Welcome back to Geek Life! We’re 19 episodes in, and if we count the number of my articles as if they are years, they still don’t equal the number of years my topic has appeared on television. In twenty-two seasons, The Simpsons have given us everything from laughs to irreverent comedy to quotable lines to perhaps the most recognizable family in the world. I’m not kidding… Show me a picture of my mom next to a picture of Homer Simpson, and I’m going to acknowledge Homer first. Seriously. So, stick around, hop on that couch, granted it doesn’t run away from you or make bad things happen to you, and let’s start from the very beginning, shall we?
From Tracey Ullman to Pop Cultural Icons… The Simpsons
With a memorable theme song by soundtrack master Danny Elfman, five main cast members that seem almost like family, a support cast beyond them that numbers into the hundreds, quotable lines that would take miles of paper to record, and perhaps the main reason for Fox’s television network to sky rocket into the major player they are today, it’s no wonder The Simpsons has been entertaining people for over 20 years. The show was the brainchild of cartoonist Matt Groening. He was looking to bring his comic strip Life in Hell to television with the help of Academy Award winning producer James L. Brooks. When he realized that the licensing for his strip would be lost, he quickly threw together a pitch for a dysfunctional family using the names of members of his own family. Substituting Bart for his brother’s name, Homer, Marge, Lisa, and Maggie completed the cast of the Simpson family.
The Simpsons would first appear as crudely drawn shorts shown on Tracy Ullman’s self titled variety show. Ullman’s Emmy Award winning show was already fairly popular on the young Fox network – showing alongside the immensely popular Married… With Children. The Tracey Ullman Show provided for much of the voice talent that would later make up the Simpson family. The animation, as mentioned before, was very crude and is actually shockingly different from when they first appeared to the following season to the series that rolled out of the shorts. Even the voices and the personalities of the characters changed over time, but have remained fairly constant for the last fifteen years or so.
Bart, the mischievous oldest son of Homer and Marge, was immediately set up as the star of the shorts. He was quickly likened to a modern day Dennis the Menace for the trouble he often got into. However, the comparisons wouldn’t go any farther than that because Bart, while often yelled at, or even humorously choked by Homer, was rarely punished for his misdeeds. Even Lisa and Maggie got into the shenanigans early on even though Lisa’s character has grown into a very complex person and Maggie has proven to be wiser beyond her year.
Even though the shorts don’t carry the same weight now as they did then (even to the point of making you wonder what exactly was so funny about them some twenty-four years later), the animated segment was definitely a “water cooler” type of topic the next morning at school. We couldn’t wait to ask our friends if they saw what Bart did the night before or how funny it was when Homer got mad at him and so on. I don’t even know if we were aware of the title of the segment. We knew they were the Simpsons, but for some reason, my friends and I always called the segments “Bart and His Dad”. While more complex of a title, syllabic-ally, than The Simpsons, “Bart and His Dad” just sucks and a title. But what the hell did we know? We were ten years old at the time.
Then came the day we all got an early Christmas present. On December 17, 1989, The Simpsons’ Christmas Special, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” premiered. The story for this special found Bart getting a badass tattoo, forcing the Christmas fund that Marge has been dilligently saving to remove it. Now, completely relying on Homer’s Christmas bonus from the nuclear power plant, Christmas presents were going to be at a premium this year. Unfortunately, when Homer’s boss, Mr. Burns, tells the staff there will be no Christmas bonus, Homer is forced to get a job as a mall Santa. When the pay doesn’t work out to Homer’s liking, he and Bart go to the track based on a hot dog racing tip. When the dog, Santa’s Little Helper, finishes last, the hope for Christmas is lost. That is until Bart and Homer see the losing dog being thrown out into the cold by his owner. Homer and Bart bring the dog home saving Christmas for the whole family.
I remember being absolutely glued to the television during that first half hour episode. There was a surprising quality of classy heart wrapping up the episode that wasn’t always seen in the shorts. While the Simpsons family still struggled with dysfunction, you couldn’t help but feel warm and fuzzy at the end of that first episode. That feel good feeling would be something that we would grow accustomed to because we found out that starting in mid-January of 1990, The Simpsons would be an ongoing series of thirty-minute episodes. Aye Carumba, we were on cloud nine.
With each week that passed, the laughs grew more and more, but one of the earliest moments in the scene that still gets my dad and me laughing uncontrollably every time. In the episode “There’s No Disgrace Like Home”, the family goes to see Dr. Marvin Monroe to sort out some of the issues they have as a family. In the end, Monroe resorts to shock therapy, which just ends up being a way for the family to take out their aggressions on each other time and time again. In those early days, it was the physical comedy of the series that was typically the funniest parts of the shows. Oftentimes, it involved Homer skateboarding into a gorge, or being mercilessly hammered over the head, or just simply falling down the stairs. As each season passed, though, we found that the show would soon take on a new life which would help it become the massive cash cow for Fox that it is today.
Forget about the butt loads of Simpsons merchandise that have come out over the years. That’s not what made the show so profitable. What made it so huge was the syndication dollars paid to air the show on other networks in the middle of the evening or late at night. In fact, there isn’t a single minute that passes in a day that The Simpsons can’t be seen on some channel somewhere in the world. It’s hard to even think of another show that you could ever say that about. So, what took the show from a series about a family that couldn’t get along and getting for real opposition from George and Barbara Bush and Republicans everywhere for destroying families to a series that’s seen all over the world? Really, there are several answers that could play into the cause, but for me, there’s really only one – the writing.
Sure, it’s great to push the boundaries of taste, or show particularly low brow physical comedy over the often higher brow shows like Murphy Brown and Mad About You, but when you get the right group of writers into the same room with a green light from Fox to do what they want, it suddenly opens a can of worms that places the series near the top of the best written shows of all time. It was more than just watching Homer get hurt or cooking up some scheme for Bart to act out. The real strength of The Simpsons was irreverence. It was the writing staff taking shots at politics or religion when most other shows tried to steer as clear from that as possible to reign in the highest number of viewers as possible. It was open defiance to the conservatives that tried to expose the Simpson family as un-American or just plain stupid. It was not blinking an eye at Homer proclaiming Jesus as his second favorite fictional character. These types of actions weren’t meant to fire a shot across the bow at people’s personal beliefs or ideals, but simply something funny for the characters to say because Fox allowed them to. This, of course, opened the door for shows like Family Guy and South Park to come along and push the irreverence button harder and more frequently, but with results that can arguably be called more offensive. On December 18, 2989, I don’t think any of us would have believed if someone told us that, in less than ten years, The Simpsons would have a) still been on the air and b) the gold standard of high brow animated comedy. That’s what “generations” of great writing can do for a television program.
When did this begin? Early on, in both the shorts and the first few seasons of the series, Bart was the clear star of the show. He was America’s new “bad boy” and his stunts and pranks were usually featured to the point of being a focus as opposed to being a portion of each episode. It was like we tuned in each week just to see what Bart was going to do next. After a few years, a problem produced itself to the writers. How much longer could a 10-year old boy continue to carry the series? His age alone presented certain obstacles to the stories they could tell. At that moment, a shift in focus started to move toward Homer. Homer was a character old enough to make jokes about the 70s and 80s, or have a job that presented that much more opportunity for hi-jinks.
Once the show started to shift focus from Bart’s hi-jinks to Homer’s, the show’s popularity would boom again. It was during this time that major contributions would come from Conan O’Brien and duo Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein. O’Brien was the credited writer on the episode “Marge Vs. The Monorail” which definitely played up to comedic style. Oakley and Weinstein wrote several episodes and displayed both a sense of pop culture reference and heart to their episodes. It’s easy to say that O’Brien’s comedic style may have helped Homer become the icon he is because there’s what I like to call an “intelligent idiocy” to his schemes that you just chuckle at when you hear them. Once Oakley and Weinstein started to take on more responsibility as go-to writers and, later, showrunners, they would build a much more well populated Springfield and, in my opinion, made the Simpsons one of the greatest television shows ever produced. Oakley and Weinstein would go onto do one more project together that, while short lived, is one of my favorite shows of all time. That show is Mission Hill and that’s a topic I’ll touch on in another Geek Life.
As I just mentioned, Springfield, the fictional home of the Simpson family (and a city that has a still unrevealed state), has a huge cast of characters. Some, like Comic Book Guy, has seen his popularity rise over the years, but some like Krusty the Clown and Quick-E-Mart operation Apu, have been around since the earliest of episodes. The supporting cast is also broken down into different segments. First, you have the characters attached to either Springfield Elementary, like Principal Skinner and Nelson Muntz, or Bart’s life like his best friend Milhouse, Krusty, and Comic Book Guy. Then you have the characters more attached to Homer’s world like Mr. Burns, Smithers, Carl, and Lenny from the power plant, or his best friend Barney and Moe from Homer’s drinking hole Moe’s. The last group is the general population like Apu, neighbor Ned Flanders, and Reverend Lovejoy who have connections to several characters beyond Homer or Bart.
The three supporting characters who have the most interesting stories are Ned Flanders, Mr. Burns, and Waylon Smithers. While some might argue Krusty has had far more humorous adventures during the series’ long run, the other three characters tend to have much more interesting histories. First, let’s talk Smithers. Waylon Smithers has revealed to be gay very early in the series. While he does his best to keep that aspect of his life compartmentalized from his more public life as Mr. Burns’ right hand man, his sexual orientation is still a major part of who he is. He has the largest collection of Malibu Stacy (the series’ version of Barbie) in the whole world. Though he often aids Mr. Burns in many of his evil plots against Springfield, he tries to serve as his boss’ conscience – usually to no avail. So, why would a decent man who almost always means no one any harm want to stay the loyal lap dog of such an evil and maniacal man? Well, that’s because Smithers is totally in love with Mr. Burns. Like a battered wife of an abusive man, Smithers doesn’t believe himself to be strong enough to leave Burns’ side.
Next is C. Montgomery Burns himself. Burns is a heartless man who is sometimes shown just to be in his 70s or 80s, but other times is shown to be over 100 years old. He’s the richest man in Springfield and lords over everyone in his mansion. He cares for few people and is generally depicted to have little to no compassion for anyone but himself. He’s tried to steal the sunlight from the town (only to get shot by Maggie Simpson). He built a casino to rake in even more money (only to become a strange Howard Hughes-inspired germophobe). He lusted after Marge. Been painted by Marge. Palled around with Homer. Not even known Homer’s name. He’s tried to destroy Homer. He constantly tries to buy his way into and out of any situation imaginable. He served in World War II with Grandpa Simpson. He even talks in turn of the 20th century lingo. Just read this paragraph back and you’ll see just how often Monty Burns has been a pain in the sides of Springfield. In fact, this paragraph doesn’t even cover half of the schemes he’s cooked up over the years.
Lastly, we come to Ned Flanders. The best way to describe the mustachioed neighbor of the Simpsons is to simply call him the Anti-Homer. He is deeply faithful to Jesus. His family is the picture of perfection next to the Simpsons’ picture of perfect dysfunction. His children don’t eat candy or drink soda. They take pleasure in playing Bible games. Their idea of swearing is saying something like “golly darn”. The very nature of Ned Flanders’ personality enrages Homer. While they have been friends in many episodes, Flanders is typically the butt of several of Homer’s insults and the recipient of his short fused annoyance.
Ned Flanders’ wife, Maude, was always by her husband’s side. While Ned always viewed the Simpsons in a positive light, Maude usually made her feelings clear about the kind of influence they could have on their children, Rod and Todd. She was always weary of Homer’s drunken stumblings at parties, or Bart’s rascally tendencies. Her concerns about Homer’s actions would prove to be true. In an eleventh season episode, “Alone Again, Natura-Diddily”, Homer goes to a NASCAR race and sits in front of Ned and Maude in the stands. After taunting girls who are firing t-shirts into the crowd, he bends over to pick up a bobby pin at the last second, causing the t-shirt to strike Maude and throwing her off the top of the grandstands to her death. While Homer, naturally, never feels guilty for what happened, he does decide to help Ned try to get back on the dating horse again. In a hilarious sequence showing Homer creating a dating video of Ned using the cheesiest of wipe effects between “scenes”, we learn Ned is incredibly fit and endowed.
Ultimately, the best characters of the show are the Simpsons themselves. Even baby Maggie has loads of depth as a character. After all, we’ve grown to know and love them for nearly a quarter of a century. Marge is the classic housewife who generally has strong convictions that are usually muffled by the oafish Homer. Lisa is the incredibly smart, “perfect” student who has her own thoughts and feelings toward religion, politics, and feminism. Bart is the classic problem child who often bends to others’ perceptions of him than forming his own identity. It’s these archetypes that have been the foundation of the series from the very beginning.
As much as the church or conservative thinkers would have you believe they are not, the Simpsons is a type of family that exists throughout the world. What they do and how they deal with issues, especially Homer’s old tactic of strangling Bart whenever he does something wrong, might be extreme, but that’s the joy of being animated. They can literally be beaten up, abused, and placed into unrealistic situations, but it works because you’re not seeing a flesh and bone person doing these things. Also, it’s these reasons that led to The Simpsons becoming one of the most watched and talked about shows in its infancy. Married… With Children and Roseanne also depicted families in severe cases of dysfunction, and while they were also hot topics, neither of these shows were targeted like The Simpsons. As we’ve learned in so many other situations, it’s this kind of focus on the show that led to it being that much more popular.
The Simpsons’ influence would later lead to two other very popular shows to come along – South Park and Family Guy. South Park used the advantage of being on the cable channel Comedy Central to move beyond some of the hoops and push the envelope even farther. Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s tale of four Colorado youths are still found on television today at least a few times per season, there are moments that you’ll hear people talk about being particularly funny, gross, or controversial. Family Guy is also seen on Fox and follows a very similar mold to The Simpsons – even so far as having a fat dad, attractive wife, and three children. Unlike The Simpsons’ baby, Maggie, the Griffin’s baby, Stewie, often can’t shut up. Family Guy cut right to the chase and left out any possible thought that any one of the Griffin kids would be the star and focused immediately on Peter’s life and hair-brained ideas. Sure, Stewie has often had major plots in several episodes, but it was never advertised that he would be the star. Instead, his early goal was was to either take over the world or kill his mother, Lois.
While I enjoy both shows that came after The Simpsons, neither hold a flame to what Matt Groening’s creation is. I think South Park does a great job to use more low brow, toilet humor to express the irreverence that The Simpsons does. Family Guy, while still a very funny series, maybe borrows too much from both The Simpsons and South Park to find its humor. There are many episodes of Family Guy that consciously or subconsciously takes an idea The Simpsons have already done. Both Family Guy and The Simpsons have fired shots at either other too. Stewie has killed Homer Simpson and Peter’s horny friend Quagmire has slept with Marge leading to Homer going berserk and going into a murderous rampage. Honestly, these have not been Family Guy’s best, or most clever, jokes. The Simpsons have flat out made a joke about Seth MacFarlane’s blatant borrowing of stories and situations. After a monumental 20th anniversary episode in The Simpsons’ 21st season, previewers were shown a joke that didn’t make the cut to the final airing. The joke supposedly made reference to Fox’s Sunday night “Animation Domination” being mostly Seth MacFarlane’s series (of which he has three – Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, and American Dad! all appearing on Sunday). While there may not be much truth to the rumors, some wondered if what actually aired, which had a slightly different end message, was changed to “spare Seth MacFarlane’s feelings”. Like I said, I’m not sure how much weight I can put on the idea of Fox changing the message at the end of that 451st episode, but the rumor is out there.
In both South Park and Family Guy’s place in the comparison to The Simpsons, I often look at their form of satire to be completely the opposite of The Simpsons’. Imagine two well educated people on the topic of religion. Imagine they are both leaders of two different types of religions. They understand each other’s religion well. They may not agree, or even fully respect each other’s point of view on the topic, but they debate based on what they have to work with. This is how I feel The Simpsons have always dealt with irreverence. They will take satirical jabs at a topic because the writers feel it would simply be funny, or there’s a cultural reason to have that joke appear.
Now, imagine two people who have different faiths. For fun, let’s make it a Southern Baptist who has never any credit to any other religion and has always grown up around the Southern Baptist way of thinking. Hell, make him an extremist Christian. Now, have an extremist Muslim join that Christian. Now, have the two talk about religion. Likely, what you’re going to get is less of an educated debate and more of an outright, in your face, argument that will usually leave both sides bruised. That is how I feel the satire of South Park and Family Guy is presented by their creators. It’s still satire, but they deliver lower blows and use more extreme statements that the slightly more educated “debate”.
I’m not saying either Family Guy or South Park is “uneducated”. In fact, both shows have had particularly brilliant jokes. I’m just trying to put my feelings of the three shows into some sort of context. If Family Guy or South Park is able to last as long as The Simpsons, it’s likely going to be more due to the situation at their networks than it will be the reasons The Simpsons have stayed around. It’s doubtful that Germans or Arabs have the same connection to those shows as they do The Simpsons. We’re talking about the differences between shows that are popular in the States compared to a worldwide phenomenon.
The truly interesting thing about The Simpsons’ success is that, while it might have plateaued these days, I think it’s easy to argue that it has never “jumped the shark”. Yeah, I like the first ten seasons of the series more than the last dozen or so, but the quality is still there. I think a lot of my love of those earlier seasons has more to do with my own life and where I was in it while those episodes aired for the first time. As we’ve seen over the past 24 years, writers change and different styles come into play. That’s natural for any long-running show. It doesn’t mean the show has jumped anything. When The Simpsons Movie came out in 2007, not even a better than expected showing at the box office hurt the series or put it in a place that was difficult to continue on the small screen. The Simpsons are quite literally indestructible.
I can’t even imagine a world without The Simpsons. I’ve never had to even think about it. I’ve often said that it would be one of the saddest days of my life if Fox advertised the next episode to be the very last. I grew up with the series. I don’t know what I’d even be if I didn’t know some of the greatest Homer Simpson lines or moments. I know all things must pass (I learned that from George Harrison), but even entertaining the idea that there will be a world without The Simpsons seems impossible. If that day comes, though, I might have to dress as if I’m going to a funeral because these characters have become extended family to me.
Well, that does it for another edition of Geek Life. Come back in two weeks because I’m going to talk about some of those titles that showed me that DC Comics was, at times, just as good or fun as Marvel. I’ll talk about my transformation from a stout Marvel Zombie to a more well-rounded comic book reader! Hope to see you then!