The cartoon television show Family Guy is known for its dry, offensive, and often over-the-top humor. No subject is off limits for the show’s creator, Seth MacFarlane, not even the case of Terri Schiavo. Around the time of the five-year anniversary of Schiavo’s death, Family Guy aired an episode in which a kindergarten class was exhibiting its annual production of “Terri Schiavo: The Musical.” Before the performance, one of the main characters in the audience makes a comment asking if it is still too soon to have a musical about the controversial case. The show starts with just the noise of all the machinery maintaining Schiavo’s body, which eventually becomes the music for the song. In the scene Schiavo is often called a vegetable, with jokes being made about a machine “dispensing gravy for her mashed potato brains” and stating that she’s “the most expensive plant you’ll ever see.” The children playing pro-life supporters sing the chorus “Terri Schiavo is kind-of alive-o.”
Understandably, the Schindlers, Schiavo’s family, were very upset by the episode. “I wish the producers could have seen (my mother’s) reaction,” said Bobby Schindler, Schiavo’s brother. “It rips your heart out. It really shouldn’t matter what side you’re on regarding my sister. Something like this should offend anyone.”
While there is no denying that this episode is extremely offensive, it is also making a political statement. By exaggerating the amount of medical technology required to maintain Schiavo’s body, MacFarlane shows how low he feels the quality of life is for someone in a persistent vegetative state and how vital the brain’s role is in determining life. MacFarlane takes a very serious and highly contested situation and uses humor in an attempt to show how ridiculous he thinks it is to keep someone on life support when they have been diagnosed as brain dead. His use of humor also seems to eliminate the gray areas in this debate and leaves us with a black and white picture of what he thinks is right: brain death is ultimate death and it is not only constitutional but also ethically responsible to remove life support. The ridiculous notion of a musical about the Terri Schiavo case shows how ridiculous MacFarlane believed the situation to be in the first place.
It was not simply the episode that was offensive, but also the timing. By airing the show so close to the fifth anniversary of Schiavo’s death, the episode was addressing a very sensitive subject at its most sensitive time. In posing the question at the beginning of the scene as to whether or not it was too soon to produce this musical, another question is raised: when is it appropriate to joke about upsetting, controversial topics?
To see the video go to http://www.mrctv.org/videos/family-guy-stages-terri-schiavo-musical
To read an article on the Schindler’s reaction go to http://www.tampabay.com/features/media/terri-schiavos-family-is-upset-over-family-guy-parody/1082648