Sorry, 'Dads': Racism Isn't Funny with a Laugh Track
Sorry, Family Guy and Ted fans: It seems Seth MacFarlane can do wrong. His new show, Dads, which he co-created alongside two of his go-to writers, is getting panned by critics, a month before the first episode even airs. Detractors are taking issue with the show's supposed overacting and crass dialogue, calling it "horrifically unfunny" and "irritating to watch." Those criticisms, though, are minor flaws when compared to the main issue with Dads: its allegedly overt, unapologetic racism.
Dads centers around two guys (Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi) whose fathers move in with them. The premise is made a thousand times worse by jokes that consist largely of racist ribs targeting Asian-Americans. Dialogue and plotlines pertaining to Asian stereotypes are abundant, including, but certainly not limited to, actress Brenda Song dressing up as a "sexy Asian schoolgirl," the term "Orientals" being used, and references to someone's "tiny Asian penis." Following word of Dads' script, Asian-American advocacy group asked Fox to reshoot some of its most offensive scenes from the show's pilot episode, but the network refused, saying that "this is a show that will be evocative and will poke fun at stereotypes and bigotries — sometimes through over-the-top, ridiculous situations... that said, we do recognize comedy is subjective, and we may not be able to please everyone, all the time."
Of course, there's a huge difference between controversial comedy and outright racism. Dads appears to cross the line spectacularly, eliciting such outrage from critics that it seems poised to follow in the high-heeled steps of Work It, a cross-dressing comedy that came under fire for its un-PC premise. Yet even more than the critical reaction, the show's main obstacle to overcome is itself — its multi-camera format and laugh track set it up for failure long before anyone even saw the pilot episode.
Laugh-track shows have a much harder time doing "untraditional" comedy, due to their tendency to be placed in lighthearted, controversy-free sitcoms. They force the audience to acknowledge that a joke is supposed to be funny, and so when viewers don't react to a joke the way the laugh track intends for them to, it's especially noticeable. There's no room for less-than-traditional humor on laugh track shows, because those jokes have the potential to fail.
Shows without laugh tracks, though, have much more wiggle room for comedy. They can experiment with sarcasm, satire, and purposely exaggerated humor, because if the jokes don't resonate with audiences, there's no laugh track saying, "Um, you were supposed to laugh." The jokes that do hit are all the more effective, because they don't feel forced. The Office, for example, excelled at cringe-worthy comedy, since its lack of a laugh track made it feel self-aware — it allowed the audience to decide whether to laugh or cringe at some of Michael Scott's more controversial thoughts. The same idea goes for animated shows like Family Guy or South Park, which are given much more opportunity to experiment — how can viewers take risqué and violent jokes seriously when they're accompanied by goofy cartoons?
Yet live-action shows, which bring the drama back down to a supposedly relatable earth, don't get the same leeway, and for good reason. A racist joke in Dads or 2 Broke Girls, another CBS show that has fielded criticism for prejudiced language, has one purpose only: to make viewers laugh, for better or for worse. There's rarely a place for satire or the type of exaggerated offensiveness that The Office trademarked, because, these shows don't allow viewers the option of choosing what to find funny, and when.
That's not to say that Dads would succeed if it didn't have a laugh track, or that it won't succeed regardless of the controversy. (Hey, look at 2 Broke Girls.) Still, if it had stuck to the rules of its format instead of trying to "audacious," as Fox entertainment chairman Kevin Reillyand COO Joe Earley called it in an open letter, maybe viewers would've waited at least a few episodes before tearing it to shreds.