THE SIMPSONS ARCHIVE
MISCELLANEOUS

The Simpsons, American Satire

By Brett Mullin


How does a television series keep going in this time of ever changing network schedules and shows that grow stale after twelve weeks? The Simpsons have not only lasted, but with over 250 episodes since 1989, it has become a staple of American life. Last season, The Simpsons overtook The Flintstones as the longest running prime-time cartoon ever. Many tribute this longevity to the witty and hilarious satire that is present in every episode. By using incongruity, sarcasm, exaggeration, and other comedic techniques, The Simpsons satirizes most aspects of ordinary life, from family, to TV, to religion, achieving the true essence of satire.

Homer Simpson is the captivating and hilarious satire of todayís "Everyman." With each passing season, Homer has emerged more and more as the central character in the series. In one episode, a previously unenforced 200-year-old prohibition law is found on the Sringfield books. Liquor then becomes outlawed and Homer becomes the cityís "Beer Baron." At the end of the episode, the law is simply done away with and Homer toasts the townspeople who have gathered in the park: "To alcohol! The cause of Ė and solution to Ė all of lifeís problems" (Groening 231)! This statement is a very ironic social commentary from the writers of The Simpsons. Much of lifeís problems can be blamed on the excessive consumption of alcohol, but the bigger picture is gluttony in general. Too much money, or food, or power, or alcohol can leave one with an empty happiness. If a person is ignorant, they might try to remedy their problems with more false fulfillment. This quote is also comedic because it shows Homerís stupidity. Though the writers are attempting to prove a point, the character of Homer is totally sincere. The fact that anyone would actually praise alcohol in this manner is incongruous. As critic Jeff MacGregor says:

It is Homer Simpson who drives the showÖAs a moving, ever expanding satire, he is at once the best and worst of American dadness. He is forever wanting the things he'll never have, scheming to get them and failing, his appetites and disappointments as classic as the central conflicts from which all great theater and literature derives. (MacGregor 27) As MacGregor notes, Homer is a brilliant satire of the American father by being both lovable and incorrigible.

Another episode of The Simpsons satirizes parents who push their children to succeed in athletics at the expense of good sportsmanship. Bart is the star player on a youth hockey team that has advanced to the league championship. His sister, Lisa, is the star goalie on the opposing team. This sparks a vicious sibling rivalry and Marge, the mother and sole proprietor of good sportsmanship in the town, tries to soften the competitive edge by saying, "We love you both! Youíre not in competition with each other! Repeat: You are not in competition with each other" (Groening 157)! Just then, Homer comes rushing into the room shouting, "Hey! [Your coach] just called. This Friday Lisaís team is playing Bartís team. Youíre in direct competition. And donít go easy on each other just because youíre brother and sister. I want to see you both fighting for your parentsí love" (Groening 157)! Because it is so exaggerated, Homerís quote is a very funny contradiction of Margeís. Though many parents do cross the line in pushing their child to succeed, Homer overly exaggerates it when he says, "I want to see you both fighting for your parentís love!" Marge represents the "good" parent, as she so often does, and Homer becomes the extreme satire of the "bad" parent. He also says he doesnít want his kids going easy on each other because theyíre family. This is in direct contrast of the "family first" mentality most parents try to instill in their children. Instead, Homer wrongly puts winning ahead of anything else. There is a lot of incongruity in Homerís actions as well because one does not expect a middle-aged father to act so childish.

With exaggerated characters, the townspeople of Springfield satirize the stereotypes that the media so often depicts. Police Chief Clancy Wiggum is the quintessential corrupt and unintelligent head of the police force. His physical appearance alone is a satire of the stereotypical officer. He is very fat, always eating donuts and assorted artery clogging foods, and his nose bares a striking resemblance to that of a pig. In an act of comedy only possible in cartoons, Wiggumís round, upturned nose with large nostrils is unlike anyone elseís in Springfield. Aside from his physical features, his questionable character serves as a satire of crooked cops. In this scene, Wiggum is attempting to take a bribe from Homer who is unwilling:

    Homer:  You know, one-day honest citizens are gonna to stand 
            up to you crooked cops.

    Wiggum:  They are?  Oh no.  Have they set a date? (Groening 108)

This quote shows both the corruptness and total stupidity of the character. Most policemen would not ask for a bribe, but that is commonplace amongst the Springfield force. With the ever-expanding LAPD scandal coupled with countless portrayals of crooked cops in television and movies, behavior like Wiggumís is becoming more and more believable. It is also absurd to think that any person, much less a police chief, would take Homerís threat of an uprise so seriously. Wiggum firmly believes that Homer is talking literally, thus portraying him as very unintelligent at best. Media stereotypes of police emphasize both of these character flaws in police officers, and The Simpsons overly exaggerate these characteristics for satiric and comedic effect.

Mayor Diamond Joe Quimby is another exaggerated character as a satire of corrupt and promiscuous politicians. Anyone who ever watches late night talk shows knows that politicians are popular targets of satire. The Simpsons is no different. First off, his name is a satire of the corny slogans and ploys used by politicians on all levels of government. "Joe" is appealing to the "average Joe" audience while "Diamond" symbolizes Quimbyís corruptness and constant raiding of the town treasury. Quimby does not make many appearances on the show, but when he does, they are not flattering. He is married, yet always with younger women. The promiscuity of politicians has been a popular satire in the past and a stereotype portrayed often by Quimby. In one episode, an anonymous politician said of Quimby: "You are an illiterate, tax-cheating, wife-swapping, pot-smoking Spend-o-crat" (Groening 153). To which Quimby replied, "Hey, I am no longer illiterate" (Groening 153). Aside from the infidelity, this quote shows that Quimby is also uneducated, dishonest, and a frivolous spender. This is the classic satiric description of politicians. Quimbyís response to the criticism is incongruous because he does not deny the allegations, only saying that he was no longer illiterate. The implication that he was illiterate when he was elected into office also shows his unintelligence. It is somewhat ironic and fitting that such a flawed man would be the leader of such a flawed town. These are of course exaggerated characteristics but are made more comedic because of the real-life problems and allegations our leaders have faced.

The strictness and limitations of religion are often satirized on The Simpsons. Religion has long been a very controversial issue, but also a very popular target of satire. In a 1992 episode, Homer starts his own religion and refuses to attend church. He then has a dream that God speaks to him and sanctions his new faith:

    Homer: Iím not a bad guy.  I work hard and I love my kids, So why should
           I spend half my Sunday hearing about how Iím going to hell?

      God: Hmm, youíve got a point there.  You know, sometimes even Iíd 
           rather be watching football.  Does St. Louis still have a team?

    Homer: No. They moved to Phoenix.  (Groening 94)

Here, The Simpsons satirize the strictness of religion, mainly Christianity. God is depicted as the caring and understanding god that most people believe him to be; yet even he does not see much reason to attend church. The writers of the series are basically saying that being a good person should be enough in the eyes of God. They see many of the restrictions of the Church as wrong. God also comes across as a normal guy who loves football and some of lifeís other simple pleasures. It is incongruous that God would ask if St. Louis still had a football team because he knows all, but that just helps portray him as an "average guy."

The Simpsons also satirizes people of one religious affiliation who look down on those of other religions. In the same episode mentioned in the previous paragraph, Homer says to Apu, who is a Hindu, "No offense Apu, but when they were handing out religions, you musta been out taking a whizz" (Groening 94). This is a very sarcastic remark that may be funny on the surface, but is actually a very cruel and insensitive putdown. Many people often demean and degrade anything that is different. The writers are using Homerís crude and up-front mentality as a persona to display this form of bigotry. This unwillingness to accept anything different does not only apply to religion. The writers have also satirized societyís problems regarding ethnicity and sexuality. It is also ironic that Homer would criticize a religion considering he had just started his own that served more as an excuse to get out of church than anything else. TV Guide critic, David Owen says:

Like many of the best Simpsons episodes, this one manages to be hilarious and subversive but also, somehow, uplifting. In fact, if the episode has a moral, it's probably something like "Going to church may not be a terrible idea." Yet you never stop laughing. When Reverend Lovejoy refers to Apu's religion as "miscellaneous," Apu indignantly says, "Hindu. There are 700 million of us." Lovejoy smiles at him uncomprehendingly and says, "Oh, that's super." (Owen)

Owen has identified one of the truly great aspects of the show, and that is its ability to satirize, then enlighten, and then uplift.

Another target of satire becomes tabloid journalism. Homer is falsely accused of sexual harassment and the Springfield media attacks his character nonstop. His name is cleared of any wrongdoing by an amateur videotape shot by Groundskeeper Willie, a Scottish immigrant. The television news magazine, "Rock Bottom," then shifts its focus from Homerís alleged sexual harassment to Willieís voyeuristic hobby:

    TV host: Tomorrow, on "Rock Bottom," heís a foreigner 
             who takes videos of you when you least suspect it.  
             Heís "Rowdy Roddy Peeper."

      Homer: Oooh, that man is sick

      Marge: Groundskeeper Willie saved you, Homer.

      Homer: But listen to the music, heís evil!

      Marge: Hasnít this experience taught you you canít believe 
             everything you hear?

      Homer: Marge, my friend, I havenít learned a thing. (Groening 159)

This quote clearly satirizes the practice of twisting and manipulating a story into sensational television. By over exaggerating this manipulation, The Simpsons displays how some "news" shows will do anything to attract viewers. The situation is made even more comedic and satirical when Homer completely falls for this deception. Homerís reaction, in a sense, satirizes the viewers of these programs as gullible and unintelligent. Homerís stupidity is obviously exaggerated because the music and title alone have made Homer forget that Willie just saved his reputation. Yet this ploy really works is reality for gossip oriented programs. This whole exchange is capped perfectly by Homerís acknowledgement that he hadnít learned a thing. Ironically, the same type of journalism that was defacing his name, now has him completely captivated. This blind allegiance is a sad commentary on both the entertainment media, and the viewers who feed it.

The Simpsons has made a mark on television and social history that is ever-growing in distinction, and may never fade. Through very intelligent writing, the series not only makes the viewer laugh, but also makes them think. The Simpsons will always appeal to a young audience because of its ever-present pratfalls and stupidity that is, at times, nothing short of brilliant; but, it appeals even more to young adults, or adults who are young at heart, who can laugh at the low comedy, yet understand the biting satire that truly drives the series. By poking fun at family, television, religion, and basically the American lifestyle, The Simpsons is a satire that may not grow old for a long time to come. Los Angeles Times writer, Howard Roesenberg says, "Throughout its decade of smart existence, The Simpsons has made delicious, but not malicious fun of just about the entire cosmos."

WORKS CITED

  • Groening, Matt. The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.

  • MacGregor, Jeff. "More Than Sight Gags and Subversive Satire." Review. New York Times 20 June 1999: Television/Radio 27.
  • Owen, David. "Crazy for The Simpsons." TV Guide (3-9 Jan. 1998): 11 May 1999 <http://www.snpp.com/other/articles/crazyforoff.html>.
  • Rosenberg, Howard. "Fox Does Have Standardsóand Double Standards." Editorial. Los Angeles Times (2 June 1999): 15 Oct. 1999 <http://www.snpp.com/other/articles/foxstandards.html>.
© Brett Mullin 1999

Published at The Simpsons Archive with author's permission.



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Last updated on March 2, 2000 by Jouni Paakkinen (jouni@snpp.com)