Mr. Gutenberg, meet my little brother. He is a not-so-lean, preteen, book-loathing student of the fifth grade. Even when bribed to read with a late bedtime, cookies and milk—for him, the equivalent of a postponed death sentence and a last supper at Ruth’s Chris—he abstains, staring all too wistfully at the nearest blank television screen. So in searching for a way to challenge his plastic mind without turning him and it off, this summer I found a surprising solution: The Cartoon Network show “Family Guy.” The show is seldom considered educational and appropriate for children, but after two months of controlled viewing, it actually appears to be cultivating my brother’s gray matter without sacrificing one ounce of his innocence. Well, maybe one ounce, but certainly not two.
For starters, it stimulates him in ways his favorite sitcoms don’t. While the Kool-Aid Man’s explosive cameo and other classic surprises prove highly accessible, many of the quips from the cast force him to do some serious mental gymnastics. In an attempt to digest this tougher humor, he asks lots of questions about SAT vocabulary and allusions to the likes of 1950s X-ray glasses constructed out of cardboard and a feather. He watches episodes five or six times, laughing progressively more at each new viewing.
In addition to stretching his cerebrum, Peter and the gang inspire him to pack it with particularly knee-slapping scenes and to reenact them for anyone willing to listen. And since his friends tirelessly reference TV and movies, he now feels more comfortable being social via the show’s ideas.
Finally, with a new eye for absurdity, he is thinking like a comic outside the den. The other day he told me about a letter home from his teacher regarding their class pets, complaining that, while at last permitted to feed the bearded lizards a few wax worms each morning, he could not administer a shave.
My parents, understandably, voice a some concern about the adult content in “Family Guy,” which typically airs way past primetime. After all, Peter has a habit of talking about naughty things in a particularly naughty fashion. So why do I support my brother’s attachment to the family on Spooner Street? For the most part, he can distinguish the inappropriate from the benign. Eager to please us so that he will be allowed to study more episodes, he really tries to listen and retain selectively. Yes, he occasionally repeats things he shouldn’t because some of the material is over his head. But I think the inspiration he gains from watching far outweighs the risk of his premature exposure to the sinister adult world.
“Family Guy” is not for every youngster, especially not for those apt to chant the bad in front of mom and dad and to fail to appreciate the beauty of the show’s more subtle moments. But more important than using this particular show as an educational tool is finding something that will effectively motivate kids to think outside their 30-inch flat-screen—even if that requires first allowing them to turn it on.
Theodore S. Grant ’08, a Crimson editorial comper, is a history concentrator in Cabot House.