Seth McFarlane and co.’s take on the 1980s Iran-Contra affair provides a painfully funny history lesson…
Dir: Pam Cooke
Original Air Date: 11 May 2008
In their own unique way, each of the ‘Big 3’ adult-themed animated shows of the past twenty-five years have demonstrated frank, highly amusing, and sometimes filthy political satire. But while The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy, at their respective peaks, contained political themes as plot-devices for their primarily neutral or liberal protagonists (with the exception of Eric Cartman, almost always an antagonist), the sister show of the latter, Seth MacFarlane’s American Dad!, is different in that it’s lead character, Stan Smith, is an openly staunch conservative. Employed by the CIA and a life-long member of the Republican Party with highly questionable social, political, and moral views, Smith works as the perfect satirical mouthpiece for MacFarlane and his writers. He allows them to depict the downsides of US politics from the point of view of a lead character who believes the total opposite, resulting in extreme political doctrine and complex, historical events being conveyed in a condensed, hilariously frightening fashion.
In one of their finest musical moments, the AD! team take the opportunity to resurrect in the minds of viewers the shadowy, bureaucratic Iran-Contra crisis of the mid-late 1980s, starring President Ronald Reagan and Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, the latter of whom the musical number is named for. Having studied Iran-Contra myself, I can confirm it is an event that involves a lot of paper-based red tape-type sources and research in order to get one’s head around. Not so here, as AD! goes to town on one of the most inconsequential scandals and subsequent swept-under-the-rug outcomes – both from the point of view of the perpetrators – in US political history.
Wonderfully animated in the style of the 1980s educational cartoon Schoolhouse Rock!, providing that extra touch of ‘innocence’, the scene’s genius stems from the conveyance of North’s actions as heroic and patriotic in the opinion of Stan Smith, whilst appearing almost comically criminal and immoral (even more so when one reads up on what a nasty bunch the Contras were) to the viewer. The shock value lies not with the actions of Reagan and North, or any controversial statement made by AD!, but comes instead in the form of the grand revelation, and, as it turns out, depressing reality of North’s current, highly successful status as a man revered amongst numerous sections of America’s conservative wing (which Reagan’s reputation enjoys x10), despite having only gotten away with his crime by way of contended technicalities and his destruction of key evidence. Juxtaposed against the head shaking content throughout is the happy-go-lucky nature of the tune and Smith’s overwhelmingly positive brand of conservative, anti-communist hands-over-ears justification. Complete with his affectionately referring to North as “Ollie”, the piece culminates in his final salvo:
Ollie North! Ollie North!
He’s a solider,
And a hero,
And a novelist,
And now he’s on Fox News!
The delivery and concurrent animation of the final line is one of the funniest moments in small screen black comedy going back ten years, hammering home the point that this man, despite committing treason under the guise of patriotism (note the whimsical head held aloft pose), not only served zero prison time, but went on to find a platform where his views continue to be aired alongside a true cretin of conservative television, Sean Hannity. Having said that, there is the amusingly welcome irony that American Dad! is itself a staple of the Fox network.
The fact that a mainstream satirical television cartoon is required to remember historical political proceedings of this ilk isn’t exactly ideal. However, slight solace can be found in that the mainstream political satirists within the medium, including MacFarlane, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, Adam Reed et al., will always look to immortalise those involved with the tragically humorous mocking they at the very least deserve.