Yellow Fever

The Simpsons as cultural phenomenon

By Jim Gleeson

The College Tribune, University College Dublin, 11 November 1998.

The article was shortened when published. This is the full version.

I wonder will we ever have to answer our grandchildren's questions about The Simpsons, like our grannies have to answer ours about Hitler, the Pyramids, Iggy Pop and the like. Somehow I doubt it. The Simpsons will never be off the human race's screens as long as there's still something left to watch it on. The program is doomed to a never-ending syndication loop, while erstwhile contemporaries like Seinfeld and Friends will be eventually ground down and fed to gulls. The reward for God-like brilliance is immortality of the weirdest kind, in fact the show will probably be popular longer than the Bible. Why?

When The Simpsons began as a thirty-second slot on the Tracey Ullman Show, it was instantly the most popular thing about the program, and Groening was soon asked to produce a series of half-hour episodes by the good people at the then-fledgling Fox Broadcasting Corporation. Groening and fellow executive producers Sam Simon and James L. Brooks hired a team of script writers and artists and the show was launched amid much fanfare in 1990. It didn't reach us until about two years later, and I remember being told by Gay Byrne on the Toy Show that we would soon all be hearing a lot about "this little fellow", this little fellow being Bart Simpson, the putative star of the show.

It wasn't long before we worked out that the show was the star, though, Bart being more of an angle for the merchandisers. Regardless, the show was soon hugely popular here, and was keeping the young Sky channel afloat.

The Simpsons attained it's peak somewhere around the start of the third series, I think, with episodes like 'Mr Lisa goes to Washington', 'Saturdays of thunder', 'Flaming Moe's' and 'Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk'. Writers like Jon Vitti, Conan O'Brien, John Swartzwelder, Al Jean and George Meyer were the stars of a two dozen-strong 'committee' that collaborated on what were fast becoming the best half-hours you could possibly have with your parents around. The sit-com, the only artform best produced by committee, at it's peak.

The typical episode from this time on was impossibly dense, with something to laugh at occurring at the regular rate of about twenty a minute. The show was rare in rewarding attention to detail, with especially obscure references or gags taking a few careful viewings to pick up. The writers could make references to stuff you had never heard of, like Earl Warren or the Tailhook scandal, and you would still laugh, giddy with the crafted sleight of it all.

This density of humour was only possible because of the unique universe the show inhabits. Deliberately anonymous, Springfield is an Everytown (the name selected by Groening partly because it's one of the most common in the country) containing, among other things, a waterfront, a prison, a nuclear power plant, a dam, a 'last bridge out of town', three enormous mountains, a Hollywood-like sign, and a wrong side of the tracks. Springfield is infinite. Any amount of celebrities happen to live there, and it seems to operate in a strange, floating type of geographical location relative to the rest of the country, being comfortably close to Boston, New York and Hollywood, yet far enough away to retain a small-town atmosphere, where everybody know everyone else's name, except Mr. Burns, who can't remember.

The cartoon format itself is similarly boundless, allowing the writers to use as throwaway dream sequences set-ups no live action production could possibly afford, and to break the boundaries of time and space, for instance by having one Homer walk past the window while another slouches on the couch, and using impossibly quick or violent events or actions for comic effect.

The show was a giant leap forward in both animated comedy and television comedy and satire in general. As animation head David Silverman recalls, before the Simpsons, most of the animation around was "either superhero stuff or the Smurfs". The Simpsons redefined the idea of what animation could look like on television. Without it, we would be unlikely to have The Critic, King of the Hill (co-created by former Simpsons writer Greg Daniels) or South Park. It is also highly unlikely that either the Fox Corporation or Sky could have reached their present positions of power without the income and prestige afforded to them by the program. This is a fact which the writers acknowledge with their frequent biting attacks on Fox's dumbed-down brand of populism, exemplified by the much-pilloried Married With Children, and the numerous parodies of When Animals Attack, like 'When Surgery Goes Wrong'.

The merchandising and broadcasting of the show contributed in a number of ways to it's mystique. It was certainly licensed to the hilt, but the show's image never became a cross-culturally recognised one, partly due to the failure to target any particular market, unlike for instance South Park. As a result the media and consequently your parents never really 'got' The Simpsons, seeing it as a 'cult' cartoon of the Ren & Stimpy variety. So the show was never really spoilt by your parents getting into it as they should, and has retained it's cool for so far about seven years. It is also unlikely that The Simpsons would be such an institution at present were it not for Sky's policy of daily screenings, feeding the urge to watch each episode again and again, building up a library of quotes and jokes with which to break the ice at parties, funerals and job interviews. The fact that they had nothing else to show except Hogan's Heroes and Beverly Hills 90210 is entirely beside the point. I'm sure Sky knew what they were doing all along.

Another factor in the show's longevity is the enormous cast of quality characters, a result of the said infinite universe and the ambition of the writer's to document their whole culture. The show has produced what must be one of, if not the largest ever cast of believable, fully rounded characters on television. Over 250 characters have had lines in the show, and dozens of the most familiar are destined to go down in both cultural history and popular memory. They typically start out as stereotypes or parodies of stereotypes, but characters like Moe, Krusty, Mr. Burns, Chief Wiggum, Principle Skinner and Mrs Krabapple have over the years been given depth, definition, wit and humanity. They are more real and more effective than the cardboard cutouts or composites of catch-phrases we see on Friends or Seinfeld, or the vast majority of the rest of American, British and Irish TV, which even these two feeble franchises but in the shade.

Central among this population is the Simpson family itself, a surprisingly typical one when put against the subversity of the rest of the show, but not so when you consider that Groening's original conception was to show a TV family superficially similar to those of his '60s childhood, only one you could feel superior to. So while they have the same love and affection towards each other as the Waltons and the Cosbys, they also tend from time to time to lie, cheat, hurt, humiliate, embezzle and attempt to murder each other.

As I mentioned, in the beginnning Bart was the supposed star of the show. As recently as this summer, Time magazine listed him as one of the twenty most important cultural figures of the century. Time got it wrong. If The Simpsons possesses a cultural icon, it is Homer. At the simplest level this is because he is a fat, lazy, incompetent slob, and everyone can sympathise with that. He is the child as adult, doing what we wish we could do (playing the boss's head like the bongos, going into space, throwing locusts at George Bush) but stop short of, because we lack his devil-may-care attitude/mystifying ignorance of the consequences. The fact that Homer gets away with answering the door wearing only a grocery bag is used as a subtle comment by the writers on the asylum that modern America has become. And the unfortunate and old-fashioned Frank Grimes was right when he pointed out that Homer is emblematic of American society: that he can blunder through life, succeed even, despite idiocy. In any other place, at any other time, Homer would have starved to death, but in the '90s U.S.A. he has a beautiful house, a great family and lobster for dinner. Truly, he is an example to us all.

It's because of moral ambiguities like these that people (well, not people, Republicans) have often accused the Simpsons of being nothing but a mouthpiece for the dangerously liberal viewpoints of its creators, and a shameless celebration of dysfunction. In reality it's nothing of the sort. The Simpsons's political attitude doesn't arise out of adolescent paranoia or unthinking reactionism. The show pummels the far-right and the 'moral majority' partly because it's such great fun to see their little faces screw up in baffled anger, but mostly because it is the most sensible and (in the best sense) the most obvious thing to do. Groening and co. believe wholeheartedly that Bush-bashing and NRA-baiting are activities that any right-headed, enlightened American both applauds and takes part in themselves. It is more an illustration of the make-up of the American media and culture in general that the show's unashamed possession of a political conscience is seen as so bizarre. Groening, once asked if his politics weren't left of centre, said, "I like to think of myself as middle of the road, but the rest of our culture would define me as loony left"

The show does not try and score political points. It targets hypocrisy, corruption and institutionalised laziness wherever it finds them, being cheerfully vicious to whoever the writers think deserves it. In one memorable episode, an elephant charges through first a Democratic party convention, where the banners read "We're not fit to govern" and then a Republican one, where they say "We're just plain evil". The show has constantly tried to raise political awareness, in as gentle and non-hectoring way as possible. The early episode "Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington" was a classic example of the morality tale as popular entertainment, and they have explored through the nefarious dealings of Sideshow Bob the concepts, so beloved of the present establishment, of media manipulation and multi-million dollar campaign funding.

Another aspect of the genius of The Simpsons is the program's linguistic inventiveness. Some phrases have genuinely become part of the English language, or at least that variety of it spoken by anyone who watches decent TV, which is admittedly small. These include "D'oh!", "Yoink!" and that immortal riposte to anyone who suggests you should maybe slow down on the old drinking, "Homer no function beer well without". Other examples include the curiously useful verb "embiggens" (as Miss Hoover remarks, "It's a perfectly cromulent word"), and the bizarre language spoken by Moe the bartender. Seemingly used as an example by the show's writers of the effect on language of a terrible education system, small-town insularity and a deeply bitter mind, Moe has in the past referred to himself as "Joe Puke-Pail", called a garage "a car-hole" , asked Lisa "If you're so sure what it ain't, why don't you tell us what it am?!", opened a conversation with the words "So, Lenny, say you pull a thorn out of the pope's butt . ." and admitted his frequent urge when angered to "start pokin' out eyes".

What I've been getting at is that The Simpsons is unique, a landmark, a consequence of it's history. The show is a 'Beatles-point' in television. Everything that came before it, from Hogan's Heroes to the Nixon- Kennedy debates, was merely build-up and raw material, everything that comes after mere imitation. The Simpsons could not have happened ten or twenty years before it did. The medium had to build up the requisite levels of complexity and diversity, and then all that was needed for the impetus, someone to come along and exploit this. Just like the Beatles unconsciously assimilated and sorted everything that went before and defined, at furious pace of invention, everything since, so The Simpsons burst out immediately in all directions, leaving no area of their subject untouched. It's a career that will only have run it's course when they feel, as the Beatles did, that they have done everything they could have.

There are already signs that this has happened. The last two seasons, eight and nine, were disappointing, which is to say that they were merely brilliant. Vitti and O'Brien, among others, are gone, and the new writers seem to be straining to find credible material within the confines of Springfield. But like I said at the start, we will never be without it.

In the end, analysis and discussion can never uncover or explain the whole of the alchemy that makes the Simpsons so special. (Hmmm, maybe I should have told you that at the start of the article. Would have saved us all a lot of bother). The Simpsons is great because as well as being a cultural landmark and (and I'm not joking here) one of mankind's greatest and yellowist cultural achievements so far, there's something else too. The Simpsons is consistently and bone-achingly funny. Funny in instinctive, quick ways that defy explanation. Like superintendent Chalmers saying "What an odd remark", or a smoking monkey, or a shark snatching a gorilla from a tree, or Homer wearing a giant nacho hat, or Mayor Quimby shouting "You don't scare me, that could be anyone's ass!". Best just to remember them, store them up and relive them over and over again to each other, which is what we do, reminding ourselves that there's at least one reason why it's good to be alive, right here, right now.

© Jim Gleeson 1998
Published at the Simpsons Archive with author's permission.

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