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Commentary: Seth MacFarlane, ‘Family Guy’ and the cowardice of Hollywood

There’s a scene in “Star Wars IV: A New Hope” that I often think of on the frequent occasions when Hollywood takes on an easy target — like, say, Christians.

In the scene, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and the crew are cruising aboard the Millennium Falcon after a narrow escape from the Empire. Chewbacca and R2D2 are playing chess, and R2D2 makes a move that imperils Chewbacca’s chances of winning, whereupon Chewbacca groans menacingly at the droid.

The prissy, perenially afraid C-3pO, observing the match, lectures Chewbacca, “He made a fair move. Screaming about it can’t help you.”

At this point, Han pipes in, “You know, it’s not wise to upset a wookie.”

C-3PO objects, “But, sir, nobody worries about upsetting a droid.”

To which Han replies, “That’s because a droid don’t pull people’s arms out of their sockets when they lose. Wookies are known to do that.”

C-3PO glances at Chewbacca, who is folding his arms contentedly behind his head, and says to R2D2, “I suggest a new strategy, R2: Let the wookie win.”

The essential truth of Hollywood is that they think they’re just like the fierce Chewbacca, or at least the wisecracking Han Solo, but in truth they’re all C-3P0: walking around on stilted legs constantly muttering in fear, “Oh, dear. Let’s let the wookie win.”

By now, you might have heard that Seth MacFarlane’s shock cartoon comedy “Family Guy” made some minor waves this week with a “Christmas” episode that can only be described as deliberately sacrilegious, featuring (among other things) a scene in which the “little drummer boy” kicks the baby Jesus out of the manger.

MacFarlane is openly anti-religious, which is of course entirely his prerogative. It’s also his prerogative to write his derivative — and by now thoroughly repetitive and tiresome — comedy about whatever subjects he wants.

But for a man who fashions himself as a champion of secular humanism, there’s something overtly cowardly about the way MacFarlane — and the rest of Hollywood — go about their business. If religion is a superstitious plague that must be wiped out, why not start with the religion responsible with the true repression of humanistic principles? Why feature a billion casual insults directed toward Christians and nary a peep about a religion that is, frankly, much more open to Western satire and parody?

The reason, of course, is the same reason that nobody worries about upsetting a droid: Christians don’t behead reporters or shoot up satire magazines when they lose. Cowardice, plain and simple, is the reason the world’s foremost satire artists have treated Islam like a genuinely holy thing, while treating Christianity as an object of casual scorn and mockery.

Never was that more evident than it was after fanatical Muslims raided the headquarters of French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo and gunned down its employees for insulting the prophet Mohammed. Hollywood celebrities for the most part tripped over themselves to rush to their award podiums and declare “je suis Charlie,” an expression of solidarity meant to convey “I am Charlie Hebdo.”

But the simple fact is that Hollywood is not Charlie Hebdo. Hebdo is a profane magazine that often lampoons Christianity, and Hollywood has that much in common with it. But Charlie Hebdo had the audacity to turn its satire on Mohammed, and that remains strictly taboo in Hollywood.

True courage in American entertainment culture is increasingly difficult to find. The business of satire is supposed to be irreverent, it is supposed to push boundaries, it is supposed to make people think. Instead, Hollywood most often finds itself invading the same tired, well-trod space of making fun of earnest Christians and demanding congratulations for daring to do something that is entirely consequence-free in today’s American culture.

A useful contrast can be drawn with “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Parker and Stone have made a mint from criticizing some extremely easy and docile targets (like Mormons), but they have also dared to tackle genuine pillars of political correctness, including global warming, abortion as birth control, immigration — and, yes, society’s sensitivity about the depiction of Muhammad.

One of the earliest controversies Parker and Stone involved themselves in actually resulted in the end of one of the show’s prominent characters. Parker and Stone took on the Church of Scientology — another taboo subject in Hollywood — which angered the iconic Isaac Hayes, voice of the show’s beloved Chef. Hayes told Parker and Stone he would leave if they did not pull the episode, and rather than either pull the episode or replace Hayes with a different voice, Parker and Stone removed the character from the show altogether, and even satirized the controversy itself by implying that Hayes had been brainwashed by Scientologists.

Freshness is the currency of comedy. Nothing earns the scorn of comedians faster than worn-out material. Professional comedians always hone their craft and are always seeking a way to be new, edgy and different. The insistence on returning to the same well over and over when a huge field of satire is ripe for the picking can only be explained by the kind of shamefaced cowardice that ought to leave Hollywood comedians like MacFarlane embarrassed to wander into the field of sacrilege at all.

But it doesn’t, and that’s one reason Hollywood finds its power and influence shrinking faster than ever.

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