By now, the cutaway has become a television comedy staple, allowing programs to reveal information, flashback, build on a joke, or direct-address the camera among other options. The cutaway, an abrupt break in continuity editing, (which as mentioned previously here is editing that allows multiple shots to appear as if they are happening continuously on the same spatial and temporal plane) is useful and oft-used in the visual comedy toolkit because it can suddenly subvert the pacing of a scene or add information for a joke or punchline without losing dramatic focus. Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy has positioned itself as the immediate point of reference when discussing the use of the cutaway.
However, Family Guy displays a lack of purpose (and to me, humor) in its use of cutaways that shows a misunderstanding of their function both visually and dramatically in the structure of a sitcom. In fact, there are many modern comedies that serve as a much stronger example of how to use this visual trick as an organic element of a show and as an effective source of visual humor.
Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, a show that employs cutaways in a pace similar to Family Guy but to much greater effect, has been said to be paced and structured like a live-action cartoon because the rules of the world are contained, specific, and flexible to reality in service of the comedy. 30 Rock was edited at a lightning pace so the most affective way to add character details and exposition was through whip pans in and out of the continuity editing.
The above segment does two important things in its implementation of the cutaway: it maintains the reality of the scene and character and holds true weight in the present day. The cutaway informs the reality in a substantive way and gives the scene an extra layer of comedic subtext. What we learn in the cutaway remains true to Liz Lemon’s character forever going forward. It also allows the show to take a joke to a more absurdist place than the “reality” of the show permits, something that is key in Fey’s voice and characters. Since there is a permanence to the reality and the joke, the exposition becomes something to build on and be joked about by other characters, not something that exists out of the diegesis all together.
Perhaps no sitcom has ever been better at building a complex web of inside jokes through cutaways than Arrested Development. Ingrained in the visual structure of the show, the device of the Ron Howard-voiced omniscient narrator makes the flashbacks to feel organic and controlled. The narrator guides the viewer to cutaways, flashbacks, images and clips from media within the world of the show, even graphs and animations to populate and expand the world with as much information as possible. The joy of Arrested Development is the web-like structure and seasons long memory of its palate that rewards the viewer for close-watching. The cutaways serve the expanding universe of the show and provide repetition and backstory. The more we know about the characters, the more rewarding the A-plot of the show becomes.
And there there is Family Guy, a show that fundamentally misunderstands the most effective use the technique and instead uses cutaways to indulge in Seth MacFarlane's ADD referencing machine. A typical Family Guy cutaway functions as such: Character says a line in the vein of, “That was worse than the time…” followed by a cut to a visualization of that reference varying in length, followed by a cut back to reality. This then happens 10 more times each episode. In employing that structure, MacFarlane fails to realize two key things, first that by setting up the joke through dialogue and then indulging the viewer in what is usually the direct visualization of that dialogue, he is giving us exactly what we expect, no more and no less. Second, that by constantly disrupting the plot and pacing with cutaways that admittedly serve no purpose, MacFarlane is giving no weight to any joke or theme.
The trouble with all this is that he is essentially creating a world that has has no perspective, no edge, no philosophy, and no language, which means his world has no consequences. So while he may get a laugh from an obscure reference or an odd visualization here and there, he is pursuing that at the expense of what has worked for all of the aforementioned sitcoms, which is a closeness to the characters emotional realities and the reality of the fictional work as well as desire to see them succeed or fail in each situation they are put in. With the cutaways in Family Guy, MacFarlane isn’t adding information to a set up that will eventually be paid off with a punchline, he merely delivers punchline attempt after punchline attempt without any of the legwork to earn a big laugh.
Not only is this not visually exciting because when you establish an anarchic visual style where any genre can be summoned and carbon-copied upon any referential mention, there is no visual language to the show and therefore no way to comment on the images provided. In Family Guy’s world, all images are created equal which means that the onus is entirely on the viewer to laugh if they “get it” or ignore it if they don’t, knowing that another reference is soon on its way. And by all means, there are laughs to be had in the show but they are the comedic equivalent of your high school buddy saying “My Wife!” in Borat’s accent over and over again, and didn’t get that old quickly?
Family Guy believes it can turn its nose up at criticism because it aims to offend everyone, so anyone who doesn’t like it “can’t take it.” But in fact, the show is so hard to consider critically because it offers no perspective and makes no choices. Creators with any interest in creating subversive, exciting, disruptive work should strive for total control over the dissemination of their words and images. The importance of controlling the visual palette of one’s work when given the opportunity, as seen in 30 Rock, Arrested Development, and most every critically successful program, is sacrosanct in creating a comedic world for the audience to get lost in. By structuring a show around a visual tic that serves as a constant distraction and affects nothing in the world of his show, MacFarlane relinquishes that power as well as his power as a storyteller and an artist.
Brad Becker-Parton is a film person living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter; you'll regret it during Knicks games.