What does the ‘cutaway gag’ do? Formally speaking, it consists in a character in a filmed or animated comedy making some remark, alluding to some action which is happening (has happened, will happen) distinct from the site of the action of the plot, and the show then ‘cutting away’ to show us that scene, for humorous purposes. The cutaway gag is most readily associated with the comedic style of Family Guy, where the paradigmatic joke runs thus. “Hey Peter remember the time you did something ridiculous X, with some minor American celebrity Y? [cuts away]” However it is also used in many other shows to varying degrees: another example of frequent use of the cutaway gag is in the episodes of The Simpsons guest-showrun by Al Jean & Mike Reiss during the showrunnerships of David Mirkin and Mike Scully (such as ‘Round Springfield’ from the sixth season and ‘Lisa’s Sax’ from the ninth).
When I first encountered Family Guy as a 12 year-old, the cutaway gag struck me as a revolutionary stylistic device. With the cutaway gag, the writer establishes a sphere in which anything is possible: any joke can potentially be made, since it no longer has to be tied to the plot. An alternative temporality is established: in Family Guy we get a world where Peter has spent days narrating his own life, forgotten how to sit down, met almost every actor who ever appeared in any American sitcom during the 1980s, been employed as a growth on Lara Flynn Boyle’s ear, etc etc. (I could have said ‘alternate chronology’, but the cutaway is in no way bound by any rigid chronology either: the cutaways would, assuming normal time, be happening always in such a way as to overlap with one another impossibly). The plot must conform to the laws of social gravity: characters, even in a show as stupid as Family Guy, must behave within reason like real human beings with minimally unified personalities and canonical histories; characters cannot undergo profound physical or mental change without this somehow affecting them, for at least the rest of the episode; minor celebrities cannot just intervene in a character’s life without explanation for their presence or at least some sort of comment on the fact. The cutaway gag, however, allows these laws to be bracketed. It is thus a way of resisting these laws, and opening up new possibilities for the humour.
But a bracketing is not, in truth, all that much of a resistance. Although ‘anything goes’ in the cut-away world, the possibilities opened up there cannot affect in any way the ‘real’ world, the world of the plot. The humour is enclosed, repressed, set apart from the narrative as such, which proceeds without the possibility of subversion, the critical moment ensured by any really good moment of wit, any really good joke. The fact that the humour in the cutaway seems to offer more scope for possibilities is only because it is itself not, as such, conditioned by the demands of the narrative. But this precisely elides the possibility of joke and narrative mutually conditioning one another. Without the critical moment of the joke, the laws of social gravity just seem all the more rigid. To allow the joke to really disrupt involves placing it on the same plane as the narrative. This is not to say that every joke must, as it were, ’emerge’ from or with plot and character. Rather, it is that the best jokes present us with a world in which reality is flexible (think of the best jokes in golden period Simpsons, from which the idea of ‘flexible reality’ is anyway derived: Guy Incognito, or the lemon behind the lemon-shaped rock might serve as good examples, although I’m just kind of tossing off this blog post and don’t really want to get into a comprehensive discussion of ‘flexible reality’ and the form/content of the best Simpsons jokes here). The reality of Family Guy, however, is no more flexible than the show’s character designs, themselves monstrosities of a digital animation that sacrifices expression for convenience. With the joke rigidly torn off from the Real, the Real will become impenetrably serious, a monolith with which there can be no play, and if humour is to survive, it could only be in some place where the Real cannot get to it, the same thing, of course, as it (the joke) being unable to get to the Real.
The humour in Family Guy is thus, we can see, deeply conservative, at least formally. But of course, this formal conservatism is mirrored in the content of the humour itself; and in fact, now that we have established the cutaway gag as a conservative form, it is possible I think to see the racist/sexist/homphobic/ablist gags that litter every episode of Family Guy exposed, as far from ‘subversive’, as its defenders would have you believe, but rather, precisely serving to enforce a racist/sexist/homophobic/ablist mindset. Meanwhile the use of cutaway gags in the Jean & Reiss guest-run episodes of the ‘golden period’ Simpsons is a premonition of the show’s decline (finally, definitively announced with Jean’s permanent return as showrunner in Season 13). Of course, even if The Simpsons is now basically a zombie, existing only to haunt the show that it once was with canon-warping surprise weddings and representations of Young Homer and Marge existing in the early 90s, it is not, for all that, a racist and sexist zombie. The Simpsons‘ own conservatism lies in the broadsheet-acceptable, snarky, scientistic liberalism sincerely held by every one of its writers minus John Schwarzwelder, and preached constantly by Lisa. It is precisely this mindset, the show’s own, that the best jokes in golden period Simpsons were able to subvert, by being placed on the same plane as them: a confrontation, not a cut-away (but again, as with bracketed comment in previous paragraph, the sort of detailed analysis that might serve to support this remark is beyond the scope of what I’m doing here).