Does The Simpsons Matter?
The Simpsons is a really hard show to write about. It’s so deeply embedded in pop culture that it’s almost impossible to look at objectively. It’s been on the air for almost as long as I’ve been alive. I don’t know a world without it. And I can’t imagine one.
But it’s been on too damn long.
It’s no longer the same show that changed the world. And it may not matter anymore. In trying to figure out whether or not it does, we need to look at its history, impact, and its place in popular culture right now.
This humble picture is how The Simpsons began. Interstitials on improv-heavy The Tracey Ullman Show, they were animated comedy sketches from the quirky mind of a relatively unknown underground cartoonist. Nothing more, nothing less – and certainly nothing as spectacular or ambitious as the show around it. Yet, these crude drawings of the now-infamous Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie Simpson had staying power. Designed to be an acerbic, more realistic take on the family sitcom, The Simpsons was extremely fortunate to have hit at a time when audiences wanted it — and a fledgling network was doing all they could to make a name for themselves in the space with that kind of programming. The combination of the Fox Network and The Simpsons was perfect synergy.
Still, the fact that The Simpsons became anything more than those sketches – and drew the attention of television comedy legends James L. Brooks and Sam Simon – is a bit of a miracle. The fact that the show became not only a hit, but one of the most influential of all time… and the longest-running animated American series… and the longest-running American sitcom… and the longest-running scripted prime-time series is a once in a lifetime anomaly. Maybe multiple lifetimes.
No one is more stunned by the success of The Simpsons than creator, Matt Groening, who based the concept on his family and upbringing in Portland, Oregon. He never dreamed his lumpy yellow squiggles would come to define his career. Or his legacy.
Neither did any of the pantheon of talent who helped shape the show, like:
- Conan O’Brien
- John Swartzwelder
- Greg Daniels
- Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein
- David X. Cohen
- Dan Greaney
- Jennifer Crittenden
- Daniel Chun
- Richard Appel
- Matt Warburton
- Jon Vitti
- David Mirkin
- Mike Scully
- George Meyer
Ultimately, The Simpsons succeeded because it was FUNNY. Sure it was smart, as demonstrated by the satire of episodes like Homer Badman, Homer the Heretic, Lisa the Beauty Queen, $pringfield (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Legalized Gambling), The Last Temptation of Homer, Bart Gets Famous, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield, A Milhouse Divided, Homer’s Phobia, and Itchy and Scratchy and Marge. Poignant, too, as episodes like Mother Simpson, Homer’s Triple Bypass, Lisa’s Substitute, Colonel Homer, Lisa’s First Word, Duffless, A Fish Named Selma, And Maggie Makes Three, Lisa the Vegetarian, and I Married Marge proved. But the ones you remember most? FUNNY. Three Men and a Comic Book. Homer Goes to College. A Streetcar Named Marge. Marge vs. The Monorail. Last Exit to Springfield. Homie the Clown. Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk. Mr. Plow. I Love Lisa. You Only Move Twice. Two Dozen and One Greyhounds. Bart After Dark. Homer’s Barbershop Quartet. Radioactive Man. Cape Feare. Deep Space Homer. Itchy & Scratchy Land. Homer the Smithers. The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show. Brother From Another Series. King Size Homer. Homer vs. The Eighteenth Amendment. The wacky, zany, silly episodes with the jokes you could watch on repeat all day.
That is an unusually high level of quality for a TV show.
The main reason behind the show’s quality was its ability to become a lightning rod for a particular type of smart, zany humor. It also and refined that humor, creating a pop culture comedy language that is the template for most modern sitcom humor now. Writers/producers for this show not only knew all the formulas for crafting jokes; they knew how to turn them inside-out and upside-down, and push them into places no one thought they could go. These were craftsman with serious tools, creating at the top of their games. Their professional and artistic peaks.
That same sentiment applies to the cast, as well:
The Simpsons has a 12 person cast performing over 100 roles. 6 of those 12 began on The Tracey Ullman Show, and they perform over 80 roles between them. Core cast members Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Yeardley Smith, Nancy Cartwright, Hank Azaria, and Harry Shearer were all given the same opportunities as the writer producers above, and – rarer still – treated as a stock company: anything the show needed would be handed to them first rather than bringing in outside talent, giving them an unprecedented place to grow in sitcom television. That same opportunity was also extended to supporting members of the cast like Tress MacNeille, Pamela Hayden, Maggie Roswell, Russi Taylor, Phil Hartman, Joe Mantegna, and Doris Grau. Rarer still, The Simpsons’ commitment to its cast is such that when members pass away – as with Phil Hartman, Doris Grau, and Marcia Wallace – the show retired their characters rather than replaced their voices. That is respect. And trust in the level of talent this show has.
The Simpsons ran on that level of talent and craft for 8 seasons.
The next few seasons were rocky. The show had not only lost a few of its wunderkind craftsman, but also seemed to have run its trajectory. Showrunner Mike Scully was tasked with overcoming both the onboarding of new, differently-skilled craftsmen and the traditional sitcom slump. All the usual story arcs had been covered – family stories, crazy caper stories, clip shows, spinoff shows, murder mysteries, parody stories, anthology stories, meta stories, “changing the status quo” stories (killing off characters, splitting up married characters, etc). Even the hoary haunted house stories the original show runners swore they’d never do. The show couldn’t figure out how to grow, and that transition was reflected in episodes with meandering plotlines and more jokes that missed the mark than ever before. The media picked up on this slump and thought The Simpsons was finally on its way out. South Park certainly thought so, and even mocked up a parody illustrating how The Simpsons had done everything.
But what the media didn’t know – and neither did Groening and co – was that the show was merely building steam. Like a re-routed train, or a steampunk hydra, Season 12 gave The Simpsons new life, and Mike Scully was able to stop the fumbling and focus the team by honing in on what The Simpsons does right:
- They rewrote jokes 50 times. 50. Sometimes punchlines stop being funny on the 40th read, and they’d rather create new ones before production locked than animate the show with weak ones.
- They didn’t shy away from good jokes because they didn’t know the punchline. They trusted their instincts and knew they’d find it (i.e., the last 10 minutes of Marge Versus the Monorail? No idea until they wrote it. Same with the mob war at the end of Twisted World of Marge Simpson).
- They found humor in reality, and exploited it to hilarious ends. Homer getting food poisoning from eating a 50-foot hoagie? A staffer did that. Bart getting a horrifying homemade clown bed? A staffer had that.
- They kept the family dynamics at the core of the show. No matter what happens to Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie, their relationships are what keep the audience invested.
- Using guest stars as an extension of the cast rather than hiring them to be themselves in the show (i.e., N’SYNC in New Kids on the Blecch, who played characterized versions of themselves rather than doing a straight guest star stunt. Matt Dillon in Midnight Towboy, and Michael Keaton in Pokey Mom are also strong examples).
- They wrote great songs. Funny, witty, catchy songs that no one else was in a league to even attempt. “Monorail!,” “We Put the Spring in Springfield,” “Streetcar: the Musical!” and “Stop the Planet of the Apes! I Want to Get Off!” are better than most musicals… and if they were staged, they would make all the money.
The show occasionally missed that note through the next 10 seasons, but always found its footing when burrowing backward to find real, grounded, emotional stories they never could have dreamed of telling in the earlier seasons. Episodes like HOMR, I Am Furious Yellow, Strong Arms of the Ma, and Jaws Wired Shut all found ways to tell the kinds of stories that capitalized on the 6 points above. Most of the episodes in these 10 years were able to retain the parody aspects of the show while also remaining relevant.
That’s hard to remember 26 seasons in.
Now, The Simpsons seems like it’s searching for its footing again – or, in the very least, is on unsure footing. Even though Al Jean is in the showrunner seat again, the show is resorting to self-parody. Meta jokes. Formats and plotlines befitting rougher, meaner shows like Family Guy and American Dad (that were themselves inspired by the once-shocking humor of The Simpsons). That said, the current season is finding new ways to explore The Simpsons and keep the core of the show fresh – namely by doing crossovers with different series like Family Guy and Futurama. It’s refreshing to see The Simpsons find itself in these pairings rather than adapt itself to its companion show. Then again, The Simpsons seems now to be fulfilling South Park’s prophecy and again doing things the original showrunners would never have dreamed of (see The Man Who Came to Dinner, where the Simpsons go into space). It’s a mixed bag… but is still doing its best to do what it has always done best.
And, for what it’s worth, the Halloween episodes are still really, actually scary. I eagerly await next year’s Babadook parody (try making jokes out of that, Jean!).
As a writer, I adore The Simpsons. My favorite class in college was Animated Half-Hour Sitcom — and not just because the teacher wrote for Seinfield: that class taught me more about how to write an effective story than any other class I’ve ever taken (and my degree is in writing). I see The Simpsons using that level of craft more than any other show on the air. It is an invaluable reference, and I have a rolling list of notes gleaned from repeat viewing. Whenever I get stuck writing something, I open my list to see what The Simpsons would do with it. Is the pacing too long? Too short? Is the funny word not funny enough? Would it be better coming out of another character? Am I stepping on this plot point? Will this line keep people sitting through a commercial break? I may not always know how to write something… but The Simpsons does.
By and large, it always has.
I think that matters. And I want to see where it goes.