A joke that employs rape in the punch line is stirring up controversy on the long-awaited crossover episode of The Simpsons and Family Guy – even before the episode airs.
The Associated Press reports that the contentious joke appears in this Sunday's mashup between the two Fox animated series in which the Simpsons family and the Griffin clan meet for the first time.
In the trailer for the crossover episode released by Fox several weeks ago, Bart Simpson instructs genius-baby Stewie in the fine art of prank phone-calling.
As in countless Simpsons episodes past, Bart phones Moe's Tavern and asks proprietor Moe Szylak whether there is anyone there with the last name "Keybum," first name Lee.
After Moe bellows out to his barflies in search of "leaky bum," patrons have a good laugh at his expense.
Stewie, of course, is suitably impressed and proceeds to make his own prank call to the same victim.
The Stewie version: "Hello, Moe? Your sister's being raped."
You can watch the trailer here.
Katherine Hull Fliflet, the spokeswoman for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) in Washington, D.C., told Associated Press she did not find the rape joke especially offensive.
"I think the show is making it clear that rape is not funny by how they are positioning the joke," said Fliflet. "It's my hope that would be the viewers' take-away."
The Parents Television Council advocacy group, however, takes a different position.
"I was blown out of my shoes when I saw the scene with the rape joke in it," PTC president Tim Winter told the Associated Press. "It really troubled me."
Winter said the joke seems particularly egregious in the wake of news stories about sexual assaults on U.S. college campuses and the recent discussion of abusive treatment of women in the National Football League.
According to Winter, when rape becomes a punch line, "it become less outrageous in real life."
Winter said he sent letters requesting the rape joke's removal to Simpsons creator Matt Groening, Family Guy overseer Seth MacFarlane and the Fox Network shortly after the trailer was released at last summer's Comic Con.
Groening and MacFarlane chose not to reply, while a spokeswoman for Fox said the network would not comment on the criticism, reports the Associated Press.
But the Parents Television Council believes the biggest danger of joking about rape is the lasting impression it could leave on younger viewers.
"We don't mock certain groups because we realize that it is highly insensitive and morally wrong," said the PTC's Winter. "Why wouldn't we do the same thing about sexual assault?"
While the joke crosses a line, it's a line MacFarlane has danced with plenty of times in the past. In fact, several individuals have created petitions on Change.org urging MacFarlane to stop using rape jokes in his content. " Sexual assault is nothing to laugh about," Alyssa Soren of Louisville, Ky., wrote in hers.
Of course, Family Guy practically made its name with outrageously offensive content over its 12-season run, and MacFarlane (who voices Stewie) isn't likely to remove the rape punch line or apologize for it any time soon.
In fact, MacFarlane was asked specifically about the rape joke during a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, reports Associated Press, and said he expected to come under scrutiny for it.
"But in context," said MacFarlane. "It's pretty funny."