Saturday, March 17, 2007

Carol Burnett and Schadenfruede

First off, due disclosure. I like Family Guy, and the creator of the show is a friend of mine. That being said, writers, we need to care about this:

<<Carol Burnett has filed a $2 million copyright infringement lawsuit against 20th Century Fox, claiming her cleaning woman character was portrayed on the animated series "Family Guy." The U.S. District Court lawsuit, which was filed Thursday, said the Fox show didn't have the 73-year-old comedian's permission to include her cleaning woman character, Charwoman, in an April 2006 episode.

The episode shows Charwoman as a porno-shop maid, and it uses what the lawsuit called an "altered version" of Burnett's theme music. The characters in the show also perform Burnett's signature ear tug, the lawsuit said.

Besides copyright infringement, Burnett alleges 20th Century Fox violated her publicity rights.

The studio said it was surprised by the lawsuit over what amounted to about an 18-second scene.

"`Family Guy,' like `The Carol Burnett Show,' is famous for its pop culture parodies and satirical jabs at celebrities. We are surprised that Ms. Burnett, who has made a career of spoofing others on television, would go so far as to sue `Family Guy' for a simple bit of comedy," said 20th Century Fox Television spokesman Chris Alexander.>>

No kidding.

I'm sure there are plenty of people reading this story - you can check out Smoking Gun's coverage and see the "offending clip" HERE - that are enjoying this for all the wrong reasons. Yeah, that's right, animation professionals, I'm talking to you.

This effects you too. Whether you're writing a script, drawing a story board, creating a character, doing a voice... this matters.

There is nothing more cancerous to comedy than just the threat of a lawsuit. Lawyers for studios and networks, worried that they'll be called to the carpet for allowing some sort of breach, smooth out the edges of any reference humor in an attempt to prevent suits like this.

It makes it harder to be relevant.
It makes it tougher to do commentary.
It makes writing comedy less fun because you find yourself self-censoring.

Are you willing to not watch the Flintstones because it was an "homage" to the Honeymooners? Willing to avoid Bugs Bunny with his mobster villain that was clearly based on "Jimmy Cagney?" Willing to not enjoy your loving hand painted version of "Winnie The Pooh?" Never watch another South Park?

Because it's all or nothing on this one, folks. Either things are fair game, or they are not. You don't get "Mecha-Streisand" and "Tom Cruise In A Closet" without "Carol Burnett mopping up salty goo in her maid outfit."

It has to go both ways. In the same way Carol Burnett probably made fun of pop culture references in her day (albeit 40s, 50s and 60s references), Family Guy gets to do it too. In the same way that 20th century fox didn't sue Comedy Central for their two-part South Park about Family Guy, Carol Burnett should have done the same.

I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for Carol Burnett to go from a world of three television networks where she was a star, to a world where Paris Hilton is celebrity royalty. But that's life. That's the passage of time for you.

Today's big deal is tomorrow's "who the hell" and you just have to hope you have saved enough money, and have enough real friends, that when all the flash and heat fades, you're fine.

Main Entry: 1par·o·dy
Pronunciation: 'per-&-dE, 'pa-r&-
1 : a literary or musical work in which the style of an author or work is closely imitated for comic effect or in ridicule

It's for all of us, or none of us. And just because you're done with it now, doesn't mean the rest of us are.


Bob Harper said...

For the record I am not a fan of Family Guy and a fan of Carol Burnett. However, she is dead wrong and Family Guy has the absolute right to parody her the way they did and all the other parodies the way they do. Harvey Kurtzman won that cause for artists and writers alike. This will be a non-issue since I feel she will lose, and not only that, may be subject to even more parodies.

Kovalic said...

Preach it brother!

Seriously, I can't imagine this going far...

Derrick said...

I'm a fan of neither... but the fact is, 'Family Guy' has the laziest writers in the history of television. I've never seen a show with so many "crutches." They truly are awful.

Sib said...

Interestingly, there was a great website up recently that parodied Bob Dylan singing works by Dr. Suess. It was spot on musically, respectful of the source material, and very funny.

It has since been taken down, at the request of Dr. Suess Enterprises.

I know that there have to be copyright concerns at play there...but have a sense of humor. I think the good Dr. would have been amused.