It is no surprise that Family Guy likes to poke fun at pop culture. When the show premiered in 1999, it was clear that Seth MacFarlane used the animated comedy as his way to laugh at topics ranging from abortion to drugs. The comedy also has many satirical jabs at celebrities from Bill Clinton to Lindsay Lohan Though the main goal is to make viewers laugh at the over the top antics of Peter Griffin and his family, this is not always the case. The sitcom has been sued countless times ranging from copyright infringement to celebrity parodies. Here is a look at the controversial Family Guy episodes that got Seth MacFarlane and company in trouble with the law.
The Carol Burnett Lawsuit, March 2007
It all started on April 23, 2006, when FOX aired an episode of Family Guy entitled “Peterotica.” The episode featured Peter Griffin entering an adult porn shop. Peter announced that he thought the store would be dirty. Quagmire states that the shop is so clean because Carol Burnett is employed there as a part-time janitor. The scene then shifts to show Burnett’s “Charwoman” character dressed in her trademark outfit mopping the floors of the store in front of adult blow-up dolls while an altered version of “Carol’s Theme” plays in the background. As the scene closes, a character can be heard saying, “When she tugged her ear at the end of the show, she was really saying goodnight to her mom.” Quagmire then retorts, “I wonder what she tugged to say goodnight to her dad.”
It would be almost a year before Burnett finally decided to sue Family Guy. In March 2007, the comedienne filed a $2 million lawsuit for copyright infringement against 20th Century FOX. She asserted that the show did not seek permission to use the character she had created decades before. Burnett also alleged that the 18 second scene violated her publicity rights and misappropriation of her name.
Family Guy got the last laugh in this case. After three months of deliberation, the courts ruled in the favor of the network. The U.S. Defensive Judge assigned to the case did agree that the parody did portray Ms. Burnett in a distasteful manner, but the parody is protected by the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech. The judge did acknowledge that many public figures are frequent targets of such crude humor and that the original character that Burnett came up with was by far more creative than anything the minds at Family Guy could ever come up with on their own.
The Bourne Company Music Publishers Lawsuit, October 2007
It would only taken a couple of months before another controversy involving a Family Guy episode would take place. On October 3, 2007, Bourne Company Music Publishers accused the sitcom of copyright infringement based on their song, “When You Wish Upon a Star.” In the Family Guy episode “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein,” Peter Griffin sings a version called, “I Need a Jew.” A sample lyric from the song is: “Though by many they’re abhorred/ Hebrew people I’ve adored.”
The company sued 20th Century FOX because they believe the altered lyrics that went to the tune of the classic song were antisemitic in nature. Others involved in the suit included FOX Broadcasting Company, Cartoon Network, Seth MacFarlane, and composer Walter Murphy. Series creator MacFarlane was not worried when he heard the news. He believed that parody law would once again come to his rescue. In an interview MacFarlane said, “When we get sued, it’s usually because someone is cranky.” The suit requested that the episode not be shown at all or instead be featured with the scene edited out.
Bourne claimed that parody law would not come into play with this case because the show never mentioned the song title “When You Wish Upon a Star,” or that ” I Need a Jew” was a parody of it. This would mean that the sitcom could not be protected under the First Amendment, like it had been with the Carol Burnett case. After a year and a half of deliberation, a United States District Judge ruled in favor of the animated show. This Family Guy episode did not infringe on Bourne’s copyright when the lyrics were altered for comical use.
The Art Metrano Lawsuit, December 2007
They do say that bad things happen in threes. Just a few months after the case involving The Bourne Company Music Publishers came to fruition, Family Guy was sued once again. This time, the animated sitcom was taken to court from what appeared in the direct to DVD episode, “Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story.” The feature portrayed Jesus Christ doing a silly routine with crazy hand gestures while humming a short tune. Magician Art Metrano filed a suit claiming that the gestures that Jesus was doing in the DVD are from his own routine that he performed on The Tonight Show back in the 1970’s. Metrano sued everyone he possibly could from this Family Guy episode including 20th Century FOX, Seth MacFarlane, and Alex Borstein.
This is not the first time that Metrano had sued the show. The star of the Police Academy films sued the broadcasting company in 2000 claiming that they had stolen other material found in his comedy routine. He would later drop this suit. When the suit was filed, TMZ posted a video of Metrano’s act and also the Family Guy scene in question and they do look similar. The real question was if Metrano’s material is legally protected under any law.
Metrano would withdraw the lawsuit in March of 2008. The reason behind this was that Metrano and 20th Century FOX were able to resolve the matter without having to take the issue to court. Or so they thought. In September 2008, Metrano refiled his $2 million suit. Metrano even tried to register his routine with the Copyright Office and they denied the request. In July 2009, the courts rejected the network’s motion for dismissal claiming that the parody did violate Metrano’s work. The case ended up being settled out of court in 2010. It was not disclosed how much money Metrano received from 20th Century FOX.
Thankfully, this would be the last time Family Guy would be sued… for now anyway.
Photo by: FOX