Ay, caramba, The Simpsons turns 500

Ay, caramba, The Simpsons turns 500

This week saw the broadcast of the 500th episode of The Simpsons. REBECCA DAVIS ponders the source of the world’s affection for the yellow cartoon family.

At this point, the Simpson family has been around for so long that it’s hard to imagine TV without them. If you are younger than 23, you have never known a Simpson-less TV world. These days, The Simpsons is a bit like a very old friend who you think of affectionately from time to time, but rarely bother to call. Its ratings have dropped almost 20% in the past five years. Probably more times than any other show in history, it has been accused of being “just not funny anymore”. But at its best, The Simpsons skewers modern culture in a way few other shows have matched – and at its worst, it’s still a damn sight funnier than a lot of other shows, which won’t make 500 episodes.

The Simpsons has broken most TV-related records you could think of. It’s the longest-running TV cartoon in history, the longest-running sitcom, the longest-running scripted primetime TV show of any genre. In 1999 TIME decided The Simpsons was, simply, the best TV series of the 20th century. Bart Simpson was also the only fictional entry on TIME’s list of the 100 most influential figures of the 20th century. At a historical point when there were no other popular prime-time animated series on the air, The Simpsons would come to be embraced by the public more warmly than anyone could ever have predicted.

The Simpsons went on air for the first time in December 1989, originally a series of short inserts on Tracey Ullman’s comedy show on the Fox network. (Ullman would sue Fox in 1992, claiming that part of the show’s early success was due to its placement on her show, and saying she was entitled to $2.5-million. She lost.) The Simpsons did owe its commissioning to The Tracey Ullman Show, however, or at least to its producer James Brooks, who asked cartoonist Matt Groening to create short cartoons for the show. Groening allegedly assumed animators would improve his drawings before bringing them to life, but this never happened – which accounts for the strange crude proto-Simpsons you can see in the first incarnations of the family.

Photo: Matt Groening (L), creator and executive producer of the Fox television network animated television series The Simpsons poses with Yeardley Smith, voice talent for the character ‘Lisa Simpson’. REUTERS/Fred Prouser.

At the time when The Simpsons first went on air, the number one show in America was The Cosby Show, comedian Bill Cosby’s good-natured sitcom starring himself as an avuncular patriarch. The two shows couldn’t have been more different. The Cosbys were aspirational upper middle-class: a doctor married to a lawyer, living in a brownstone apartment in New York. The Simpson family was lower middle-class: Homer works at a nuclear power plant and hangs out at Moe’s Tavern and the bowling alley. With The Cosby Show’s TV dominance confirmed, it seems odd that a show breaking so completely from its mould would even have made it on air. At the time, however, Fox was a relatively new, unestablished network seeking to woo a younger viewership. It needed to take risks, and The Simpsons would turn out to be the best risk it ever took.

The most obvious difference between The Cosby Show and The Simpsons was that the former was a live-action show, and the latter animated. This in itself was a risky choice. An animated show had not ruled the airwaves for many years and cartoons were still considered the sole province of children in 1989. But the very fact that it was animated was in large part what the show owes its longevity to. It has enabled the show’s characters to plausibly remain the same age – no worries for producers about the stars becoming visibly more haggard, which is particularly important when two of its main characters are children. And it has also allowed the writers to get away with more. It has been suggested, for instance, that the character of Indian shop manager Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, a figure steeped in racial stereotypying, would never have been accepted on a live-action show.

The Simpsons also represented a major break with sitcom tradition in that it lacked a laugh track. Canned laughter was introduced into television because industry experts believed it was necessary to signal to audiences that what they were watching was a comedy. Bill Cosby’s first sitcom attempt, The Bill Cosby Show (1969 – 1971) was produced without a laugh track at his insistence, and he claimed his opposition to his network’s insistence on adding laughter was what caused the show to be canned after two seasons.

There was a period in the 60s and 70s where guffaw-less sitcoms were virtually guaranteed to fail. A study in 1974’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people were more likely to laugh at jokes if they were accompanied by off-screen laughter, so the practice continued – though in the 80s it became all the rage to tape shows in front of a live studio audience, and record their laughter live.

In 1989, then, it was a significant choice for a sitcom to air without a laugh track. (British comedian Ricky Gervais has said The Simpsons’ decision to run without canned laughter was the major inspiration for his making the same choice with his show The Office.) Now, of course, it is a sine qua non of sophisticated comedy shows that they should air without recorded laughter, but it’s one idea among many that we have The Simpsons to thank for popularising. 

Possibly the sharpest difference between The Simpsons and The Cosby Show, however, was the patriarchs at their core. Cosby was kooky, but affable, caring, responsible – in many ways, everyone’s dream dad. Homer Simpson is a beer-loving, immature oaf, whose consistently skewed decision-making has repeatedly exposed his family to potential harm over the decades. The Cosby Show was continually praised for its positive parenting model. Homer Simpson, by contrast, once abandoned his son Bart to go to court alone to face charges of skateboarding naked, because Homer was too lazy to attend the one-hour parenting class, which would have rendered this fate unnecessary. Little wonder that Bart turned out “angry, confused, frustrated” – to quote Bill Cosby himself, criticising the show in 1991. Cosby wasn’t the only one worried about The Simpsons’ messaging in its early years: president George H Bush pleaded with American families in 1992 to be “more like [70s TV family] The Waltons and less like The Simpsons”.

But what Bush failed to understand was that, while much of the humour of The Simpsons derives from the dysfunction of the family, at its heart lies some very traditional values. The love between Marge and Homer Simpson is the show’s main driving force and the importance of family its ultimate message. In fact, while the show is usually interpreted as being left-leaning, University of Virginia English professor Paul Cantor suggested in 1999 that The Simpsons actually upholds a pack of pretty conservative principles: the primacy of family, scepticism about political authority and distrust of abstractions.

In terms of its handling of political matters, the show is pretty even-handed. One episode showed participants at a Republican convention holding placards saying “We want what’s worst for everyone” and “We’re just plain evil”, but the same episode showed their Democrat counterparts gripping signs saying “We hate life and ourselves” and “We can’t govern”.

The phrase “nothing is sacred” has become a tired cliché to characterise modern humour, but in the case of The Simpsons, it’s been proved true. While they have lampooned issues ranging from politics to race to the environment, it has been suggested their ultimate target has always been pop culture itself. This is the argument of media scholar Douglas Rushkoff, who calls The Simpsons “the closest thing in America to a national media literacy programme”. Each episode is a pastiche of other forms of media: while it’s easy to enjoy The Simpsons for its wacky situations and sharp writing, one can often overlook the continual references to iconic old films, sometimes very subtly rendered by a scene’s staging. Rushkoff points out that this meta-referential approach is epitomised by the cartoon-within-a-cartoon that Lisa and Bart watch: Itchy & Scratchy, a Tom and Jerry parody which pointed to just how violent kids’ cartoons could be.

In its later seasons, the show has been criticised for falling victim to its own cleverness: too many referential winks, too many celebrity cameos – everyone from Stephen Hawking to Julian Assange has been on it – and too much postmodern trickery. Possibly the most controversial Simpsons episode of all time was The Principal and the Pauper (1997), where longstanding character Principal Skinner was revealed to be an imposter. Recent episodes have relied on even more extreme measures to keep the show fresh – last year the Internet was asked to vote on whether Ned Flanders should continue a romance with Edna Krabappel.

Opinion is divided over whether this kind of gimmick represents continuing development and evolution, or something more like tired desperation. The truth is that The Simpsons can no longer be considered subversive. Gone are the days when American presidents called on the population to avoid the Simpsons as models, and gone are the days when American schools banned pupils from wearing Bart Simpson T-shirts saying “Underachiever – and proud of it, man”. Subsequent adult-targeted comedy series like South Park have pushed the envelope harder and further than The Simpsons ever did. This was explicitly acknowledged by the show itself in 2010. In that year South Park ran an episode featuring the Prophet Muhammad disguised in a bear costume, prompting death-threats from radical Islamic websites. The Simpsons response to this was to have Bart chalk on the blackboard in the opening sequence of their next episode: “South Park – we’d stand beside you if we weren’t so scared”.

South Park has paid its own tributes to the influence of The Simpsons, however. In 2002  an episode aired in which a character devises a series of schemes to take over the world, but then realises that each one has already been performed on The Simpsons. The title: Simpsons Already Did It. That, in a nutshell, sums up the show’s legacy, and its future challenges. DM

Read more:

  • At 500 Episodes, How Does ‘The Simpsons’ Say Something New? in The Atlantic.



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