Ecce Homerby Gilbert Adair
© The Independent (UK), 21 June 2000
'The Simpsons is a chef-d'oeuvre to which the work of no currently practising English-language novelist is comparable in importance or greatness...'
So says Gilbert Adair, the novelist and critic, of the cartoon soap that's 10 years old this week. But what makes it so important? And why is it so great? Doh!
When the Belgian artist Hergé died in 1983, the French philosopher Michel Serres unflinching affirmed that his 23 Tintin albums were a chef-d'oeuvre to which the work of no currently practising French novelist is comparable in importance or greatness".
If I now quote Serres, it's because, in relation to another manifestation of the last century's graphic art, I am about to echo his claim virtually word for word. Here goes. The Simpsons is a chef-d'oeuvre to which the work of no currently practising English-language novelist is comparable in importance or greatness.
Why, though? Well, if I wished to convert someone who had distractedly watched the occasional episode of The Simpsons but had never got hooked, as they say, there are two elements that would most conclusively justify the extravagance of my enthusiasm: the Hogarthian vividness of its characterisation and the fact that literally dozens of jokes jostle for space, for Lebensraum, in any one story.
Let's start with the jokes. Which, from among the thousands to have punctuated more than 200 screened episodes of The Simpsons, is the best of all? Humour being subjective, that's a perfidious, perhaps even meaningless question. Nevertheless, as someone who has caught all but a handful of those episodes, I would propose this minuscule marvel, from the one entitled "Burns' Heir".
Having nearly drowned in his bath, Montgomery Burns, Springfield's resident billionaire, owner of the leaky local nuclear power plant and, in age, apparently older than the 20th century itself, decides to seek an heir to whom he can bequeath his monstrous fortune. Chancing, from a window in his mansion, to catch sight of Bart Simpson in characteristically malevolent form, he settles on him. ("He's the perfect one to suckle at my proverbial teat," he cackles to preppy Waylon Smithers, not only his secretary but his would-be wooer.) "You, boy!" Burns calls down to Bart, "do you know what day this is?" We cut to a little urchin whom we have not seen before and who is, moreover, kitted out in dainty Victorian winter wear. (Up until that stage in the narrative there has been no indication that the episode is taking place in any particular season.) "Why," this urchin calls back in what is less a Cockney than what might be termed a Dickensian accent, "today is Christmas day, sir!" "Not you, you brat," snaps Burns. "The boy next to you!" Following which exchange, the show continues on its course and the Dickensian tyke never reappears.
I suppose what I like about that gag, and why, for me, it epitomises the comic genius of The Simpsons, is that it would flummox those technicians whose job it is to graft canned laughter on to the soundtrack of a sitcom. Nowadays, on both television and film, jokes are not exactly in short supply. An average episode of Friends is almost as stuffed with quotable one-liners as Joseph L Mankiewicz's All About Eve, whose dialogue was long judged to be the unsurpassable apogee of wise-cracking literacy. Yet All About Eve remains amusing and memorable a half-century after it was released, while even a good episode of Friends is no sooner consumed than forgotten. Why? For several reasons, ranging from Mankiewicz's directorial panache to the collective charm of his players. Also because, by resorting to a laughtrack, Friends is guilty of milking its material, just as stage musicals now systematically mike their performers' voices. It employs "background laughter", as we refer to background music, and much to the same crudely manipulative effect. In short, it laughs at its own jokes. No one needs to be told how much less funny a joke is if the person who cracks it is the first to fall about.
If a laughtrack would be inconceivable for The Simpsons, it's because not everyone laughs at the same gags, nor is everyone likely to be aware of every gag the first time around. (There are actually jokes in the show which its writers, seemingly, are prepared to throw away.) In the episode referred to above, it's not that the literary reference - patently A Christmas Carol - could be described as obscure of recherché. It's not the "surreality" of casually interpolating a minute sliver of narrative from a 19th-century literary classic into the manic flux and flow of a 20th-century cartoon that strikes us. It's the utter gratuity of such an interpolation. It's the sheer "Why, out of the blue, A Christmas Carol, for God's sake?" incongruity of the conceit. If we laugh, it's at that gratuitousness and incongruity as much as the gag itself - indeed, the gratuitousness and incongruity are, in a way, the gag. Which is why the anonymous titters routinely conjured up by a laughtrack couldn't begin to evoke the timbre of knowing? incredulous? bemused? laughter that it's calculated to elicit from a viewer at home.
This is no mean achievement. For just as one measure of the originality of a literary style is the strength and number of objections raised to it by a computer style-check application (to see what I mean, run a passage of Hemingway or Henry James past such a check), so the originality of the dialogue in a TV comedy show can be grade according to the resistance it outs up to the insidiously homogenising bias of a laughtrack. Currently, I know only of one show, on either side of the Atlantic, to which such resistance is total, and that's The Simpsons. The sole meaningful point of comparison would be with cinema rather than TV; even then, only with the films (most notably Playtime) of one of the greatest of all directors of comedy, Jacques Tati.
But I also mentioned The Simpsons' vividness of characterisation. Here, again, one has to be unfairly selective, tempting though it would be to rhapsodise at length on several of the show's resident and recurrent dramatis personae. On such characters, for example, as that maestro of the euphonious verbal arabesque, the Simpsons' heroically forbearing next-door neighbour, Ned Flanders. ("Come on over and strap on the feed bag," he says, inviting Homer to a barbecue. "We're going to fire up old Propane Elaine and put the heat on the meat! Nummy-nummy-num!" To which Homer responds: "I'll be there!" and, aside, "Notty notty-not!"). Then there's the B-movie actor with the B-movie name, Troy McClure. ("Live from Hawaii's beautiful Molokai Island - we're not just for lepers anymore!"). Or Krusty the Klown, the dyspeptically cynical, tax-dodging TV comic idolised, and regularly bailed out - by Bart. ("What's your name, kid?" "I'm Bart Simpson. I saved you from jail... I reunited you with your estranged father... I saved your career, man!" "Yeah, well, what have you done for me lately?"). Or there's even the sort of one-night-stand character who features in a single show and is never seen again, such as Jacques, the ultra-suave, Charles-Boyer-accented instructor at the local Bowl-A-Rama who, during his courtship of a lonely, disaffected Marge, coins this memorable definition of brunch: "It's not quite breakfast, it's not quite lunch, but it comes with a slice of cantaloupe at the end."
As it happens, the only name likely to ring a bell for those wholly unfamiliar with The Simpsons is Bart, who tends to be the main beneficiary of the show's many merchandising offshoots. To be sure, Bart is a magnificent creation, God's little wiseacre, infinitely more subtle than the "naughty boy" scallywag of comic-strip typology that is all one might, at first glance, presume him to be. For those in the know, however, the authentic stroke of brilliance is Bart's father. Not to mince words, Homer Simpson is one of the most credible portraits in any art form of an ordinary man, your average Joe Sixpack, not undeserving of comparison with Joyce's Leopold Bloom and Hasek's Good Soldier Schweik.
Homer is gross - obese, obtuse, lazy and close to illiterate. He has a voracious craving for junk food (mostly doughnuts, pork rinds and cheeseburgers) and even junkier television. ("I wanna shake of the dust of this one-horse town. I wanna explore the world. I wanna watch TV in a different time zone.") he is a bad neighbour, a sore loser and an atrocious parent. ("Lisa, if the Bible has taught us nothing else - and it hasn't - it's that girls should stick to girls' sports like hot-oil wrestling and foxy boxing and such and such.")
He is not just a controversial moral logician ("Marge, it takes two to lie. One to lie and one to listen") but a creature deficient in anything remotely resembling a social conscience. (When Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the Indian-born and illegally resident operator of the Kwik-E-Mart convenience store, risks being deported in the wake of a new anti-immigration law, Homer attempts to console him: "Oh my God. I got so swept up in the scapegoating and fun of Proposition 24, I never stopped to think it might affect someone I cared about. You know what, Apu, I am really, really gonna miss you.") it has even been hinted that he is afflicted with appalling BO. (In one episode, when he enters a pet sop, the manager, his nose frantically twitching, immediately wonders, "What's that stench?" The manager, I repeat, of a pet shop.) He is, then, unequivocally, the ordinary man as monster.
However, there is to Homer's monstrosity, to his near-total dearth of redeeming features, a genuinely Homeric dimension. This is a man who is instinct incarnate. He is the Platonic ideal of the slob, the pure repository of base human appetites, an obnoxious Everyman emancipated from all the fetters of psychological "spirituality" which mawkishly cling to practically every depiction of ordinariness in our culture. And yes, he is truly obnoxious (only in his undying adoration of Marge does a whiff of sentimentality obtrude). He consistently forgets the name of his littlest child. (When one-year-old Maggie precociously taps out Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" on her tiny toy xylophone, his reflex is to holler at her to "Stop that racket! I'm trying to watch TV!"). his first of many, many endeavours to throttle Bart comes just minutes after the boy's emergence from Marge's womb. He "borrows" a colleague's razor-sharp pencils to tease globs of wax from his ears. And when, at the end of the same episode, the same colleague meets with a horrific death, Homer nods off at his funeral, mouth agape, salivating, and dozily mutters, "Change the channel, Marge..."
Yet somehow, in spite of (or maybe, as critics inevitably say, because of) this all too human obnoxiousness, he is also a profoundly lovable creature, as Bloom and Schweik are lovable. Lovable in the tritely literal sense that we do love him. But lovable also in the literary sense that we end by identifying with him, for just as imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so, within the framework of illusionistic fiction, identification is the sincerest form of love. Gross as he is, we identify with him. I know of no modern novelist capable of squaring that circle.
Transcribed by Richard Copping
Last updated on June 29, 2000 by Jouni Paakkinen (email@example.com)