So here’s the essay, it took me a few days, because, well, it’s long. I’m not an essayist, so it probably sucks. But what do I care. Enjoy.
How easy would it be for me to come onto my blog and do a “Top 10 Simpsons Moments” or something like that. Sure I could slap together that list and would probably look a shitload like the one at MSN.com, which resembles the one at aol.com, which seemed to copy the one in last weeks issue of EW, and so forth, and so forth. I think for the most part we can all agree who the best celebrity cameo was (Johnny Cash in The Mysterious Trip of Our Homer), or what the best episode was (Marge vs. The Monorail seems to be a consensus, but I prefer She of Little Faith) or what season was better (season 7) or whatever, there are probably a hundred things we can debate upon concerning the the stellar 18 year run of the show. But that’s not something I want to do.
Cause quite frankly, I just don’t want to.
I would, however, like to offer up a few of my own thoughts, observations and reflections on America’s family. These aren’t nearly as profound or even well thought out as what can be found in the books “Philosophy and The Simpsons” and “The Gospel and The Simpsons”, hell, I’m performing literary improvisation with this essay. But a fan’s perspective is the essence of what makes a good show. It’s necessary. So… here goes.
I actually didn’t get into The Simpsons till about 1999, maybe 2000. My parents let me watch Die Hard when I was 6, Clerks when I was 11, and listen to George Carlin since I was 5, but Bart Simpson was gonna be the bad influence on my life, go fuckin’ figure. So once I hit 13 or 14, I said “Fuck it, I’m watching it.”And my whole perspective on comedy, on television, on cartoons, on pop culture, on life, it all changed.
I think the first episode I ever saw was Bart Sells His Soul. It sticks out in my mind to this day because it was so wickedly funny, yet at the same time, earnestly heartfelt and poignant. Because my dad had raised me on classic rock (which to this day, I thank him for, cause that’s just good music), I got the “Ina-Gadda-da-Vida” reference, which is part of the hilarious opening sequence. Candles in the air like lighters. Because of Rev. Lovejoy, I refer to it as “rock and/or roll”, to this day. Just pure gold. And then Bart sells his soul to Milhouse, in an effort to prove that souls don’t exist. Cut to later in the episode, Bart psychosomatically begins to believe in the existence of souls and embarks on a journey of Homerian (Greek playwright, not his father) proportions to reclaim his soul. And it got heavy, Bart broke down and cried and prayed for his soul. There was a touching brother/sister moment when Lisa bought Bart’s soul back for him. And that’s when I perked up and took notice. It was “alright, this is a fuckin’ show I have to watch.
Until I saw this, and pretty much until this show came along in 1989, animated television shows were goofy parables, geared primarily towards kids. They had a simple lesson, or in the case of the Loony Tunes, it was just five minutes of zaniness. Not to say they were bad, but it wasn’t until The Simpsons came along that mainstream audiences got an animated show geared towards adults.
I’m taking a lot of historical perspective on this, I know, but to properly get my thoughts on the show out, I have to give context.
In 1989, The Simpsons were the antithesis of the “family comedy” that was dominating the TV ratings in the late 80’s. Growing Pains, The Cosby Show and Full House were moralistic, simplistic and carefree. All problems were solved by a good talk and a big hug. It was an idealistic view of the American family. But American families weren’t perfect. Enter the Fox network. Granted Married, With Children came first, but it really was The Simpsons that changed the family sitcom at that time. And despite many knock-offs and homages since, it’s still the gold standard for the functionally dysfunctional family.
Homer was the anti-Cliff Huxtable. He’s not this successful man, who’s all knowing and is lovey-dovey with his family. He’s a common man, blue-collar, kinda dumb, but loves his family and is doing his best for them. When Lisa goes missing after taking the bus downtown to the museum, Homer goes on a frantic search for her, even praying to Superman for help. That’s love. And he reflects a certain carefree attitude of Americans. This isn’t an insult toward Americans but there is one Homer quote that sums up his character perfectly. I can’t remember the episode, or even the particular situation he was in, but Homer proclaims “This is everybody’s fault but my own.” Hasn’t everyone felt like that at some point? I sure as shit have.
Marge was a great suburban wife. She was all about the image of the family. Even though they barely have faith, they still go to church every weekend, because Marge wants the community to think they’re good people. On many occasions, she wonders aloud “What will the neighbors think?” In Scenes from a Class Struggle in Springfield she bought a Chanel dress at an outlet mall, and when she was accepted by high society, she went crazy altering the dress, just so she could fit in with the upper-crust crowd. Eventually she saw the error of her ways, but that showed her true character.
Bart and Lisa are both representatives of rebellious youth. Bart is a rebellious troublemaker, always causing grief for Homer, Principal Skinner, Moe or just about anyone he comes across. In the first episode ever, he says point blank to Santa (Homer in disguise) “I’m Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?” It came full circle back to Bart in the recent four hundredth episode in another perfect pop culture reference, with his phone call getting crossed with a secret agent’s call, who promptly said “I’m Jack Bauer, who the hell are you?”
Lisa is the more passive rebel. She goes against the grain of society, much to the chagrin of everyone around her, only finding support in the various celebrities that wander through, but never from her family. The often mis-understood genius, yet still naïve as to the ways of the world. She makes the mistake of many a young rebel by jumping head first into a cause or belief, yet rarely checking the water below.
I don’t want to get into Maggie, cause quite frankly, I don’t understand babies. Let’s just say she’s the weird kid who never talks and leave it at that.
And that’s what has cemented it’s place in pop culture history. By changing the rules of television. Cartoons weren’t just for kids anymore. Sitcoms weren’t for washed up stand-up comics. It was this brand new entity, this force to be reckoned with, and Matt Groening proclaimed he was here to stay.
Saturday Night Live aside, no other show has been such a pop culture landmark, while simultaneously skewering it at every turn. And it’s a lot of the little jokes that make the satire work. When Lenny and Carl refer to Richard Gere as the “world’s most famous Buddhist”. When Homer realizes he’s not “cool” anymore, he rattles off bands that weren’t really all that cool to begin with. But the most significant mark of the greatness of The Simpsons, is three particular episodes. Brush With Greatness, She of Little Faith and Homer’s Barbershop Quartet. What these three all have in common is that they all featured former Beatles.
In 1976, Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels famously went on the air and offered John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, the Beatles, $3000 to reunite on his show. It never happened, and four years later, Lennon was dead and it never could happen. But, I firmly believe that had Lennon not died, The Simpsons could have reunited the Beatles. Three episodes, just a few years apart, all featured a Beatle, as themselves, in small roles. But Matt Groening could have written an episode for the four of them. And they would have done it.
I’d be hard pressed to find someone who would disagree with that sentiment. And that right there, that power Groening has, to have been able to reunite the Beatles, that’s huge. No one else has that much influence in pop culture. Not Michaels, not anymore. None of the power players in film and television have wield that kind of sword.
And it’s not like Groening has desired that power, and it’s not like he uses it. He just makes his show.
This essay has gone on a lot longer than I originally intended, so I’m going to wrap it up. And this is what’s gonna get me, the closing. I always have trouble with closings. From essays, to short stories, to voice mail messages, I never know how to end it.
The Simpsons are not just a part of television history, or pop culture history. But really, it’s a part of American history. It’s such a landmark show, and so ingrained in our collective psyches, that, much like the aforementioned Saturday Night Live, it is really hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t on the air. Even for people who are old enough to remember when it wasn’t on the air. Groening doesn’t show signs of stopping, and I for one, hope he goes as long as he’s got the steam to do it. The show will end when it ends. No sooner. No later.
Good night, and good luck, I guess.