Futurama vs. Family Guy: Who Pulled Off The Best Simpsons Crossover?
No matter who wins, viewers lost.
Yesterday saw the modern animation of the G-20 summit: The Simpsons finally crossed over with its spiritual sibling Futurama. It came only a month after The Simpsons appeared on Family Guy, which is probably some sort of cousin connected purely through marriage. It’s a complicated family tree.
So how much of this is art and how much is corporate synergy? Can you even have corporate synergy with a long-cancelled show like Futurama? Most importantly, which of the competing Simpsons crossovers worked better? We will attempt to answer that question, and it’s not as easy as you might think.
Nick Hornby once said that The Beatles were influenced by everything from music hall to The Goon Show to surrealism, whereas Oasis was influenced by The Beatles. That comparison always jumps to mind when I think of The Simpsons and Family Guy: The Simpsons will reference Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison concert, Garrison Keillor, Glenn Gould, and any number of artists or political figures from throughout history; Family Guy’s scope of reference seems to be things they saw on The Simpsons.
And yet, the deck seems stacked in Family Guy’s favour. It’s perceived as being more “with it” than The Simpsons, and it’s sure as hell more popular than Futurama. Surely this behemoth would win the bout, right? Let’s tally it up.
Mixing The Worlds
Family Guy: Despite the obvious and possibly actionable similarities, the humour of the two shows is actually not that close. As a result, the aggressively pop cultured/gross-out Family Guy style of joke feel completely out of place in Springfield. That said, they’re both contemporary American families, so it feels way more natural for them to happen across one another’s worlds.
Futurama: Given they share a creator and a whole slew of writers and directors, it’s not surprising tha the humour of these two shows is a much better fit. But with Futurama set a thousand years in the future, just how natural is the merge? The Simpsons has actually been moving away in recent years from its once-clear delineation between fantasy in reality. Flash-forwards were always handled carefully, and the extreme fantasy of Treehouse of Horrors Halloween specials were definitely outside the canon. But they’ve drifted away from this, with episodes such as Future-Drama, Days of Future Future and the upcoming The Man Who Came To Be Dinner making science fiction plots an established part of the Simpsons canon.
Self-Conscious Crossover References
Family Guy: The episode opens with the Griffins watching a Modern Family/All in the Family crossover, and Chris labours a point about how organic and natural it is. No points here, because it’s the exact same joke The Simpsons did years ago when it crossed over with The Critic, and Bart was watching a Flintstones/Jetsons crossover. Is it deliberately that meta? I doubt it.
Futurama: Perhaps due to the fact that it has half the running of the Family Guy crossover, the Futurama episode features surprisingly few gags about the crossover itself. There’s a bit of text at the beginning in true Futurama style, but no one seems too self-conscious about the merging of these two worlds.
Advantage: Family Guy
Jokes About Ripping Off The Simpsons
Family Guy: When Homer notices that Peter’s Pawtucket Patriot Ale is just a rip-off of Duff Beer, the two get into a subtextual debate about inspiration vs plagiarism. It’s a nice idea, even if the execution is a bit flaccid.
Futurama: Bart and Lisa note that Bender is basically just Homer with an antenna in a scene that is only marginally funnier than this description of it.
Advantage: Family Guy
Family Guy: Asking for a story might seem like a bit of a stretch given compelling plots are hardly a hallmark of any of these shows. But you still need a spine on which to hang the jokes, so it’s important. Family Guy has a one hour (ie: 42 minute) running time, and it has a weird split down the centre, presumably so it can be divided into two parts down the track.
The first half is hung on the idea that the Griffin car has been stolen, and the family is forced to stay in Springfield. The second half features the lawsuit between Duff Beer and Pawntucket Patriot Ale, with Homer inexplicably representing Duff. The lawsuit idea has promise, but it’s dispensed with almost immediately in favour of a long Homer/Peter fight.
Futurama: A Springfield Elementary School time capsule containing Milhouse’s lucky rabbit foot and a sandwich Bart deliberately sneezed into is contaminated by nuclear waste. A thousand years later, mutated rabbits (resembling the rabbits from Matt Groening’s Life In Hell strip) terrorise New New York, forcing the Planet Express Crew to go back in time to kill the Simpson they think is responsible.
Family Guy: Homer and Peter become friends and then enemies. Marge and Lois hang out. Lisa tries to boost Meg’s self-esteem. Bart takes Stewie under his wing. Chris and Brian lose Santa’s Little Helper. It’s all achingly obvious stuff, but a courtroom scene in which nearly every double is paired up is a moderately brave thing for Family Guy to do given it drives home what a total rip the show really is. It only gets extra points for the James Woods gag.
Futurama: It’s pretty much just the Homer/Bender show, with the odd moment between Fry and Bart, and Marge and Leela. The unexpected pairing of Bender and Maggie in the latter half is welcome in its unpredictability.
Family Guy: How can you possibly make an objective judgment on whether something is funny or not given humour is such a subjective thing? Well, you do it like this: this episode ain’t funny. There’s not a single real laugh in the whole running time. Family Guy’s propensity to fall back on sex and violence would be fine if it was actually funny, but it has all the impact of a six year old testing the shock value of various swear words. The apparently-mandatory lengthy fight scene between Peter and Homer is astonishingly tedious. Oh, there’s one moment with a petrol pump that’s almost funny. I will pay that.
Futurama: Look, it really should be funnier than it is. There are a handful of laughs in here, but given the shared writing style of the two shows, and the fact that the Futurama/Star Trek crossover episode was so brilliantly handled, it should have been a tour de force. But it does actually have jokes, so it wins.
Family Guy: Kang and Kodos hang with American Dad’s Roger!
Futurama: Kang and Kodos hang with Futurama’s Lurr!
I wish that it would have been a close contest due to them both being really good, but sadly it’s a close contest because one is okay and the other blows. The real lesson here is that crossovers suck. Or at least, they suck when they come ten or twenty years too late. Let’s call that the Expendables Rule. There is an art to handling crossovers, shared universes and Richard Beltzer cameos, and most of these seem to have been ignored here. Still, we promised a winner, so…