Carol Burnett sues Family Guy

Court TV’s The Smoking Gun has posted the court papers of a recent case Carol Burnett and her company have filed against 20th Century Fox, producers of Family Guy. In 2005, Ms. Burnett was asked permission by Fox to use the theme song from The Carol Burnett Show in an episode of the series and declined. The gag in question involves a porno shop which is kept tidy by the animated maid character which appeared in the opening credits of Burnett’s program, whose appearance is underscored by a parody of the show’s theme song (which was presumably used after permission to use the actual theme was denied.) Burnett believes a disparaging remark towards her familiar ear tug was added to the script after the fact. She is suing because she believes the use of the maid character and theme song will make viewers believe that she approved of or has something to do with the production of the show, and claims that she has lost $2,000,000 worth of publicity due to the unauthorized parody.

I’m not sure if she’ll win this case, but I like the idea of the producers intentionally insulting Burnett after she denied permission. It reminds me of the fact that The Simpsons have done the same thing to stars who turned them down to be guest voices (Don Rickles was depicted as caught in a casino explosion after he refused to be a guest voice).

Why? Should such permission always be granted? Why is the threat of public insult a valid negotiating tool?

No, it’s not that I want her to win, or that she deserves to. I just thought that Burnett’s assumption that the dirty joke about her ear-pulling trademark was rather intriguing- especially if it was true. As I mentioned before, it reminded me of similar gags which were done in The Simpsons in similar malice. And I’m suprised its taken this long for anybody to seek legal action over their depiction in an episode of Family Guy.

And it’s her right to refuse permission if she so chooses- as she pointed out in the filing, she refused because the theme is synonomous with her and her show. But I don’t agree with her assumption that people will believe she was involved with the show or approved the parody just because her character and song were used. I’m not a lawyer, but the litmus test her would be whether or not it caused confusion in the marketplace (see Tetley, Inc. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. for a good example of this test as regarding parody).

Or the Futurama episode where “Welshie” replaces Scottie because James Doohan didn’t want to appear. I’ve always wondered if one exchange between Shatner and Nimoy was added as a dig at him.

WS: Wasn’t there an episode where I threw my shoe at the enemy?"
LN: “You mean Doohan?”
::high five::

I am probably confused. What I am wondering is why you like the idea of insulting someone who has refused such permission. Why would you like it? It seems rude and petty to me.

When I said “I like the idea,” what I should have said was “the idea is intriguing.” It’s not that I think it’s the right thing to do- I think it’s an intriguing hypothesis (if it is true). I should have been more specific.

That whole show is rude and petty.

Got it. Thanks.

Just a quick sidebar:

I worked at a theater with Carol Burnett for a brief time and can tell you she is as nice in person as she appears on screen. She was also extremely generous…I was standing with her in back of the theater while she was signing autographs and she happened to notice a homeless man going through a dumpster down the alley. After the autograph seekers had left, I accompanied her down the alley and she handed the guy a twenty dollar bill and only said, “please don’t spend it on alcohol.” (Family members of hers had problems with alcoholism.)

I thought it was very classy of her to do that. I can’t imagine her suing Family Guy unless she really thought it was damaging. She is not the type of person to sue for frivolous reasons, so she probably truly feels she was treated unfairly.

I’m not a Family Guy fan, but criticizing Family Guy for being rude? That’s kinda what they do.

I’m not a FG fan either (not offended by it, just think its crass, unimaginative, and stupid) but this case will get thrown out by the first judge who hears it. Its clearly a parody (not a particularly good one) and not damaging in any way.

BTW, I seem to remember, maybe 25 years ago, Burnett sued The Enquirer over a story about her being drunk at a restaurant, and she won (Enquirer admitted the story was false and paid her damages which she gave to charity).

Opportunistic appropriation of people’s rights and property this way, under the guise of “parody”, is reminiscent to me of using children as shields in a gunfight. Family Guy could have gone on being its infantile self and expressing its oh so clever satire without the need for any particular celebrity. As I see it, they had conceived this brilliant (in their minds) sketch so conveniently tied together by property belonging to Carol Burnett, and it was an inconvenient strain on their creative process to change it to something else. They asked if they could have it, and when they were refused, they stole it. I sure do hope she wins this.


Anyone remember what they said about the ear tug? From my memories of trademark and parody law, I’d guess if they said she was conveying something perverse or awful with the ear tug, it’s *more *likely to get protection as parody, since it upends the wholesome, sweet message of saying hello to her grandma. Of course, it’s certainly arguable that using the Charwoman character, a nostalgic icon, in a porn shop is plenty to clear that bar.

Naw, it’s more like the Nazis attempting to exterminate an entire race of people. Or kids with cancer.


Since so much of Family Guy’s humor is based on showing nostalgic icons, sometimes “parodied” only by the presence of the FG characters, this was bound to happen sooner or later. Not saying the suit has merit, just that I’m not surprised.

Come to think of it, I think the first ‘Right to Parody’ laws were written by Hitler.

It’s in the link, but it’s something to the effect of:

“Y’know, when she tugged her ear at the end of the show, she was actually saying hello to her mother.”
“I wonder what she tugged to say hello to her father!”

I basically agree, but I hope she loses so parody can continue to be available as a free form of expression for those who have an ounce of creativity. Think of Family Guy as an unfortunate price we have to pay so that other shows can be funny.

Yes. She had had many other incorrect stories printed about her over the years and ignored them, as most celebrities do. But her family history of alcoholism was too raw and when it was printed that she was drunk - well, that crossed the line.

Unauthorized parody? Good luck with that…