After 20 years “The Simpsons” is almost as established as Disney. Bee Wilson compares and contrasts two giants of pop culture ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2009
Homer Simpson, that lovable yellow lunkhead, is probably the best-known idiot on the planet. His catchphrase–-D’oh–-is the expression of a deeply limited brain constantly surprised by its own folly. In episode 257 of “The Simpsons”, “HOMR”, we learn that he wasn’t born like that: he has actually had a crayon lodged in his brain since the age of six. Following an operation to remove the crayon, Homer finally becomes smart. “I was working on a flat-tax proposal”, he remarks, “and I accidentally proved there’s no God.” But intelligence has its downside. For the first time, Homer feels alienated by the stupidity of mainstream culture. He drifts past a Disney store, and he is filled with unbearable sadness, no longer able to relate to the homogenised rubbish on sale. In the end, he can take it no more, and pays Moe the bartender to shove another crayon in his brain, so he can rejoin the Disney-watching, donut-munching masses.
It’s a typical gag from a show that has always been a kind of anti-Disney. John Ortved, author of “Simpsons Confidential” (Ebury Press), a superb new oral history, tells me that from the start “The Simpsons” was a conscious “departure from Disney” and the “commodified culture” it represents. Matt Groening, who first thought up “The Simpsons” as a segment on “The Tracey Ullman Show”, is a 1960s liberal with a deep distrust of the established order. In the late 1980s there was no more established cultural institution than Disney, with its cute, cuddly, woodland creatures, big-jawed heroes, and princesses who are beautiful, good and (ultimately) happy. As Ortved says, “Disney ruled the world from ‘Snow White’ to ‘The Lion King’–that’s a 60-year time-span.” The first full “Simpsons” episode aired in 1989, the year of “The Little Mermaid”, in which yet another saucer-eyed beauty finds true love with yet another bland prince. “The Simpsons”, like its own town bully Nelson Muntz, came along and said “Ha-ha!” to all of that.
From the first anarchic bars of Danny Elfman’s theme tune, “The Simpsons” satirises Disney’s bland small-town values. Our hero works at a nuclear-power plant. His ten-year-old son has to write on a board: “I will not burp in class”, “I will not Xerox my butt”, “I will not barf unless I’m sick”, and, best of all, “I will not get very far with this attitude”.
This is a world in which none of the Disney pieties are true. If they were, then Ned Flanders, the Simpsons’ annoyingly perfect next-door neighbour (“I’ve done everything the Bible says: even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff!”), wouldn’t be a figure of fun. When you wish upon a star in “The Simpsons”, your dreams don’t come true–-you end up a loser like Ralph Wiggum, the police chief’s son, who eats glue and talks to leprechauns. Good does not triumph over evil, and being true to yourself often leads to terrible consequences. “Just look into your heart and you will find the answer,” says the store owner Apu to evil Mr Burns in “The Simpsons Movie”, pleading with him to help the townspeople of Springfield out of a dire emergency. Burns looks into his heart and unleashes his hounds, who chase Apu from the premises.
“The Simpsons” is sprinkled with Disney references (episodes include “When You Dish Upon a Star”) and loves to mock Disney’s pretensions to world dominance. Its “krazy” versions of Disneyland range from Itchy and Scratchyland to the beer-themed Duff Gardens, where Bart is taken for a treat by his gravel-voiced aunt Selma. “I want to get off!” says Bart. “You can’t get off!” Selma replies. “We still have five continents to visit!”
Even when not taunting Disney “The Simpsons” conjures up an alternative universe. The most obvious difference is the crudeness of the animation. Whatever you think of the Disney aesthetic, there’s no denying the artistry of the drawing. There is an undiminished thrill in seeing lots of fluid lines all moving simultaneously: Snow White and assorted animals cleaning the dwarfs’ house, Bambi falling on ice, Dumbo dreaming of elephants on parade. Disney’s draughtsmanship has seeped into our collective dreams.
By contrast, “The Simpsons” has a crude look, all bright colours and simple lines, so it’s easy to assume that these funny-looking yellow people are meant to be childish. The comedian Ricky Gervais has talked about how he found “The Simpsons” off-putting at first. “I think I saw that video ‘Do the Bartman’ and I thought it was an awful, brattish American thing for whiny kids. Then when I saw [an episode], I thought, Well, how is this a kids’ show? It’s one of the most intelligent things on television. It’s fantastic. It’s a beautiful set-up, the characterisation’s amazing, it takes that dysfunctional family and looks at every single aspect of life. It’s wickedly satirical. It’s audacious.”
“The Simpsons” subverted everything we expected of cartoons. It took the anarchy of Hanna-Barbera and the comic violence of Looney Tunes and gave them a degree. That first season dug out old Flintstones chestnuts like trying to impress the boss or keeping up with the neighbours and added alcoholism, electric-shock therapy and vandalism. It proved you didn’t have to be as soppy as Disney to make animation that the whole family could enjoy.
“The Simpsons” was, as Ortved says, “rebellious, ironic, highbrow, silly, crude, intertextually hyperactive, iconoclastic, sly, witty and retarded”. Seth Macfarlane, inventor of “Family Guy” (the animated sitcom which now out-satirises “The Simpsons”), remembers being at college and wanting to work for Disney. “They were the biggest thing happening in animation at the time, because of their resurgence. Then ‘The Simpsons’ came on the scene and completely eclipsed Disney in sophistication.”
In contrast to Disney, with its lush visuals and stark storylines, the sophistication of “The Simpsons” was all in the scripts, which are highly literate, gaily referring to everything from Susan Sontag to “Citizen Kane”. Children who have been brought up on the show often have a weird general knowledge. When Al Gore was vice president, only 63% of American kids surveyed could identify him, whereas 93% could identify the cast of “The Simpsons”. Children may know the yellow versions of Richard Nixon or the Beatles long before they encounter the real thing. My ten-year-old son recently read “Lord of the Flies”. He didn’t find it that upsetting: he already knew most of the plot from “Das Bus”, “Simpsons” episode 192.
The key here was the producer James L. Brooks, who had written the films “Broadcast News” and “Terms of Endearment” and brought the belief that the writing mattered above all else. The animation–now largely outsourced to Korea–does the job adequately, with its madcap yellow energy and neat sight gags. But the genius of “The Simpsons” is in the words–sparkling scripts, delivered by the effervescent voices of Dan Castellenata (Homer and Krusty), Julie Kavner (Marge), Yeardley Smith (Lisa), Nancy Cartwright (Bart and a troupe of small boys), Hank Azaria (Moe, Chief Wiggum, Apu, et al) and perhaps the greatest of them all, Harry Shearer, who voices Burns, Smithers, Flanders, Principal Skinner, Dr Hibbert, Grampa’s decrepit friend Jasper Beardly, et al. This is animation in the other sense: bringing two-dimensional characters to life.
“The Simpsons” works almost as well blind, as I know from long car journeys when the kids have a DVD player in the back seat and I listen to it with my husband from the front, like radio. It’s no coincidence that Harry Shearer presents a much-loved American radio programme, the subversive “Le Show”. Disney without the images–with the exception of “The Jungle Book”, still the king of the soundtracks–would be largely pointless: all saccharine voices and no thrill.
This difference between the status of words and images is the tip of a deeper chasm. In Walt Disney’s original studios, the focus was on the painstaking work of animation, often undertaken by large teams of MittelEuropean immigrants. Under the tyrannical rule of Disney himself, these were craftsmen, and some of their best work celebrated the craft ideal–such as Gepetto’s wondrous studio in “Pinocchio”, in which myriad clockwork devices spring and whirr.
On “The Simpsons” the power lies in the legendary writers’ room. In the early days, the animators were young students from Caltech, a small science college in Pasadena, and they played second fiddle to the writers (mostly men, all white). At the show’s height, from seasons three to ten (1991-99), these were some of the smartest guys in showbusiness.
In addition to Matt Groening, there was Sam Simon (a writer on “Cheers” and “Taxi”), George Meyer (a New Yorker writer and humorist), and Conan O’Brien (who has now replaced Jay Leno as the host of “The Tonight Show”), plus other assorted Ivy Leaguers. Thanks to the clout of James L. Brooks, they never had to take notes from the studio execs at Fox. They were free to throw “lightning fastballs” at each other. In its testosterone competitiveness, and obsession with its own internal pecking-order, it sounds more like an investment bank. Brent Forrester, a writer-producer from 1993 to 1997, remembers “somebody pitching a joke that I just didn’t get. You know, I only went to Columbia University, not Harvard.”
This atmosphere threw up a totally different view of life from Disney’s. In Walt’s world, the nuclear family is the end-point towards which all the narrative is moving. No matter what disparate creatures we start off with–dogs, cats, dwarfs–they are almost always fitted into a simple arc ending in marriage. In “The Simpsons”, the nuclear family of Homer and Marge plus Bart, Lisa and the speechless baby Maggie, is the starting-point, around which swirls an ever crazier assemblage of minor characters and screwball plots. Next to this richness, the Disney universe can seem thin: just heroes and villains. It has no room for a freak like Comic Book Guy, a pretentious überdork who is neither goodie nor baddie, just very, very strange.
Because it is so satirical, it’s easy to assume that “The Simpsons” is darker than Disney. But in many ways, the opposite is true. Disney films are full of death, tragedy and cruel parenting–think of all the evil stepmothers and witches, as well as the killing of Bambi’s mother and the absence of Dumbo’s, both of which are enough to break anyone’s heart. Then there’s that resurrection thing they keep doing at the end of films where the main character seems to die, only to miraculously revive (Baloo in “The Jungle Book”, Beast in “Beauty and the Beast”). It’s easy to mock this playing on our heartstrings, but the people at Disney know that we have to be properly scared before we can be properly moved. Seeing Pinocchio inside the whale searching for his father stirs you in a way Matt Groening’s ironists would never attempt.
“The Simpsons” is lighter. Unlike much of the animation that has come in its wake–the gross-out humour of “South Park” and “Family Guy"–it is always anchored in the solace of family. Nothing too bad can happen in a household that has Marge Simpson at its head, with her magnificent blue beehive, infinite tolerance and deep “grrrrrr”. Ortved reveals that the writers tend to grumble about writing Marge storylines (“because we were a bunch of boys, really,” says one), preferring the easy gags of Homer. But the humour needs the solid values of Marge (and Lisa, her remarkable, diligent, tree-hugging, vegetarian, saxophonist daughter) to anchor it. Without Marge’s misplaced belief in him, Homer’s idiocy could be distressing. As Marge once wrote to Barbara Bush (who in 1990, as first lady, had dismissed the show as dumb): “Each of us is living our lives to serve an exceptional man.”
There’s something comforting about the way no one in Springfield ever changes or ages. Disney loves to tangle with the travails of growing up: Mowgli, Hercules and Tarzan are all like the heroes of earnest bildungsromans, forging the difficult path to manhood. The Simpsons have no such struggles. No matter how many dramas happen to them–kidnap, imprisonment, nuclear meltdown–Bart is always ten, Lisa eight and Maggie a baby. As Ortved writes: “A pubescent Bart is scary, a teenage Bart is depressing, and anything past that is too terrible to contemplate.”
Twenty years on, some wonder just how much longer Springfield can stay in its state of arrested development. There was a serious dip in quality from around series 13 onwards. “Simpsons” purists believe the rot set in as early as season nine, when Mike Scully took over as showrunner and the plotlines became a lot wackier. This is too harsh: season nine began with an all-time great episode (“The city of New York vs Homer Simpson”) and there have been gems even in the latest series. But it’s true that the characters have become caricatures of their former selves. Lisa is now unbearably right-on and Homer has lost much of his sweet doltishness (though I’d still rather listen to Dan Castellenata’s voice for 20 minutes than catch a single glimpse of Hannah Montana on the Disney Channel). Marge’s appearance in Playboy was worse than a caricature–it was a travesty. It might be no bad thing if the plug is pulled after episode 500, as has long been rumoured, which would take the show up to 2012.
After two decades of dominance, it’s now much harder for “The Simpsons” to act as Disney’s rebellious younger brother. The show uses Krusty the Klown to mock merchandising–Krustyburger Laffy Meals, Krusty-Os cereal, Krusty-Brand Imitation Gruel (“nine out of ten orphans can’t tell the difference”). Yet it has become almost as rapacious as Disney in its merchandising. Groening has approved everything from Bart snowboots to smell-o-rific air freshener. My own household has accumulated one talking Homer pizza cutter, one giant inflatable Bart who sometimes joins us on the sofa to watch the show, one “Simpsons” board game, a Bart pencil case, a whole shelf of comics and books, and a pile of action figures too numerous to mention, including a plastic Marge carrying a vast stack of pancakes and syrup. If this is the counter-culture, then what is the culture?
Tim Long, a writer-producer for “The Simpsons” since 1999, has said that Groening has become “kind of the Walt Disney of our time”. Judging from the way the show has fixed itself in popular culture, that is probably true. “The Simpsons” is now broadcast in over 90 countries and has netted around $3 billion, much more if you include merchandising (in 2004 alone, more than $1.65 billion of Simpsons merchandise was sold, while Disney’s net income was $4.48 billion). But it’s also a problem. “Bart’s Inner Child” is an episode (no 88) from the good old days of season five, when a self-help guru encourages everyone in Springfield to act like Bart, spitting and swearing and generally cutting loose. Bart hates it: “Everyone in town is acting like me. So why does it suck?”
“It’s simple,” says Lisa. “You’ve defined yourself as a rebel and in the absence of a repressive milieu your societal niche has been co-opted…You’ve lost your identity.” She’s right, as usual: Bart’s entire personality was based on rebelling. With nothing to rebel against, he is a lost soul. The question is, has the same thing happened to “The Simpsons”?
Disney has learned how to play the Bart role, which reduces the need for Bart to be himself. Brad Bird, an executive consultant on “The Simpsons” from 1989 to 1992, brought Simpsons-esque characterisation to Pixar, owned by Disney, in “The Incredibles” (2004) and “Ratatouille” (2007). The Incredible family of superheroes include a portly dad having a midlife crisis, a goth-emo teenager who can make herself disappear and a gurgling baby who, like Maggie Simpson, looks cute but turns out to be a kind of evil genius. Pixar, though owned by Disney since 2006, is still creatively separate. Yet even the main Disney Studio proper has learned to mock itself–when it isn’t making dross like “High School Musical 3”. In 2007 Disney made fun of its own saccharine tradition of animated princesses with the brilliant “Enchanted”, whose heroine enlists the help of a swarm of cockroaches, rats and pigeons to clean a New York apartment. This was a much funnier take on Disney woodland animals than the sequence in “The Simpsons Movie” where Disney-ish animals watch, appalled, as Marge and Homer have sex. Meanwhile, “The Simpsons” edges towards the corporate horror of Disneyland. “In 2008”, Ortved notes, “the ‘Simpsons’ ride opened at Universal Studios–one step closer.”
The bigger and more Disney-like “The Simpsons” has become, the more its writers feel the need to turn their pens in on themselves. Lately “The Simpsons” itself has seemed to be the main object of their satire. We’ve had gags about clip shows, sneaky references to not winning Emmys and even a parody of the “Simpsons” writers’ room (in “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show”). In one 2002 episode Bart’s chalkboard vow was “I will never lie about being cancelled again”, a reference to rumours that the show was going to be axed.
“The Simpsons Movie” seemed a shot at achieving a Disney-like immortality. But despite some inspired one-liners–and the genius of Spider-Pig, Homer’s pet pig which he plays with like a Spiderman doll–the movie lacked the density of the best short episodes. And it ended with another self-referential gag, Maggie uttering the single word “Sequel?” It confirmed that though “The Simpsons” may win best animated television show hands-down–Disney’s made-for-TV efforts are mediocre–it still cannot beat Disney at the movies. I suspect Matt Groening knows this. Behind all his mockery of the big Mouse is an admission that Disney’s big-screen sentiment ultimately sees off his small-screen yellow cleverness. Deep down, most of us are stupid and sentimental like Homer. Long after we forget why Spider-Pig was so funny, we will still be crying at Bambi’s mother dying.
"The Simpsons" 20th anniversary edition will be broadcast in January. "The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History" (Faber & Faber) by John Ortved is out now.
Picture credit: Colin Crisford
(Bee Wilson is the "Kitchen Thinker" for the Sunday Telegraph and has written for the New Yorker.)