Originally penned in April 2018.
I know it might seem a tad naff for a grown man in his mid-thirties to be discussing a cartoon show, but gosh darn it, as the Simpsons creators are planning the end of production, I can’t help but think about how this was a show that I essentially grew up with. But what was it that made The Simpsons rise so high before its eventual slump? Here’s my two cents on the matter.
By Jonathan Foley
Having started as crude illustrations that were aired as bumpers between the ad breaks of The Tracey Ullman Show back in the mid-eighties, Matt Groening’s characters got their own show in 1989. The very first full episode being a Christmas special where they ran a storyline about how they overcame financial difficulties, inhouse disputes and even adapted Santa’s Little Helper as the family dog.
In the years that followed this successful screening, the show went on to gather a huge cult following which appealed to so many age groups, social classes and nationalities. The reason for this lies in how the show wasn’t afraid to tackle societal issues, it earned the respect of celebrities without bowing down to them and what’s more is that it was brilliantly written and produced.
It was also very unique in its appearance. Groening himself has admitted that many people found the yellow skin tone and brightly coloured settings rather baffling at first. It didn’t look like any other show on television, but in essence, that’s precisely what this struggling cartoonist from Portland, Oregon wanted.
Think about it. If you’re channel hopping and you stumble across an airing of The Simpsons, immediately, just by the colours used, you know it’s The Simpsons. A genius idea really. The writers also had no fear in politicising the show and satirised public figures and societies in general superbly well.
The Simpsons gained huge notoriety in 1992 when President George Bush slammed the show during a public address. In a passionate campaign speech, he urged the American family to “be a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like The Simpsons!” In their own way, the creators weren’t going to be bullied and in return, they hit back with Bart quoting the line: “Hey! We’re a lot like the Waltons. We’re praying for an end to a Depression too!” Take that, George!
Bush couldn’t have been more wrong in his condemnation of the Springfield family. Viewers who found themselves tuning in were subconsciously watching a show that was, believe it or not, highly relatable. On a domestic level, The Simpsons was one of the first ever shows that portrayed families going to church, having a drink or two too many and gleefully making fun of people in authority. Things that your normal everyday family could relate to,
The Simpsons was also a very intelligent show. A Facebook page called ‘Things I Know Because of The Simpsons’ was a great place for fans to post hidden gems that they spotted in certain episodes. The show often makes subtle yet highly complex mathematical gags and this led to the publication of the book ‘The Simpsons Secret Formula’ in 2013.
I have to confess here that a lot of those maths jokes go over my head but another thing that the show does tremendously well is how it intertextualises itself with popular cinema. Some references are done as parodies and spoofs and a lot of them are very obvious mimics of other famous films and TV shows.
Take Itchy and Scratchy for example; they are a very blatant nods to Tom and Jerry, but going deeper – and with a viewing of ‘The Simpsons Tribute to Cinema’ videos on Youtube – you’ll see that they often pay homage in their use of camera angles, soundtrack and dialogue to films like Citizen Kane, Pyscho, The Birds and even Disney movies amongst many others.
Thus showing that the writers were not just maths geeks, but passionate students of filmcraft.
During its heyday, The Simpsons were nothing short of fantastic in the way that they made a skit of American politics. Bill Clinton arguably got the worst of it with multiple jokes being made at his expensive. The most memorable one was perhaps in a clip where he states to Marge: “I know you don’t think you’re good enough for me, but trust me, you are. Heck, I’ve done it with pigs!”
Another great weapon the writers possessed derives from how they tackled serious issues in a light-hearted way. Despite a satirical and comical front, the show often delved into themes such as the acceptance of homosexuality in society, the right to bear arms in the home, issues of an environmental nature and immigration.
The episode where Mayor Quimby proposes mass deportation of all non-American born characters evidences this. Again though, brilliantly mimicked with Moe holding a sign that read ‘United States for United Statonions!’ instead of a basic ‘America for Americans!’ A subtle dig at the ignorance of Americans who oppose immigration of any kind.
Aside from the thematic approaches the show takes, it can never be forgotten that it was a great form of escapism with hilarious storylines and beloved characters. And despite all their flaws, the family still always showed great love and loyalty to one another through all their trials and tribulations.
Episodes that spring to mind here at one where Homer gives up beer for a month. After all the temptations he had to fight off, he rewards himself with a trip to Moe’s, but before taking a sip of his much-sought frothy mug, he pauses. Homer can’t help but notice how alcohol has deeply affected the bodies and minds of the other customers and thus, opts to not have the drink.
“Put it in the fridge, Moe. I’ve got a date with my wife” are his words. The episode closes beautifully one scene later with Homer and Marge taking a romantic bike ride and singing ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’ to one another as the sun sets in the distance. There was a similar moment in the episode which saw Bart and Lisa go against one other in opposing hockey teams. Bart being the hot-shot striker on his team, Lisa being the goalie on the other.
Much of the build-up to their match shows them trash-talking and insulting one another and amid the frenzy of a hysterical crowd at their match, Bart’s team are awarded a penalty shot. Despite all their argy-bargy, both zone out from the shouts and taunts and remember that they are brother and sister after all. A lovely montage of them playing and laughing together as children is shown and with that, they jointly decide to end their squabble and hug one another amid all the boos and jeers.
It’s easy to see why The Simpsons become so popular. It has declined a fair bit recently with its new writing team and I suppose nothing can last forever. It can’t be underestimated how great the show was for how relatable and intelligent it was.
It’s expected to end production sometime next year and when it does, I’ll be glad to say I was always a fan of ‘America’s First Family.’