Saturday, February 20, 2010

The continuing saga of the Palins & "Family Guy"

From The NY Times:

“Family Guy,” the Fox animated comedy series, is either irreverent or crass, depending on your tolerance for unmannerly humor. Viewers come for its pop-cultural free associations and flatulence gags, not necessarily to debate pressing issues of the day.

So it is probably the last program that anyone expected to serve as a catalyst for a continuing fight about the depiction of disabled people on television, and whether they are fair game to participate in and be the subjects of satire.

It is a dispute that has drawn in Sarah Palin, the former Republican governor of Alaska and 2008 vice-presidential candidate, who has a son with Down syndrome, and a “Family Guy” voice actress who, like the character she portrayed on the show, also has that disability. Though the two women would seem to be coming from similar perspectives, they have ended up as far apart as possible.

The argument was started by a “Family Guy” episode shown on Sunday night, in which the teenage character Chris woos a classmate named Ellen, who has Down syndrome. During a dinner date, Chris asks Ellen about her family, and she replies, “My dad’s an accountant, and my mom is the former governor of Alaska.”

Though the joke was more or less in keeping with the offend-everyone spirit of “Family Guy” and its 36-year-old creator, Seth MacFarlane, it quickly drew the disapproval of Ms. Palin.

In a message that she posted on Facebook on Monday, Ms. Palin interpreted the gag as a swipe at her son Trig. She wrote that the “Family Guy” episode “felt like another kick in the gut,” and invited her daughter Bristol to comment on the show as well.

In her response, Bristol Palin wrote that “insults directed at our youngest brother hurt too much for us to remain silent. People with special needs face challenges that many of us will never confront, and yet they are some of the kindest and most loving people you’ll ever meet.”

She added, “If the writers of a particularly pathetic cartoon show thought they were being clever in mocking my brother and my family yesterday, they failed. All they proved is that they’re heartless jerks.”

Ms. Palin, who is also a paid contributor to the Fox News Channel, further criticized “Family Guy” as well as her corporate siblings at the Fox network and television studio in a Tuesday appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor.” “What do you say about this Fox Hollywood episode of this cartoon?,” she said. “When are we going to be willing to say, you know, some things just aren’t really funny?”

Mr. MacFarlane said in an e-mail message that “Family Guy” was proud of the way that the Ellen character was portrayed. “She is headstrong, outspoken and, at times, almost domineering,” he wrote. “The fact that she has Down syndrome was deliberately played as a secondary element to her character.”

Ms. Palin has previously clashed with comedians who have ridiculed her and her children. Last year, David Letterman apologized for a joke that Ms. Palin believed was about the athlete Alex Rodriguez impregnating her teenage daughter Willow. (Representatives for Ms. Palin did not reply to requests for comment for this article.)

One person who supports the “Family Guy” staff in this latest debate is Andrea Fay Friedman (pictured), the 39-year-old actress and public speaker who provided the voice of Ellen in that episode.

In an e-mail message sent to The New York Times, Ms. Friedman wrote, “I guess former Governor Palin does not have a sense of humor.” She added that in her family, “we think laughing is good,” and that she was raised by her parents “to have a sense of humor and to live a normal life.”

Ms. Friedman continued, “My mother did not carry me around under her arm like a loaf of French bread the way former Governor Palin carries her son Trig around looking for sympathy and votes.”

In a telephone interview on Thursday, Ms. Friedman, who has also appeared in television shows like “Life Goes On” and “Saving Grace,” said she was perplexed by Ms. Palin’s criticism.

“I’m like, ‘I’m not Trig. This is my life,’ ” Ms. Friedman said. “I was making fun of Sarah Palin, but not her son.”

Gail Williamson, executive director of the Down Syndrome Association of Los Angeles, which, among other services, assists films and television series in casting actors with the disability, and helped Ms. Friedman get hired by “Family Guy,” said it did not matter whether she thought the episode was funny.

“Within ‘Family Guy,’ the character was fully included, well-rounded, dynamic, not dealing with stereotypical Down syndrome issues,” Ms. Williamson said. She added: “Am I a fan of that kind of humor? Eh. It’s beside the point.”

“If we’re asking for full inclusion in the schools and full inclusion in the world,” she said, “ we should appreciate full inclusion with other genres. Even if those genres are not what we appreciate.”

Ms. Friedman agreed that she was not offended by her “Family Guy” character, and that she was happy to be part of the show.

“It’s not really an insult,” she said. “I was doing my role, I’m an actor.” She added, “It was my first time doing a voice-over, and I had fun.”