When Fox’s “Family Guy” was announced as one of the seven Emmy comedy series nominees, the primary controversy wasn’t that the show boasted far more child molestation and matricide jokes than typical Emmy-caliber programming. Nor was it over the fact that the show could be so honored after having been twice canceled by its parent network.
It was all because it was a cartoon.
The surprise “Family Guy” nomination marks the first time an animated show has been named in the comedy category since 1961, when “The Flintstones” lost to “The Jack Benny Show.” And the animation community has responded to the breakthrough with a combination of incredulity, resentment and cautious hope for the future.
“I’m always for animated pictures being considered as equals alongside live action,” says animation historian and critic Jerry Beck, “although I wonder, isn’t this besmirching ‘The Simpsons’?”
For most animation fans, the fact that the often divisive “Family Guy” precedes its more laureled antecedent in the category constitutes the biggest shock. Though widely considered among the greatest TV series of all time, “The Simpsons” has never been nominated for a series Emmy outside the animation categories, despite two years of submitting episodes for consideration during the show’s early ’90s heyday.
The series’ creators were often very public with their disappointment, even having a character in the show describe the Emmys as “the biggest sham I ever saw” after a snub.
The trend continued with fellow Fox show “King of the Hill,” which was likewise submitted for comedy consideration and rebuffed, while such critically acclaimed toons as “Futurama” and “South Park” had to make do with noms in the animation categories.
But there’s hope that this year’s nomination could be the one to open the floodgates. And perhaps “The Simpsons” merely broke too early to benefit.
“Sure, you used to have ‘The Flintstones’ and ‘The Jetsons,’ but it wasn’t until post-‘Simpsons’ that there have been so many animated shows around that deserve to be nominated,” says Toronto Star critic Rob Salem, though he nonetheless cautions that the “Family Guy” nomination is “mostly meaningless,” considering the odds stacked against the show actually winning.
“If animation has traditionally been the redheaded stepchild of cinema and visual media, then TV animation has been the redheaded stepchild of animation,” notes animation historian Charles Solomon, underscoring those odds.
There are encouraging signs, however. Unlike the Academy Awards, in which no animated film has been nominated for top honors since the creation of a dedicated animation category in 2001, the Emmys have had an animated category for 30 years, making this year’s breakout perhaps something more of a precedent-setter.
“It’s hard to say what might happen in the future on the basis of one nomination,” Solomon says. “If this is just throwing a bone to one show, then I don’t think that’s good for anyone.
“But it’s always nice to finally be invited to the table, even if your invitation comes a lot later than everyone else’s.”