In 'Dads,' Fox Uses Offensive Humor As A Selling Point

Fox's new sitcom Dads features unflattering images and jokes about Asian-Americans, Latinos and women. Fox is promoting the film by embracing all the criticism that calls it offensive.

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The fall TV season has barely started, but one show is already being hammered by the critics. The sitcom "Dads" debuts tonight on Fox. It's about two men who own a video game company and their cranky fathers. Now the argument against the show is that it's full of racist jokes about Asians and Latinos with an occasional sexist put down. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports the creators of "Dads" don't deny they're pushing the envelope and insist being called offensive isn't always a bad thing.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Fox is promoting "Dads" by embracing the haters.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROMOTIONAL VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Critics may say offensive. Fans say...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I don't see how you could be offended by this. You just laugh.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Critics may say reprehensible.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Reprehensible? This is Fox, baby.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It was great.

BARCO: In tonight's episode, the two main characters - played by Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi - ask their Asian-American assistant to help them woo Chinese investors.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DADS")

BRENDA SONG: (as Veronica) Well, you're lucky your dads are American. My dad beat me with a math book 'til I was 16.

SETH GREEN: (as Eli) Well, see, there you go. That is exactly why we need your help on Friday when we pitch to the Chinese investors.

SONG: (as Veronica) Why, because of my intimate knowledge of Chinese culture?

GREEN: (as Eli) No, because you're going to dress up like a sexy Asian schoolgirl.

SONG: (as Veronica) I can't do that.

GIOVANNI RIBISI: (as Warner) Oh, you can. Sure, you can. Here, practice with me.

BARCO: Former Disney channel actress Brenda Song, who plays the role, is forced to wear a costume and giggle coyly into her hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DADS")

RIBISI: (as Warner) Well, hello, kitty.

BARCO: After the catcalls, one of the dads, played by Martin Mull, pulls out another stereotype about the Chinese being suspicious.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DADS")

MARTIN MULL: (as Crawford) There's a reason Shanghai is a verb.

BARCO: Wellesley Wild and Alec Sulkin created the show based on their lives with their fathers. They've written for "The Simpsons," "Family Guy" and the movie "Ted," and they say this show has a similar brand of humor.

WELLESLEY WILD: It's not as if we set out to offend people. I mean, I think we just were writing stuff that we thought was funny.

BARCO: It wasn't funny for the Media Action Network for Asian Americans.

GUY AOKI: This crosses the line.

BARCO: Guy Aoki is the founding president.

AOKI: I mean, you know, we have a sense of humor. We're not saying we don't ever want to be included in the joke. We like being included in the joke. But we don't like just being the target of the joke over and over again.

BARCO: Aoki asked the "Dads" producers to reshoot some of the most offensive scenes. That didn't happen. But it is possible to make jokes about Asian-Americans, says cartoonist Lela Lee. She says you call out the stereotypes, not perpetuate them.

LELA LEE: You've got to carefully craft it, like who says it, like how do you say it, and who are they saying it to. Those are really important because if the joke is put upon the Asian character, it's just not going to work. People are not going to take that. And then you're going to get backlash, and I think that's what happened with "Dads."

BARCO: The show's executive producer, Mike Scully, says there was a similar outcry about "The Simpsons," which has had a 26-year run.

MIKE SCULLY: It never fails. We would get a letter at "Simpsons," you know, for the last nine years, my family and I have enjoyed your program until last night.

(LAUGHTER)

SCULLY: And maybe last night we happened to make a joke about their religion or something, you know, near and dear to them or gun rights or whatever it was. And that would set off whatever watchdog group handles that issue.

BARCO: Scully admits animated shows may be able to get away with a bit more than live action programs. He compares "Dads" to a classic show with a racist character, "All in the Family." Here's a scene where Archie Bunker is upset that African-Americans are moving into his neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")

CARROLL O'CONNOR: (as Archie Bunker) It ain't their problem. It's our problem. These people are stepping up in life and we're moving down. How much do you think our property's going to be worth with them living two doors away?

ROB REINER: (as Michael "Meathead" Stivic) Probably more than it was worth before. They fund sociological studies, and they've shown that the social economic class of the first black people moving into a white neighborhood is usually higher than that of the original inhabitants. Therefore, the land values go up.

BARCO: Archie Bunker's son-in-law and daughter were always around to correct his racism, something that didn't happen in the "Dads" first episode, critics say. But Scully says times are different than in the "All in the Family" days. He defends "Dads" by saying there's so much racy humor on cable TV.

SCULLY: So, you know, we have to try to be edgy in our own way if we're going to compete at all with those kinds of shows. Everyone is so, you know, PC now, and the word inappropriate just sickens me. I think if you're not offending somebody somewhere, then your show is probably just very bland and boring. We're just trying to really make people laugh. I mean, just watch the damn show.

(LAUGHTER)

BARCO: Creators Sulkin and Wild say there are so many jokes they throw away in the writing room, jokes that do cross the line. And they say the criticism has made them reflect on the type of humor that will be in "Dads" from now on. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

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