One of the main things that distinguishes Family Guy from its close cousin The Simpsons is the pop culture references. The Simpsons has pop culture references, too, but not a ridiculous amount. There are some scenes in The Simpsons that don’t include some sort of joke about a TV commercial or an homage to a scene in a movie. However, this is not the case for Family Guy. Without intertextual references, Family Guy would be nothing. Its episodes would be virtually non-existent if you took out all the pop culture references. There are some truly phenomenal movie parodies in Family Guy. Here are the 10 greatest!
10. Animal House
Trust Family Guy to find the comedy in pedophilia. The character of Herbert is a lovable pedophile. Can you imagine any other show ever having the balls to create a character with that description? There’s a lot of great gags involving Herbert. Remember that episode “Petergeist” that parodied Poltergeist? Herbert had a great moment in that where he attacked the tree monster to protect Chris, the love of his life, and a parody of Poltergeist turned into a parody of The Lord of the Rings. That was a great moment, both for the character and for the movie parodies, but the best movie parody in Family Guy to involve Herbert is this reference to Animal House. John Belushi spying on a topless, undressing woman through her window (seriously, that movie would not fly during the #MeToo movement) is replaced by Herbert spying on a topless Chris through the Griffins’ bathroom window. This is a prime example of the Family Guy animation team getting a shot for shot remake of an iconic movie scene spot on – and a prime example of the writers reappropriating a classic movie moment for their own characters and fictional universe. It’s a lot smarter than it seems.
9. Office Space
It’s hard to spoof a movie that’s already a hilarious comedy in its own right. Spoofs are usually reserved for movies that take themselves seriously and have no right to (Michael Bay’s movies, for example). But Family Guy made an exception to that rule in order to give us a scene that is less a parody and more an affectionate homage. In Office Space, the bored office employees that make up the main characters get so sick of the copier machine at work that they drag it out into a field and smash the hell out of it with a baseball bat set to the Geto Boys’ aggressive rap track “Still.” In Family Guy, when Peter becomes obsessed with the song “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen (better known for its line “bird is the word”), it drives everyone crazy – in particular, it drives Brian and Stewie crazy, who become so sick of the song that they steal Peter’s vinyl record copy of the song and take it out into a field to destroy it. This scene has the same color grading, same camera angles, and same Geto Boys song as the scene from Office Space, and it is – as Peter Griffin would say – freakin’ sweet.
8. North by Northwest
“North by North Quahog” is a special episode of Family Guy. It was a turning point in the show’s history, since it was the first episode after Fox cancelled the show and then brought it back a few years later. The show had gained some extra popularity in its reruns on Adult Swim, so when it came back, there was a lot of pressure riding on it. There was a whole new fan base now, and the show had been off the air for about three years. But thankfully, “North by North Quahog” was great! It was a fine return to form for the show. In fact, it was better than ever. The episode had satirical jokes about elitist society and racism and the Catholic Church, as well as great references to movies like The Blues Brothers and The Passion of the Christ – and, of course, North by Northwest. The scene where the plane flies down towards Cary Grant is recreated perfectly here to hilarious effect. Plus, the climactic scene on Mount Rushmore is not taken shot for shot from the climactic scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal spy thriller, but it does refer back to it and that does add to its entertainment value.
7. Rocky IV
Pop culture references form the very foundation that Family Guy is built on. Many TV critics see this as a bad thing and it’s one of the focal points of their negative critiques of the show. But it’s not all bad. Some of those movie parodies are there to serve a purpose. Their original meaning or the feeling that those camera shots and lines of dialogue evoke have been reappropriated for the story that Family Guy is telling. It’s an utterly postmodern show in that regard. And if it’s a cutaway gag that has nothing to do with the plot of the episode, then it’ll serve a different purpose – maybe it’ll point out a plot hole in one of your favorite movies or reveal a dark hidden secret about a beloved character or show us what would happen if two classic movies crossed over with each other. However, sometimes it will form a part of the plot and serve absolutely no purpose, like this recreation of the unintentionally comedic training montage from Rocky IV, which Brian launches into when he should be studying for a big exam – only to realize that when the exam is just a short while away. It serves no purpose, really, but it is funny, and that makes it worth it.
Family Guy likes to make light of American slavery, but it never shies away from a touchy topic and that’s one of the touchiest topics of all time. There was the cutaway scene on the slave ship in one episode where the sailor tells the complaining slaves, “I will turn this ship around!” and they agree that that’d be a good idea. There’s also this scene, which takes a prank from the summer camp comedy movie, Meatballs, which is harmless fun, and implements in onto a slave ship. By using the soundtrack song “Are You Ready for the Summer” by the North Star Camp Kids Chorus and having the slaves send the captain of the ship floating out into the middle of the ocean in his sleep, the combination of Meatballs and American slavery is absurdly tasteless and inappropriate – but it is so darn funny! It’s just one of the many tasteless jokes in this episode, in which Peter chronicles the family history of the Griffins, including a silent movie star who can’t transition into the talkies and Peter Hitler, the annoying brother of the infamous Nazi leader. But the Meatballs parody on the slave ship is by far the funniest.
Some of the best movie parodies will draw together two different targets that have very little in common apart from one connecting thread and show what would happen if they were to cross over with one another. Ghost and Ghostbusters have nothing in common aside from the fact that the plots of both movies involve ghosts in some way. Ghost is a sad, quiet, contemplative drama about a dead guy who returns as a ghost to find the love of his life and make pottery with her. Ghostbusters is about some regular guys who set out to prove themselves as heroes by ridding New York City of all the ghosts that are terrorizing it. In Family Guy, they combine these two movies by having Peter, dressed as a ghostbuster with a proton pack strapped to his back, burst in during the pottery scene from Ghost – arguably one of the most heartfelt and romantic scenes in movie history – and suck Patrick Swayze into his Muon trap. This kind of parody is brilliant. It combines the cinematic icons that are the ghostbusters’ uniforms and proton packs with one of the most memorable moments in film history and undermines them both. How hilarious!
4. Back to the Future
A lot of the movie parody jokes in Family Guy seem to come from conversations where the writers sit around and discussion the elements of movies that require you to suspend your disbelief. In the case of Back to the Future, this is the idea that a teenage boy and an old man would hang out together. Then the writers unsuspend that disbelief and see what would happen. That’s where a lot of their best gags come from. In this case, it’s the idea that the progressive Marty McFly of the ‘80s might have values that class with an old man from the ‘50s. So, they pivot this around an iconic moment from the movie – the moment at which Doc tells Marty, “Something’s gotta be done about your kids!” This is where the humor comes into play. Doc is horrified that Marty’s white daughter is married to a black man, but this doesn’t bother Marty. Then he realizes that maybe he shouldn’t be hanging around with this old guy anymore. This is a perfect parody. It has deconstructed the movie’s premise, figured out what’s wrong with it, and poked fun at that through the lens of a famous scene. Classic!
3. Stand By Me
The Family Guy episode “Three Kings” was a novel idea (no pun intended). They did three different adaptations of Stephen King stories – Stand By Me, Misery, and The Shawshank Redemption. While they were all great parodies with some very funny moments, Stand By Me was by far the best. The focus on four friends ribbing each other and bickering about various subjects was a perfect fit for Peter, Cleveland, Quagmire, and Joe – plus, having Adam West play the Kiefer Sutherland bully was a stroke of genius. The spoof did hilarious plays on the Richard Dreyfuss voiceover narration and framing device, the slow motion train sequence (“Train!…’Nother train!”), and the explanations at the end about what happened to everyone, which Peter changes to reflect what happened to all the kid actors in the years after the film’s release. There’s also some great historical satire about the 1950s setting with a spoof of the musical style of the time (“Piano Riff, Woo!”) and how Cleveland is treated in a particularly racist period of American history. Since Stand By Me is such a beautiful and hugely beloved movie, it hasn’t left much room for parody – but Family Guy managed to sniff it out.
Family Guy can’t resist any opportunity to do a musical number in the style of the classic movie musicals from the mid-20th century. They also can’t resist going for the most controversial and taboo points of something that most people tend to ignore and making fun of them. For example, since everybody loves the fun, harmless, family friendly movies of Walt Disney, they’re all generally happy to ignore the fact that he was a rabid anti-Semite and a Nazi sympathizer. But these are the facts. In “Road to the Multiverse,” when Stewie and Brian are traveling through the infinite possible versions of reality (and this was way before Rick and Morty did the exact same thing, too), they stumble across a universe that is animated and musically scored like a Disney movie. So, first comes the Disney-style musical number that the Family Guy team must’ve been dying to do, “It’s a Wonderful Day for Pie.” Then comes the entrance of Mort Goldman, when things turn sinister. Every character immediately turns on the Jewish character in a vicious manner and Stewie and Brian decide to leave. A wonderful day for pie? It’s a wonderful day for a satirical takedown of a Nazi, too!
1. Star Wars trilogy
Family Guy probably had enough one-off Star Wars jokes and Star Wars-related cutaway gags to fill an entire hour long special episode before they decided to just that. It was some stroke of genius to do a sort of homage/spoof remake of the original movie, A New Hope, that followed the basic plot and cast Family Guy characters in all of the roles. And after “Blue Harvest” was such a big hit, it seemed like a no brainer to complete the trilogy with “Something Something Something Dark Side” parodying The Empire Strikes Back and “It’s a Trap!” parodying Return of the Jedi. By the third one, the jokes had become a little lazy and uninspired, but on the whole, as a trilogy, it has some scathing points to make about the coherence and logic of the Star Wars movies. There’s also some great outside intertextual references, like the Doctor Who thing when they go into hyperspace or Herbert’s Obi-Wan singing a Dirty Dancing tribute to Chris’ Luke. Some of the jokes rely on deep knowledge of the Star Wars trilogy on the audience’s part, like the line “Don’t get penis-y,” but that’s what makes it so great. It’s a Star Wars parody made by Star Wars nerds for Star Wars nerds! So, all things considered, the three Star Wars specials – dubbed retroactively as the “Laugh It Up, Fuzzball!” trilogy – make up the greatest movie parody in Family Guy history.