On Dec. 17, 1989, The Simpsons debuted as its own half-hour show, beginning with a Christmas special episode, Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire. In the 25 seasons since, the program has aired 560 episodes during its run as both the longest-running prime-time animated series and longest-running sitcom in television history. Beyond longevity, the program has become a cultural touchstone, offering television’s sharpest satire of politics, religion, society and beyond – all while generating millions of laughs.
This week, Western News asked two Western academics to reflect on the series and its meaning a quarter of a century after it burst onto the scene. (After finishing this piece, read Elle Ting’s How to create a strategic cartoon junkie.)
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If there’s one thing you’re not likely to learn from me about The Simpsons, it’s there’s a lot you can learn from The Simpsons.
With the obvious exception of Shakespeare, it’s hard to think of anything else in popular culture and entertainment that has received the kind of intellectual attention and scrutiny lavished upon The Simpsons, almost since its very beginning. Indeed, the series’ appeal to intellectuals is rather obvious in the high-brow, almost New Yorker-esque humour of its origins on The Tracey Ullman Show.
As a philosopher, my first exposure to this way of examining The Simpsons was through the enormously popular The Simpsons and Philosophy, edited by William Irwin, an approach to introducing a range of philosophical concepts through the world of the Simpson family which has since spawned at least one undergraduate course, Berkeley’s regular The Simpsons and Philosophy. But beyond this, religious themes are investigated in Mark Pinsky’s The Gospel According to Bart; critical theory is explored in Leaving Springfield: The Simpsons and the Possibility of Oppositional Culture, edited by John Alberti; bestselling author Simon Singh takes on The Simpsons’ mathematical intrigues in The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets; and the list truly goes on.
So, if you want to learn about how much you can learn from The Simpsons, start with some of that stuff above and go from there. You certainly need not rely on me.
I also have little to add about how much The Simpsons changed (improved, honestly) the television landscape through its successes and innovations. Some of that is obvious, of course: both treasured animated series of the past (Futurama, King of the Hill) and the most cutting-edge and entertaining contemporary shows (Archer, Family Guy) owe everything to trails blazed by The Simpsons.
Perhaps, more importantly, the current Golden Age of carefully written and intelligent TV dramas is the next step in a tradition centred squarely on The Simpsons. It might seem obvious now, but producing scripted TV by putting a bunch of smart people in a room and asking them to respect the intelligence of the audience while entertaining them was not always uncontroversial. Other shows might have done this a little before their time (Hill Street Blues being an important example), but The Simpsons was the first to find outrageous success this way. So, if you don’t have Homer Simpson, you don’t have Tony Soprano, Walter White, Jax Teller, Jimmy McNulty or the other icons of great TV that author Brett Martin details in Difficult Men.
What I do want to talk about is the secret language, the argot connection that is The Simpsons. This generational cypher is so special and indecipherable to outsiders that just talking about it would probably be taboo if it weren’t so ubiquitous. If you are anywhere near my generation (say, between 20-40 years old for the highest rates of fluency, but you’ll definitely find devotees across every age group) and were raised with even minimal exposure to contemporary Western media, then you know the code I’m talking about, even if you don’t yet know you know it.
For example, if I yell out, with a particular accent on the first syllable, “Dental plan,” do you think that I might have just lapsed into gibberish, or did your mind subconsciously respond with “Lisa needs braces?” What about if I were to ask if you are “from the casino?” Would you know to answer you are from “a casino?” If any of this makes sense to you, then you know that I could go on for hours, days even, and never run out of fodder.
What’s more, if this does indeed ring true to you, then you probably have spent hours, perhaps even days, of your life doing just that, perhaps even with someone you didn’t even know that well. This was possible because you share the secret language of The Simpsons, allowing you to immediately have something in common, some shared experience, some point of conversation, with someone you may have just met. It affords entry to a not-so-secret society, not unlike the Stonecutters, but whose membership is open to all and where the Rule of No Homers (one is okay) definitely does not apply.
Of course, the question remains: What are we to make of this great unifier?
The real answer would also require a book. Indeed, Chris Turner’s Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Defined a Generation only begins to scratch the surface of what all of this means, and it’s larger than any of the works I listed earlier. But in any case, I think it can at least be taken as a sign of some progress, and a reason to hope for the future.
If you think that’s overstating the case a bit, consider for a moment how we talk about the other generations of the 20th century and the events or attitudes that defined them. There’s the Lost Generation of the First World War, the Greatest Generation of the Second World War, the Baby Boomers of the Cold War, even Generation X, with its existential crises and overblown search for meaning. In opposition, The Simpsons, even if it might not be quite as momentous or earthshaking as all of that, is compellingly intelligent, uproariously funny, infinitely rewatchable and, as I’ve suggested here, something that often brings people together, but rarely tears them apart.
If my generation is to be defined by that, instead of by alienation and war, then I’ll happily tattoo ‘742 Evergreen Terrace’ over my heart and wear with pride the badge of Generation Bart.
Bill Cameron holds a PhD in Philosophy from Western and often writes about philosophy and pop culture.