In January 2012, Dave Itzkoff profiled Ricky Gervais for The New York Times and made a point that has stuck in my head ever since. Of Gervais’ penchant for oh-so-naughty and yet somehow weirdly pedestrian awards-show shtick (my evaluation, by the way, not his), Itzkoff said that Gervais’ “current comedic formula” was to rely on things that “will reliably offend some portion of its viewership, or at least titillate them with the idea that somewhere else, someone is being offended.”
That’s the reasoning behind the Fox ads promoting Dads, which premieres Tuesday night. (Short version: Giovanni Ribisi and Seth Green as two guys who run a videogame company and deal with their embarrassing dads, played by Martin Mull and Peter Riegert.)
The Fox promo crows about the reviews that point out that the show is kinda racist (it’s also kinda sexist, though that’s gotten considerably less play). And the reason Fox is pushing that angle is that that’s all there is. There’s genuinely no reason to watch this show other than to be titillated with the idea that you’re watching something naughty that offends other people. The seductive pitch here is that other people are stodgy and lame, but that you, however, are so cool, so modern, so down, so unsafe, so bad-ass, so beyond political correctness that you will look at two white dudes making their Asian employee do a “sexy Asian schoolgirl” routine and think, “See, I can take it. Why? Because I’m pretty edgy. I’m pretty alternative.”
Honestly, if you don’t think of it as controversial, Dads is just recycled from a gazillion other shows about how funny it is when old people walk around naked, use the bathroom, or otherwise act embarrassing. If it weren’t attached to Seth MacFarlane’s name as executive producer and it didn’t have jokes about Asians and Jews and Latinas and you saw it out of context, you’d assume it was a tentative foray into comedy by some obscure, underfunded basic cable channel that’s never made scripted television before. Or maybe a basic cable channel run by a sturdy consumer brand without an actual creative arm.
The non-racist version of Dads, relying on the actual quality of the jokes, would be what you’d expect to see from, say, the first comedy produced in-house by Frito-Lay, where the sons and the dads solve their problems over a big bag of Tostitos.
So if you don’t want to fret over the idea that Dads is offensive, then don’t. But do me a favor: don’t give it extra points for the fact that other people think it’s offensive. Don’t tee-hee over putting one over on people who don’t like racist jokes. If you don’t want to avoid it because of how it treats Asians, Latinas, Jews, or Puerto Ricans, then don’t watch it for that reason. Walk up to it with no preconceived notions, don’t assume watching it is a rebellious act, and see whether the jokes are of the quality you expect from the things on which you spend your time.
(Spoiler alert: they are not.)