About ten years ago, something happened to Family Guy: It fell off. Or, maybe most of us just grew up, got sick of Seth MacFarlane’s schtick, and couldn’t stand to see another cutaway gag or hear Quagmire say “giggity” anymore. The show continued to air, as juvenile and politically insensitive as ever, but nobody talked much about it. Just acknowledging its existence became a faux pas, the type of confession that branded you as the sort of manchild still obsessed with Dane Cook and trying to “trigger” people.
According to Google Trends, Family Guy experienced its highest popularity between 2007 and 2014 before dipping precipitously to a low point where it remained for the last near-decade. Last spring, though, something changed. Searches rose, and today interest in the show is now as high as its been since January 2015. And lots of people have been watching: It’s the 8th-most watched show across platforms as of December 2022, according to TelevisionStats. All that watching—paired with the repetitive nature of the meme cycle on social media—has translated into one thing: Family Guy is culturally relevant again, immaturity be damned.
It might be because of the memes. Two prominent ones making the rounds are clips from 2009, a two-minute rant from Quagmire explaining why he hates Brian in Season 8, Episode 7, and a 12-second bit of Lois saying, “Peter, the horse is here” from Season 7, Episode 8. They’re pretty standard Family Guy fare: Meg being cringe, Peter being generally incompetent. But on Twitter and Instagram, those cutaway gags and quick bits fit right in, still totally digestible without any context as one-minute swipeable clips.
TikTok is a little weirder. Videos of these scenes and others sharing a split-screen with mobile gameplay from apps like Subway Surfers have become a joke format of their own. Dozens of them have several million views. The split-screen is likely a riff on our flattened attention spans and our inability to focus on even a single moment of television for more than 30 seconds—and surely there are many who enjoy these TikToks for that precise reason. Either way, the immaturity of it all is part of the joke.
The show’s 21st season is currently airing, and contemporary bits have made it into the dialogue, too. In November, Elon Musk shared a meme of Lois staring at a bottle of pills in temptation, representing Donald Trump trying to avoid using his reinstated Twitter account. This image originated in last year’s Season 20, Episode 16. Over the weekend, another 2022 clip of Stewie lamenting wokeness and non-binary identities made rounds on Twitter, with some debate about whether we’re supposed to interpret Stewie as sanctimonious or some sort of voice of reason.
It’s unclear whether these recent episodes have objectively improved in quality or whether we’ve just warmed back up to it after a decent break—even just a break from its creator, Seth MacFarlane. He hasn’t been much in the spotlight since his tepid hosting of the Academy Awards in 2013 or the Ted movies of 2012 and 2015. But back then, he was ubiquitous to the point, perhaps, that it is he we grew sick of, not Family Guy. While he still voices a significant proportion of the show, it all feels less dominated by his presence and style. In the new episodes, the humor is no more refined than it once was, but it relies less on those cutaway gags and more on jokes incorporating its characters. Imbued in everything is a good deal more self-awareness—of the show itself and the absurdity of the fact that, somehow, people are still watching after 24 years.
Still, much of the Family Guy content we’re witnessing in pop culture doesn’t seem at all correlated to any sort of united shift in the public’s perception of the show. Instead, there’s an overtly meta quality to it, taking on much of the same tone as the type of meme one of your classmates in 8th grade might have once shared on Facebook or the T-shirt his mom might have bought him from JCPenney. It’s as simple as showing Stewie with the line, “What the deuce?” In other words, the mere reference to Family Guy and its characters has become vaguely funny once more.
Maybe it’s just a product of our allegiance to nostalgia-driven trends. These memes are popular not only ironically but because they remind us of an era that’s practically vintage now. Y2K had its moment, and now we’re revisiting the late 00s through indie sleaze and Lady Gaga’s 2009 VMAs performance. And perhaps for some, Family Guy is even a refreshing 22 minutes of decidedly unwoke yet still lightly topical content. Above all, though, the show is just easy. It’s reliable. It never tries too hard. It’s fun to return to the stupidity of the humor we found funny when we were teenagers, the only goal of which is to make as wide a swath of people laugh as possible. Aren’t we, dare I say it, lucky there’s a Family Guy?