I sympathize with Rowan Kaiser. Really, I do. Because if its season première is any indication, The Cleveland Show is, as the Avocado might say, the pits. See, that was a joke, a simple non-sequitur (and one I swiped from The Muppet Show, too). Non-sequiturs are apparently still the basis of Seth McFarlane’s scattershot and largely unfunny cartoon comedies. I qualified that dismissal by saying, “largely” because there are things that I like about The Cleveland Show and Family Guy. Or more accurately, I laugh every now and then. But mostly I’m confused by the show and McFarlane’s style of humor. The show assumes that it can get away with pandering jokes, one out of six of which hit the mark by my subjective eye, because randomness is apparently inherently funny and subversive.
The ironic register of the jokes in “BFFs” is characteristically off the charts. Episode writer Kirker Butler kicks the episode off with an obnoxious table-setting scene where almost none of the jokes hit their mark. Cleveland Brown complains to his buddies, including stereotypical hick Lester and a talking Bear, that he had a slight fever, which caused him to reflect on who his best friends really were.
Before Cleveland mistakenly posits that Family Guy’s Peter Griffin is his best friend, a number of cast-off jokes are made, including ones about a “mustache camp” and a jokey meta-reference to Peter Griffin as “Animation Domination’s Peter Griffin.” Most of these jokes stink. And yet, I’m surprised at the way that David Lynch’s cameos as the local bartender still work. He’s used sparingly in “BFFs.” Which is to say that he’s barely there (I chuckled in spite of myself when Lynch says that Peter doesn’t care for the Jews). In McFarlane’s world, that’s as subtle and consistent as one can hope for.
At the same time, the fact that David Lynch can just saunter through an episode of The Cleveland Show without remark is also a sign of what’s wrong with McFarlane’s comedy. McFarlane and company are encouraging viewers to laugh at the fact that they’re smarter than the formulaic sitcom tropes that they constantly use. These jokes aren’t just nonsensically surreal; they’re patronizing in their, “Look at me, I’m armed with a small bit of insight as to how cliched pop culture is and am going to swing it about like a club.” I don’t care who you are; that kind of condescension makes for lazy joke-writing, plain and simple.
Take the crack that Stewie makes about how Cleveland’s show must have been canceled or when Donna, Cleveland’s second wife, makes a point about how no cartoon wife has friends of her own. These meta-textual jokes don’t earn their laughs because they’re basically just prodding you in the ribs and making fun of a defunct, fuddy-duddy way of thinking without providing a viable alternative. It’s irony for irony’s sake, and as funny as that can be in small doses, like when pro wrestler Ric Flair jokes about the three things he knows about, it grows tiresome when its pointlessness is rubbed in your face as much as it is on McFarlane shows.
More importantly, “BFFs” does try to show that The Cleveland Show has standards and, like The Simpsons before it, its own warped kind of family values. Butler fails to do that, however, because he doesn’t know how to be even a smart-ass version of sincere. In the show’s main plot, Cleveland takes his bar buddies on a camping trip that inevitably ends with them being taken hostage by hicks. Everyone knows Deliverance, even if many people don’t seem to recognize that it was more about the barbarity of city-slicking monsters than it was about evil hicks. So Butler mercilessly runs that joke into the ground, making his rape-obsessed hicks concerned about appearing racist in front of Cleveland.
This storyline wraps up with Cleveland and his local friends being rescued by Peter and the Evil Monkey, the mascot for McFarlane’s style of dissatisfying non-sequitur humor. Peter explains to Cleveland that a psychologist explained to him that he had daddy issues and that he was just taking it out on Cleveland. This illogical resolution not only makes no sense, but it’s proud about being stupid and obnoxious, too. It assumes that making a dickish character like Peter rescue Cleveland for an understandable reason is a stupid idea. But Butler can’t think of any other way for Peter and Cleveland to return to their status quo of being, uh, BFFs. So he makes a lame joke that doesn’t stick and is too smug for its own good. And voila, the episode’s main plot is insubstantially resolved!
The show’s subplot with Donna and Cleveland Jr. isn’t any more satisfying. Donna insists that Cleveland Jr. participate in the Junior Quizbowl, an event designed by catty mothers that have forced their infant children to learn useless trivia for the sake of making themselves looking good. Donna makes Cleveland Jr. participate, “Because mama never got her mama’s approval, and now she seeks it from every woman she meets.” This joke wouldn’t seem as noxious as it does if Cleveland Jr. and Donna eventually bonded over the fact that they are different than the other boys and their mothers. They kind of do, but only after Cleveland Jr. delivers an idiotic and incoherent speech about what he knows, a speech that ends with, “And I know how to treat a lady.” Butler doesn’t even have the guts to make this declaration of sincere feeling, y’know, actually sincere.
More than anything else, “BFFs” shows that The Cleveland Show is still a basically stupid show written by hack comedy writers that are better at driving a joke into the ground than they are at making one work. The fact that I was sick of Ric Flair by the end of his second scene should tell you something about how poor Butler’s joke-writing is (“Put on your wigs and have fun in your canooooes” is especially cringe-worthy). If you enjoy The Cleveland Show, more power to you. But make no mistake—this show still ain’t no good.