Season 4, Episode 13
"Bright Lights, Dean City"
Context: Dean Venture, the younger of "Super Scientist" Thaddeus Venture's two sons, has taken a summer internship position in the labs of Professor Incredible (a parody of Marvel's "Mr. Fantastic"). Unbeknownst to the naïve Dean, Professor Incredible has turned evil, partnering with the criminals Phantom Limb and Baron Ünderbheit to form "The Revenge Society." Hoping to increase their numbers, they stage an audition of sorts for would-be super-criminals.
Exegesis: This reference is a little unique, insofar as Mormons are not ever explicitly mentioned. But two things make clear the Mormons are the intended target of the farce: One, the reference to polygamy. It's hard to have a reference to polygamy without Mormons coming up these days. The second is the reference to "Magic Underwear". This is a popular meme, because it sounds so ridiculous, and is repeated occasionally even by otherwise well-meaning people who are unaware of how offensive that characterization is to Mormons.
Obviously Mormons do not wear magic underwear. Using the word "magic" to explain any aspect of religion is likely going to be an offensive association for believing members of that religion. (Except for Wiccans, I suppose.) We believe in miracles, not magic. That may be a distinction that that many non-believers don't recognize, but it's crucial to believers. When something a religion believes to be divine is called "magic" the implication is that the believers are rubes, and that the apparent power is an illusion or a trick. It may well be pointless to argue about the power of God and its effects with someone who denies that power even exists. Atheists (although they are not the only ones who make snide and derisive comments regarding Mormon beliefs) tend to approach religion from a position of great condescension, since they almost by definition consider themselves to be more intelligent or reasonable than virtually all religious persons. Calling Mormon underwear "magic" simply reeks of that kind of supercilious and patronizing attitude. In the context of this clip, the "magic underwear" is likely mentioned because the scene is, after all, a super-villain audition, and magic is very real in the realm of comic books and superheroes/supervillainy.
Also, "underwear" is a funny word. Okay, that's debatable, but most things that are of an intimate or private nature, like most bodily functions, tend to be mined repeatedly for comedy. It's puerile and it's immature, but this kind of low humour is also frequently hilarious in the right hands. The fact that this time it was coupled with a backhanded insult to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is too bad, but is also to be expected when people who are not of our faith encounter aspects of it they do not understand.
This may not be an ideal forum in which to correct this particular misconception, and the people who call our underwear "magic" are not likely to be very anxious to have their misconceptions corrected. Essentially, the garment worn by faithful adult Mormons who have been through the temple is a symbol of our commitment and the covenants we've made - "an outward expression of an inward commitment". I've always liked the way that apostle Boyd K. Packer explained the temple garment - he compared it to the robes of an ordained priest, except that we wear our symbolic "robes" all the time. At any rate, the garments are considered sacred by Mormons, and the cynical denigration of anything that any religion holds sacred is never terribly amusing to me. As the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote, "We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may."
Season 4, Episode 18
"The Father, the Son, and the Holy Fonz"
Context: Peter Griffin, the paterfamilias of Family Guy, secretly has his son Stewie baptized into the Catholic faith at the behest of his devout father. When Stewie becomes ill (due to "tainted" Holy Water), and Lois finds out about the deception, she encourages Peter to stand up to his father, and to exercise his agency in choosing his own belief system. Peter goes through a few religions before deciding to start his own religion that worships the graven image of Arthur Fonzerelli. One of his spiritual way stations happens to be Mormonism.
Exegesis: Family Guy seems to take pleasure in its casual blasphemy and sacrilege, and this particular episode is par for the course. It's frankly surprising that there haven't been more overt references to Mormonism in the series (although one cut-away gag in a later episode did involve the suggestion of incest between Donny and Marie Osmond...). South Park, another show that enjoys ridiculing organized religion and/or the people who belong to a given religion, have mentioned Mormons in a few episodes, basing one entire episode around denigrating the religion and casting fairly unkind, simplistic, and frankly untrue aspersions on our founding Prophet Joseph Smith. But Family Guy has only this one reference so far as I am aware, and they used it for a cheap polygamy gag.
Polygamy (or more specifically, polygyny) is a well to which comedy writers seem to return again and again. It appears to be the one detail that most people know about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It must be frustrating to comedy writers that the practice was abolished well over a century ago. But still, the idea of plural marriage is rife with comic potential (and dramatic potential too, apparently, viz.: Big Love). In a society where monogamy in marriage is the ideal (and ostensible norm, divorce rates notwithstanding), the idea of plural marriage seems utterly alien. And anything alien can easily be tweaked for the sake of a laugh. It's glaring "otherness" is likely the reason why it remains the most salient detail people remember about Mormons.
I don't find polygamy jokes inherently unfunny. This one wasn't particularly clever, though Family Guy's fans don't seem to be the most discerning comedy connoisseurs. (Full disclosure: there isn't an episode of Family Guy that I haven't seen.) Polygamy jokes constitute a great deal of the incidental references to Mormons and Mormonism in pop culture, and some are funnier than others. The Church has gone to great lengths to distance itself from the practice of polygamy, but are stymied by the kooks who continue to practice it (who regrettably are referred to as "Mormon Fundamentalists", even if not all of them self-identify as such). One would think it would be easier to distance ourselves from a practice that was hardly defining; it was only practiced by a comparatively small subset of Church members, for a short period if time, over a century ago. (The fact that religious precedent exists for the practice throughout the Old Testament doesn't seem to make the practice any more defensible or less bizarre to most people.)
Due in part to depictions of Mormons as polygamous in this and other shows, the misleading Mormon/Polygamy association will likely, unfortunately, continue into the future.
And, of course, when Peter's "Mormon" wives point out (correctly) that Mormons don't drink alcohol, Peter promptly throws them away, literally, in garbage cans. I'm not sure how to begin an exegesis of that...