Why ‘F is for Family’ is Funny

A study of the racial humor contained in one of America’s most compelling family sitcoms

Art Tavana
Jun 19, 2020 · 16 min read
Center: Frank Murphy of “F is for Family” (Image by Art Tavana)

Every character in F is for Family occupies a room inside America’s tragicomic psych ward of gap-toothed bullies, racist pancake houses, chauvinistic action stars, and dads with enough emotional baggage to crash airplanes.

The result is absurdist humor that studies the sewage that once spewed across suburbia’s fumigated landscape. Like one of its progenitors, Married… With Children, F is for Family’s audacious willingness to turn trauma into satire produces the effect of looking at the funny pages during Bible study, or recalling your abusive father living vicariously through the faux-mojo of action TV stars.

This sort of colorful incongruity flickers throughout every episode of F is for Family.

The masculine fantasy in F is for Family is Colt Luger, an outlandish caricature of ’70s Robert Mitchum blended with all the right-wing propaganda of Dragnet’s “Blue Boy” episode. Like a pudgy, wheezing John Wayne abusing rippled Apache warriors in Hondo (1953), Al Bundy’s favorite flick, Colt Luger is the American dad’s wish-fulfillment vehicle—the person they want their son to be—which has eroded over the years into a laughably chauvinistic punchline: “Sometimes a man’s gotta do, what a man does,” he gruffly tells the feminists and hoodlums he manhandles with a combination of showbiz kung-fu and husky, John Wayne-esque one-liners.

It’s amusing because it defies all logic, and yet, this was once the formula of era-defining detective shows like Barnaby Jones and Mannix. The average American dad of the ‘70s could probably name Kojak’s preferred brand of cigarettes before they could identify their child’s favorite toy. F is for Family reminds us that American dads once lived vicariously through the pistols of other men.

Colt Luger (Left) and Robert Mitchum in “The Big Sleep” (Right). (Image by Art Tavana)

F is for Family is partially based on the screwy childhoods of two men: comedian Bill Burr and co-creator and writer Michael Price (The Simpsons), who’ve produced the most caustic family sitcom since, perhaps, Married…With Children.

It also handles racial humor better than practically anything on TV. Autopsying F is for Family for the cause of what makes it so offensively funny, and you’ll find a decomposing goulash of Simpsonian rage; Bundy cynicism; National Lampoon horniness; Cosby family values, wink-wink, and Archie Bunker’s upholstered-armchair bigotry. It also possesses a peculiar romance with the dusty artifacts of Americana—like a Gen-X Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash—which it uses to lure the viewer into a sentimental dystopia that’s both real and surreal. In the final act of the second season, one of the characters is literally blown to smithereens by a suitcase bomb. Airline hijackings, in case you didn’t know, spiked in the ’70s. It’s an animated history lesson.

We giggle at the colorful gore because of a kind of cinematic nihilism, which separates us from what is happening on the screen or our messy past. Because it is a hyper-surreal portrait of ‘70s-era malaise, where the terror victim is a racist ex-jock with a dented skull, we can chuckle at the sight of his mutilated corpse. It provides emancipatory relief because “Scoop” Dunbarton is a Frankenstein of the American bully and the nepotism that turns them into future CEOs or whatever it is Don Jr. does for a living. He’s the printer in Office Space (1999): a symbol of corporate America’s inability to work for 99-percent of the population.

F is for Family causes us to somehow relate to the hijackers known humorously as the “Black Liberation Alliance for Black Liberation.”

Screengrab of Scoop Dunbarton bleeding to death on the Season 2 finale of “F is for Family.” (Source: Netflix)

F is for Family is a disturbing remix of every family sitcom that came before it; a postmodern family, if you will, that uses the saturated colors of Saturday morning cartoons to smartly explore the shades of sexism and racism that exist in dramas like Mad Men. It bridges the gap between the family sitcom and serialized drama. It turns the dark side of Americana into a punchline.

In order to accomplish this kind of risqué humor, it purposefully lacks the cynical nihilism of adult animations like Rick and Morty. Part of the reason it’s so warmly funny is that if you’re of a certain age, say 35 and up, F is for Family is your childhood being filtered through Bill Burr’s brain. If you’re younger, it’s a startling introduction to a bygone era. Any patriotic sentimentality, however, has been erased from its canvas. It is devoid of nationalism or family-values propaganda. F is for Family’s original production studio, Gaumont, is French (which would have enraged Al Bundy).

“We wanted to do a show that was funny, but also observational about life,” Price tells me. “Though Frank might wish the kids were killed by polio or a bear (laughs), you know, ultimately, they’re a family and they love each other.”

Like Archie Bunker introducing us to George Jefferson, F is for Family eventually steps outside of its pale, Irish-American roots and explores the complicated experience of being a Black family in the Nixon-era; it’s a show within a show, which is explored through the Roosevelt family.

Screengrab of the “R is for Rosie” episode from “F is for Family” Season 4. (Source: Netflix)

In the fourth (and most recent) season, there’s an episode that combines blacksploitation with a blue-collar Black sitcom, which is done with an appreciation for Black culture, where an ambitious alderman (Chauncey “Rosie” Roosevelt, a hybrid of Carl Winslow and Roc, perhaps) jots down his progressive agenda for City Hall—which is run by an Italian-American mayor who views him as a public relations tactic—not his peer.

Rosie if voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson.

Screengrab of Rosie’s city agenda from “F is for Family” Season 4. (Source: Netflix)

“Close the fire hydrants” is a high-pressure punchline that forces you zoom in on the fact that Black communities were rarely a priority in city budgets. In 1974, when Richard Pryor told us what it was like being a Black man during a “routine” traffic stop, he was humorizing what such a routinely terrifying experience meant to Black folks—which meant something entirely different to white people. We see this in F is for Family highlighting the difference between what low water pressure means in suburbia versus what it means in the hood: irreparable poverty.

Film critic Pauline Kael described Richard Pryor as “a master of lyrical obscenity.” This kind rhythmic indelicacy is how F is for Family combines modern nihilism with the oblivious bigotry of the Vietnam-era (scored to smooth Wurlitzer melody that makes it feel like a crackling James L. Brooks production).

So, why is this funny? It’s so funny it hurts. Because, for example, Rosie’s experience as a degraded alderman reminds us that the “American Dream” is really just a big fat joke. For reasons that I’m not entirely qualified to explain, we often laugh at this bizarre combination of suffering and release—like Larry David satirizing the experience of Holocaust survivors—which is effective because it juxtaposes the clown with the death camp (i.e., The Day the Clown Cried).

Some folks view this as an offense; others study its cognitive reaction, which happens in a split second. Nobody can explain exactly how we transfer ugliness into laughter as quickly as we turn the aroma of McDonald’s french fries into excess saliva. Mark Twain and others have suggested that, “humor is tragedy plus time.” We also have to recognize psychological factors, like “benign-violation theory,” which implies that a situation presented as both a moral violation and which is completely detached from any real danger often produces a peculiar kind of pleasure. Plato took this further and believed humor was linked to malevolent behavior. F is for Family turns the casualness of Gen-X insensitivity into satire that’s as outlandish as the violence on The Sopranos.

The cognitive reaction to such vulgar wackiness is that we either burst out laughing or hold our hands over our mouths. F is for Family provides a writers’ clinic in how to balance the comic’s impossibly dark imagination with today’s need for tastefully un-PC humor. This is, after all, a Bill Burr animated series—it cannot possibly be PC. As a result, some critics have been unkind. They should recall Christina Applegate, who in 1989 was asked by a reporter how she felt about “Married. . . with Children” being attacked for its vulgar and sexist humor.

“Change the channel,” she said, “or go rent ‘Sleeping Beauty.’”

Rewinding to the first season: It’s 1973, as a semi-drunk dad and his redheaded son, Bill, voiced by American Idol alum Haley Reinhart, are driving to a football game. The dad’s name is Frank Murphy; he’s a baggage handler at an airline named after a Native American tribe. This is humorous because it forces us to awkwardly chuckle at America’s insensitivity, rather than flying past it. Frank and his son are driving through a sordid Black “ghetto” (a caricature of Harlem). We see a montage of what it might have looked like to drive through such a stylish, high-crime borough in 1973. This causes the viewer to associate these images with comedy, because (a) Frank’s whiteness begins to fog the windshield of his shabby American car, and (b) we recall advertising from a bygone era that separated white and Black people into farcical, one-dimensional consumers. The images on the screen reinforce the preposterous separatism of such vintage propaganda.

Screengrab of a Black neighborhood from “F is for Family” Season 1. (Source: Netflix)

When Frank is stopped at a red light, a pimp begins to cordially wave at him. Frank panics and tells his son to lock the doors. He’s holding a can of beer when he does this. Before moving on, it’s worth noting that the advertising slogan of Frank’s beer is an evasive pun:

“It’s the one draft you won’t want to dodge.”

It is an ice-cold criticism of both jingoistic American beer commercials and the commercialization of war. It’s funny because while we no longer have a draft, we also no longer have good American beer. It’s also funny because we, the audience, cannot dodge the fact that Frank is afraid of Black people. Such comedy forces us to externally laugh, while internally wrestling with the guilt—which makes it funnier.

Screengrab of White House Lager ad from “F is for Family” Season 1. (Source: Netflix)

“Hey, my man, I ran out of gas,” says the overly courteous pimp.

“Don’t make eye contact” Frank tells his son, as the sweat begins to drip from his beanie.

“Can you help a brother out?” The pimp waves an empty gas canister, and begins to walk towards Frank’s car. “Don’t kill me! I have a family!” screams Frank, as he speeds past the pimp in a nervous blur of prejudice and paranoia.

This doesn’t immediately sound funny. But when you impose racial humor into the incongruous framework of ’70s Hanna-Barbera, it transforms a criminally ignorant form of racial profiling into smartly executed satire.

“Animation itself has a distancing factor,” Price says, who admits this type of humor would probably raise even more eyebrows as a live action show.

Screengrab of Frank Murphy from “F is for Family” Season 1. (Source: Netflix)

Because it’s a cartoon, Frank’s irrational fear of seeing a Black man walking towards him feels like an over-the-top criticism of suburban prejudice; a sanitized phobia colorized for maximum comic effect. It’s like a Richard Pryor bit being turned into a Saturday morning cartoon. When it is at its funniest, F is for Family provides the kind of untethered depiction of racial humor that we saw on shows like the original Saturday Night Live and In Living Color.

But can racial humor be funny during the Trump-era? I believe it can, but F is for Family provides a balance that mostly disqualifies the need to debate this; especially in the fourth season, when the Roosevelt family represents the Black experience in the ‘70s, rather than using their differences as Irish-American gags. Black characters in F is for Family are voiced by Black actors. It also shines a spotlight on the blackness of its characters; it doesn’t use it to whitewash them for more conservative viewers. Netflix is not Tele-Communications, Inc (TCI).

But racial humor, regardless of its progressivism or sensitivity, is simply part of our culture—it always has been. We must learn to grapple with it, not disqualify it. We have to learn to find a balance between dark humor and bleeding newspaper headlines of another young Black man, unarmed, killed unjustifiably. Can racial humor exist in such a fascist dystopia? Yes, but it depends on the talent of the comic. Bill Burr and Michael Price put us at ease.

“Evidence of jokes based on race and other groupings can be traced back at least as far as ancient Europe,” said Cynthia Merriwether-de Vries, a sociology professor at Juniata College.

Even though it’s just a cartoon, racial humor, regardless of context, is generally viewed through a binary lens: when it is used to advance a post-racial narrative, it is viewed as tasteless bigotry; when it runs counter to the hegemonic forces of White America, it is viewed as subversive. This is the effect of the Chappelle’s Show “Black white supremacist,” who used a grotesque caricature to illuminate an actual GOP strategy: the “proud Uncle Tom” that now appears in a red MAGA hat.

All in the Family has begun to occupy the first category. But like Frank Murphy, Archie Bunker is open to interpretation: for the bigot, he’s a folk hero: a mouthpiece for the “silent majority” who view Civil Rights as the work of “commies” and “radicals.” For the non-bigot, Bunker is a revolting (and funny) reminder that America is itself a racist family sitcom.

Frank Murphy produces a similar, but surprisingly more self-aware, caricature of the American dad. This is why it feels more like the second category; subverting rather than reinforcing racist or sexist tropes.

In 1971, in the New York Times review of All in the Family, the writer concluded that racism isn’t funny. We can all agree that there’s nothing funny about racism, but can our racist past be used to illuminate the fact the Archie Bunker was the prototypical American dad, and maybe still is? I believe it can. Satire allows us to safely confront our past.

America in the Nixon-era was once so unceremoniously bigoted that it was basically “family values.” But what if it still is? Today, our president is a slightly more demented Archie Bunker. So I ask, is there value in satirizing our messy subconscious for the purposes of emancipatory relief? I believe there is. Post-racial propaganda can be extinguished with high-pressure laughter. It can be purged with punchlines that flood our collective consciousness with the reminder that America may never have been great.

“Our attitude was like, ‘Isn’t it funny how racist and sexist and horrible things were back then?’” Price tells me. “And now look where we are now. It’s crazy. The world has changed, but it feels like a lot of those things are coming back.”

As I write this, America is once again being confronted by its racism. Black lives matter, indeed, and yet, it seems there are those who disagree. At the same time, the fourth season of F is for Family is premiering on Netflix, which uses racial humor with the freshness of Chappelle, Pryor, Chris Rock, and Mike Judge. Perhaps more Americans should be exposed to our racist past—even if it’s as an adult Hanna-Barbera.

“Initially, we talked a lot about King of the Hill,” says Price. “We wanted it to be animated, but we didn’t want it to be cartoony like The Simpsons. We didn’t have a huge animation budget, so the style hearkened back to ’70s Hanna-Barbera.”

F is for Family is a “fucking cartoon,” as Burr once said, or “adult animation” that seems to have the artistic freedom of some of Fox’s pioneering comedies, without much external protest; the result of the writing room’s gift for pushing the envelope without tearing it.

“No content restrictions,” says Price. “We’re able to do what we want to do with the show. We’re able to treat the time period in an honest way and have the characters talk the way people talked back then.”

The result is that the Archie Bunker of animation is Frank Murphy (voiced by Bill Burr), who is a perpetually irate baggage handler for Mohican Airways, which parodies Mohawk Airlines, which was actually in operation from the mid-1940s to 1972. It’s also a grotesquely funny jab at America extinguishing its indigenous population and callously turning them into casinos, sports team mascots, motorcycles, John Wayne extras, and teary-eyed actors in environmental PSAs (“Iron Eyes Cody” was Italian-American).

Mohican Airways is a metaphor, of sorts, that Americans have to regularly check-in our baggage in order to avoid carrying the weight of our cultural crimes. The slogan for Mohican Airways is an absolutely savage pun: “Your comfort is our chief concern.” Its mascot is a self-aware and jaded actor named “Chief Feathercorn.” The Chief is aghast when an airline stewardess offers him a blanket. A laugh of such genocidal proportions becomes satire when you turn it into a casually racist airline ad. It feels like Mad Men being parodied on The Simpsons. It also provides an anti-colonial history lesson in the tradition of Howard Zinn, not Shelby Foote, and certainly not John Wayne.

Mohican Airways ad from “F is for Family.” (Source: Netflix)

Price’s reasoning for casting Frank Murphy as a baggage handler is blue-collar poetry. “I wanted him to sit at the dinner table with his work shirt on and his ID tag reading baggage on it, for the emotional baggage he carries around with him.”

Al Bundy’s baggage was filled with women’s shoes. It is in the juxtaposition of Hanna-Barbera’s vintage aesthetic with the blue-collar cynicism of Al Bundy that makes F is for Family such an impish look into the American household of the ‘70s.

I suppose its progenitor may actually be Wait Till Your Father Gets Home, a ’70s adult-animation that dealt with a traditionalist father struggling to make sense of his progressive family—with a decidedly childish aesthetic. F is for Family produces a similar juxtaposition, like the nihilistic surrealism of The Ren & Stimpy Show or The Ambiguously Gay Duo, which combined something as traditional as breakfast cereal with double-entendres that would have given old Harry Boyle a heart attack.

Screengrab of “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home” (1972). (Source: Hanna-Barbera)

F is for Family’s retro aesthetic offers a visual feast that lends itself to compulsive freeze-framing: the nouveau act of pausing the images on your screen, and then, like a gamer searching for clues to solve a puzzle, you proceed to zoom into the cheeky set pieces: a political newspaper headline, a poorly framed family photograph, or the label on a jingoistic can of American beer. Then there’s the absurdly racist restaurant menu from “Sam’s Starving Boy,” which includes everything from “Plantation Dogs” to an “Uncle Tom Turkey Platter.”

Screengrab from “F is for Family” Season 1. (Source: Netflix)

“Sam’s Starving Boy” introduces a whole new generation to one of America’s most legendarily racist institutions, Sambo’s, which used a racist slur and caricatures to sell pancakes to mostly white families from 1957 on.

“No Black who was referred to as ‘Sambo’ ever thought he was being complimented for his cleverness,” wrote the LA Times in 1977. Only recently was the name changed. I did not know Sambo’s existed until I watched F is for Family. I imagine I’m not alone.

Freeze-framing F is for Family causes one’s jaw to become detached from its skull, like a cartoon; it causes one’s eyes to bulge out of their head, also like a cartoon, as they study the images that have popped from Price and Burr’s respective breakfast cereal days, which included a father, in Burr’s case, who threatened to launch his children through walls.

It also provides a freeze-frame of the country America used to be, and sadly, still may be, while continuously blurring the lines between fiction and reality. This is why the writing is so sharp, as it never feels cliche or blunted through the factory line of banal and “correct” humor. Extreme attention is paid to how each joke or visual translates into the kind of humor that would be protested if it was not executed so well; the tropes are constantly flipped, like pancakes. F is for Family does not reinforce prejudice; it uses it like a tossed pie.

There’s Ms. Vanderheim (voiced by Mo Collins), the humongous and veiny middle-aged prostitute who is actually the show’s most devoted mother. “We wanted a prostitute that was as grotesque and unattractive as possible,” says Price. “Who is, in many ways, the best parent on the whole show.”

There’s Nguyen-Nguyen (voice by Eileen Fogarty), a Vietnamese immigrant who transforms from a submissive pilot’s housewife into a feminist heroine—a Vietnamese Lorena Bobbitt. The show also has closeted gay characters, one of which feels like a caricature of Rock Hudson in Avalanche (1978). Then there’s Bob Pogo, an enormous blob who falsely accuses Puerto Rican children of feeding him candy, as he blames his own inadequacy on immigrant children. But underneath all the fried chicken grease and xenophobia, there’s the faint heartbeat of humanity — like Louie De Palma in Taxi. This dichotomy is deliciously funny.

Screengrab of Bob Pogo from “F is for Family” Season 1. (Source: Netflix)

We also meet Otto Holtenwasser, the geriatric German neighbor of Frank and Sue Murphy, who is rumored to be the defected brother of Adolf Hitler. Otto turns out to be a holocaust survivor with a heart of gold. This kind of paradoxical character is informed by suburbia’s distrust of foreigners, which is a derivative of The Twilight Zone’s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” and Price’s own childhood.

“When I was a kid growing up in New Jersey,” Price tells me, “there was man who lived there who was Japanese, and his name was Mr. Otani. And, you know, we’d see him gardening, but we never talked to him. Kids are stupid, and so this story got around that he was this evil guy who would kill you and put you in his basement.”

And finally, there’s Smokey Greenwood (voice by Michael K. Williams, the MVP of the show in my opinion), who combines the derogatory dialogue of stylish, new Black realism with the crazy-eyed lunacy of Clarence Williams III. Smokey is like a Tarantino character drawn into a retro-looking children’s cartoon. When Smokey tells Frank that he sold his albino son to the circus because of his lack of blackness, we absolutely cry laughing. This is the clown juxtaposed alongside the slave trader, which walks the tightrope between sardonic Randy Newman and X-rated blaxploitation.

Screengrab of Smokey Greenwood from “F is for Family” Season 4. (Source: Netflix)

This is the sort of incongruity of the black-and-white experience that makes F is for Family feel like a deeply disturbing carnival attraction we simply cannot avoid walking through. The dissonance and musical vulgarity produces the anxious response of giggling at a funeral or finding a brief moment of relief under the broken fire hydrants of a city engulfed in flames.

Four seasons of F is For Family are now streaming on Netflix.

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