to derive comedy from the death in Afghanistan of hero Pat Tillman — the football star-turned Army Ranger who was killed by “friendly fire” in 2004.
The line about Tillman came in a TV newscast the Griffins were watching in the altered “future” a short time after 9/11 didn’t happen. “Coming up next in sports,” said the TV anchorman. “Arizona Cardinal Pat Tillman — tackled by his own team?” (To explain: In this altered future, Tillman never quit football to fight in Afghanistan because the war there never happened because no 9/11 attacks ever took place.)
The episode resulted in more commentary than usual on the morning after. The Washington Post pointed out series creator Seth MacFarlane’s own 9/11 experience: According to this column, MacFarlane was due to fly on one of the planes out of Boston that crashed into the World Trade Center on that fateful date. “The episode of ‘Family Guy’ . . . was a dark reminder that had Fox’s future multimillionaire creator-producer made it to the Boston airport minutes earlier, he wouldn’t be among us to lampoon those very events.”
Another commentator — here — felt that it is indeed “still too soon” to joke about 9/11. That, of course, seemed to us to be the whole point of the episode — to test the “too soon” question.
Our take: It’s a question Seth MacFarlane knows well because it is one that is asked frequently — half seriously and half in jest — in the community of comedians in which he lives and works. Occasionally, the subject of 9/11 does come up in comedians’ routines; we’ve heard them during the Comedy Central roasts on which MacFarlane himself often serves as emcee. And whenever such a joke arises, fellow comedians, usually led by Jeff Ross, can be heard cat-calling “Too soon! Too soon!”
We have a feeling the “too soon” question was at least part of MacFarlane’s inspiration (along with his own 9/11 history) for this episode’s plot line.