Last week, ABC premiered the "The Goode Family," the new animated series about the Goodes, a middle-class clan that twists itself into knots trying to be politically correct about everything in life, to the point where one gets the feeling that medieval monks had an easier time figuring out the rules of salvation than this bunch.
And, since this comes from the same team that produced Fox’s "King of the Hill," which gently lampooned the details of daily life in small-town Texas, the show has some fun with the Goodes and their obsessive striving to achieve organic perfection.
Responses to the show varied, from delight that someone was finally making fun of eco-sanctimony to puzzlement at why such well-meaning, harmless people should be made the butt of jokes, to one that felt the need to point out that "King of the Hill," which premiered days after Bill Clinton took office for his second term in January 1997, was axed days after the last presidential election (no doubt a huge factor in the decision. Yep, huge.)
This has left the "Goode" team a little confused, including executive producer John Altschuler, who just wants to make people laugh. I sat down with him at a press event on Saturday, and he reacted to the reaction to his little comedy.
"I ran," he said, "with my partner Dave Krinsky and Mike Judge, ‘King of the Hill’ for years. We were always looking at a Southern, conservative, little more rural population. Then we started looking at the world we lived in and thought, ‘This is such an interesting milieu, because we grapple with this concept of not being good enough.’ We thought that would be really funny and interesting.
"So we liked the idea that we could deal with some very controversial subject matter, because TV doesn’t very often. But what surprised us was that, before the show aired, it had already become a political football.
"It was (some) right-wing people grabbing onto it, some right-wing people saying you’re making fun of Christians, and then from the left, some people saying almost, ‘How dare you make fun of people like us?’ And we’re like, ‘Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?’
"I have to say, I get worried about comedy because there’s such a complacency and such an agreement where everybody is simply ‘Me, too,’ ‘Me, too.’ that nobody’s looking and going, ‘Isn’t it funny that I own 20 reusable grocery bags, because every time I go to the grocery store, I forget it, and I buy more, thereby creating more waste, and then feel guilty?’
"It’s funny, because there’s an episode where Helen (the mother) becomes an accidental tagger. She wants her daughter, Bliss, to learn to do public service, but there’s no graffiti on the walls, so she starts spraying. They become popular, but they think it’s a Chicano youth who’s doing it.
"Actually, Elvis Costello’s in that episode as an Oxford art critic. But what happens is, the kid takes credit for it, and she’s like, ‘Those are my demons up there!’
"Well, that’s the show. Those are our demons up there, grappling with trying to be good and failing."
Altschuler laments the days of live-action sitcoms like "All in the Family," which weren’t afraid to take strong stances on issues and play them for laughs.
He said, "I remember, ‘Archie Bunker for President.’ Norman Lear was a good liberal, but he did it well enough that people from the right identified with Archie, and people from the left loved it. That’s what we hope we’re doing.
"But these days, there’s a fear of going off the path and being pointed out as impure in your thoughts. Animation is the only way to really deal with it."
While he’s flattered by attention from both sides of the political aisle, Altschuler is a little disappointed that some folks don’t seem to be able to laugh at themselves.
"The bad reviews we got," he said, "were from San Francisco, NPR — this is a joke! You’ve got to be kidding — when we got raves from the rest of the country. It’s just sad, the idea that people were pushing and pulling, like ‘Is the show a right-wing show?’
"You know what’s interesting? We’re friends with the guys who do ‘South Park,’ and Matt Stone one time said, ‘This what you’re going to run into. This is the most frustrating thing when you deal with sacred cows, is you start being asked constantly, "What side are you on?"’
"It’s all about, ‘What side are you on?’ You know what, there’s nothing funny about being on sides. What’s interesting to me is there’s less uproar from the Christian right about the pilot. I have this theory that conservatives have been made fun of for so long, they’re used to it, and that liberals just aren’t used to it yet.
"We like to take on the world of whoever’s in power."
Altschuler and his fellow producers are also aware that the economy has changed since they thought up "The Goode Family" two years ago, and that budget concerns now often trump ecological concerns for many American families.
"When Dave and I were running ‘King of the Hill," he said, "we’d go to these Environmental Media Awards. There was this actress up there saying, ‘Why doesn’t everybody drive a Prius? Why doesn’t everybody shop at Whole Foods?’
"And I remember going, ‘Because they can’t afford it!’
"We always make fun of my agent. He’s a great agent, but he can drive the right car, and if it changes to a hydrogen car, his assistant will make it disappear, and a hydrogen car will appear, OK?
"But if you’re a normal middle-class family, you buy the wrong car, you’re stuck."
A version of this post first appeared on O’Hare’s blog, Hot Cuppa TV.