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The Simpsons – A Commentary on American Culture
No one could have predicted that the crude drawings of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie Simpson on the sketch comedy program, “The Tracey Ullman Show” would become an enormously popular cult hit among viewers of all ages and backgrounds. As the longest running animated series in the history of television, it is also one of the most beloved. “The Simpsons” episodes are usually themed around current events – even controversial topics such as gay marriage and religion in public schools. There is no such thing as taboo subject matter on “The Simpsons.” Topics on the show are handled with humor that is evenly aimed at all ages, races, genders and religions.
Creator and executive producer, Matt Groening is credited with bringing the animation comedy back to prime time television with the introduction of “The Simpson’s” series on Fox in 1989. Executive producer James L. Brooks is an Emmy and Academy award winning writer and producer of films that include Terms of Endearment and As Good as it Gets. Al Jean is the third executive producer and also head writer (Simpsons, 2006). As an interesting little fact, staff writer, Daniel Chun is the younger brother of a boy this author dated in high school. Al Jean and Mike Scully are also two primary writers.
In addition to the hundreds of celebrity guest stars who have voiced various colorful characters on the show, it is the voices of the main characters that are irreplaceable and integral to the show’s continued success. Best known for dishing out the well timed “D’oh!” as Homer Simpson, Dan Castallaneta former Tracey Ullman cast member, is also Mayor Quimby, Grandpa Simpson and Groundskeeper Willie among others. Also a Tracey Ullman alumna, Julie Kavner lends her voice to Marge Simpson and her two surly Homer-hating, MacGyver obsessed, chain smoking sisters Patty and Selma. Nancy Cartwright is the voice of 10 year old Bart Simpson, plus Ralph Wiggum, Nelson Muntz and Todd Flanders. Middle child, eight year old Lisa Simpson is portrayed by Yeardley Smith. Both Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer provide voices for dozens of Springfield’s memorable characters (Simpsons, 2006).
The Simpsons’ Lucrative Heyday
In its early to mid-‘90s glory days, “The Simpsons” was not only at the height of popularity and ratings, but the show was raking in hundreds of millions in licensed product sales. Audiences couldn’t get enough plush Homers that drooled “Mmmm… doughnuts” or battery operated Barts exclaiming “Aye carumba!” at the push of his belly, plus video games, apparel, home furnishings and so much more. Bart’s catch phrases which included “Don’t have a cow man!” and “Eat my shorts” were heard everywhere. Along with the ratings, sales of Simpsons licensed items have declined in recent years, but the writers’ and producers’ efforts to keep the show fresh and funny have not gone unnoticed by many viewers who have remained loyal to the residents of Springfield, USA.
A Window into Our Nation
The fact that the show is set in an unknown state indicates an effort on the part of the writers to reflect American society overall in each episode. This has enabled the show to draw viewers from all over the country. For instance, a show like “Sex and the City” may have an especially large following of New York viewers, while “The Simpsons” with its unidentified setting can appeal to all Americans. The two-story Simpson home on Evergreen Terrace closely resembles a typical home in an American suburb – minus the circus-like bold colors.
The Main Characters – the Simpson family
The show is based around the Simpson nuclear family model of two parents, 2.5 children (Maggie could be considered the .5 because of her inability to talk) plus cats, Snowball I, II and III and rescued greyhound, Santa’s Little Helper. The family structure and character personalities reflect traditional American norms. While the Simpsons are rather dysfunctional, (as evidenced by one of the earlier episodes where the family went through shock therapy with Dr. Marvin Monroe to get through their issues), ultimately, we all have problems, but at the end of the day, there is much love and solidarity in most families. This is of course, if you ignore the frequent displays of child abuse where Homer chokes Bart until his eyes bulge out of his head and the fact that baby Maggie seems to be frequently left home alone.
Devoted wife and mother Marge is a tribute to hard working American moms. She is the heart, soul and glue of the Simpson family. Unlike her husband, Marge does not have any friends or time to be social as she is too busy tending to her husband and kids. Homer, who has plenty of loser friends, is the bumbling fool of a husband and father. What he lacks in intellect, he makes up in beer consumption at his favorite watering hole, Moe’s Tavern. He is not always completely devoted to his family and is often selfish and careless, but at the close of most episodes, he does the right thing – and that is where we see the spirit of the American father.
Bart is the mischievous, free spirited oldest child who stumbles on trouble everywhere, but, like his father, usually finds redemption and a life lesson by the end of an episode. Lisa is the living, breathing conscience of the Simpson family. A well read, caring little girl who follows Buddhism and current events, Lisa can also laugh with Bart at the especially gruesome episodes of the cat and mouse adversaries, Itchy and Scratchy. Baby Maggie, while the smallest and quietest character, speaks volumes with the sucking of her pacifier. Writers have always given Maggie an obvious wisdom and awareness that supersedes her young age. She even has a uni-browed baby nemesis.
In addition to the Simpson family central characters, the show features dozens and dozens of Springfield residents with unique life stories and memorable personalities, all of which represent the typical personalities most of us will encounter in our lifetimes. For instance, our country is fraught with crooked politicians and Mayor Quimby represents the ultimate sleazy political figure. He is often caught in compromising positions selling out Springfield and cavorting with young women, yet he remains in power and no one in the town seems to bat an eye. Once he even addresses the townspeople as “stupid hicks” and they are not phased by it.
Poking fun of the police system, The Simpsons features Police Chief Clancy Wiggum, perhaps the second biggest buffoon on the show next to Homer. He is in charge of Springfield’s safety and well-being with his two side-kicks who surpass Wiggum in intelligence. His stupidity is legendary and the town would be better off turned over to terrorist cannibals with access to weapons of mass destruction. Any police chief who says “Aww, can’t anybody in this town take the law into their own hands?” may not be the most qualified candidate for the job (Simpsons, 2006).
Value of the Elderly
The show also makes light of the serious issue of elderly neglect. Homer’s father, Grandpa Simpson, lives in the Springfield Retirement Castle. A retired war hero, Grandpa was very hard on Homer in his youth. As perhaps a kind of subconscious revenge, Homer put Grandpa in a home where his quality of life is poor. It is clear that Grandpa and the other residents are treated badly. His neglect is apparent when in one instance, Grandpa refuses to let Homer answer the phone so that he can “savor the rings.” Yet Grandpa appears in many episodes as a vibrant, interesting character who lends his unique, crotchety humor to the show. Perhaps the writers are trying to illustrate that many elderly still have much to contribute and should not be disposed of as nuisances.
The late Phil Hartman of Saturday Night Live fame lent his voice to two very stereotypical Simpsons characters: sleazy lawyer Lionel Hutz and informational film star, Troy McClure. Troy McClure would usually make his entrance by saying something like “Hi, I’m Troy McClure! You may remember me from such public service videos as ‘Designated Drivers, the Lifesaving Nerds’ and ‘Phony Tornado Alarms Reduce Readiness’” (Troymcclurepage, 2006). Troy was an exaggeration of a character many of us saw in our youth in perhaps hundreds of public school films that rarely held any educational value.
Lawyer Lionel Hutz was an unethical, ambulance chasing, opportunist who often suddenly appeared in a situation where his legal “expertise” may have helped him profit somehow. His legal practice was named “I Can’t Believe it’s a Law Firm!” and offered clients incentives such as a free pizza if their settlements were not handled in 30 minutes or less (Lionel Hutz, 2006). Lionel’s character humorously embodied the stereotype of the greedy, money grubbing lawyer.
Many American teachers are not fairly compensated for the important work they do. Edna Krabappel represents this notion as Bart’s cynical, underpaid, underappreciated, overstressed fourth grade teacher. Bart is the bane of Edna’s existence typically, but occasionally the two adversaries see eye to eye. Janitors and maintenance staff can also be overlooked for their work in keeping schools running smoothly. Groundkeeper Willie is the rambunctious Scotsman who is often made fun of by the kids of Springfield Elementary and given the worst, most disgusting tasks imaginable to do. They even keep him holed up in a tiny, filthy shack. He is treated as a sub-par human being not worthy of better and Willie’s bitterness is obvious. School bus driver and resident stoner, Otto, is responsible for the lives of the students at Springfield Elementary. He represents every parent’s worst nightmare.
American Medicine and Insurance
Poking fun at the American medical and insurance system, the writers created Dr. Hibbert who likes to make inappropriate jokes about his patients even when they are in very bad shape. In a 2005 episode he tells Homer, “The insurance company says you’re as well as they’re gonna pay for.” This is always followed by his trademark better-you-than-me chuckle. The audience gets the sense that he really has little to no concern about his patients, but he certainly profits from their misery. Another recent episode dealt with the medical coverage crisis when Mr. Burns cut out prescription drug benefits for his employees and everyone was forced to get their drugs in Canada.
Springfield Nuclear Power Plant owner, Mr. Burns represents corporate greed and evil. He does not care about his employees, the environment that he is destroying (he is responsible for the existence of the Springfield mascot Blinky, the three-eyed fish) or even his loyal and love-struck assistant, Waylon Smithers. Utterly thoughtless, and completely self-involved, he never remembers Homer Simpson’s name or who he is, despite their numerous encounters. Though he is technically the most powerful man in town, physically he is the weakest, most frail character in all of Springfield and relies on the thankless efforts of Smithers to keep him going. So selfish and ruthless, in one episode he tried to block out the sun so that everyone would be dependent solely on his power. This is perhaps akin to oil companies blocking the development and sale of a cleaner, safer energy source for their own gain.
Bitter Child Entertainer
Child entertainer, Krusty the Clown is beloved by the children of Springfield. He is the surly, raspy voiced star of his own television show and owner of the heart attack inducing fast food chain, Krusty Burger. One of his featured menu items is called the “Whatchamacarcass” burger which pokes fun at the sub-standard mystery meat served at nearly all fast food chains. He is also the face behind Krusty Flakes cereal which boasts “It’s like a birthday cake for breakfast.”
Though he Krusty is wealthy and successful as a result of peddling unhealthy, obesity promoting food and entertaining children, he is constantly miserable. Krusty can be compared to Pee-Wee Herman, another child entertainer with adult-type issues. He seemingly dislikes children and puts on a fake smile in their presence. He typically is not concerned about the well-being of his youthful followers – he is only about the money, which is perhaps why he is usually so miserable. That and the fact that his rabbi father rejects him.
Ned Flanders, the Simpsons’ next door neighbor and champion of all things Christian is inarguably the most moral man in Springfield. Even Preacher Reverend Lovejoy does not compare to Ned. Homer often ridicules and takes advantage of Ned, yet he always turns the other cheek and is always unrealistically cheerful. In an episode from the most recent season that addressed religion in public schools, Ned and Lisa clash over whether Darwin’s theory of evolution or “creationism” should be taught in school. In the end they come to a peaceful agreement.
In light of the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident a few years ago, The Simpsons featured a show where Ned and Homer teamed up to create their own Super Bowl halftime show. Their show acted out scenes from the bible. The crowd booed and jeered. It seemed as though the writers were saying that the Super Bowl audience would not have been satisfied with anything – be it Jackson’ exposed breast or on the opposite end, a religious display. Moral of the story, Americans are never happy.
And All the other Issues…
One could write a novel on the other social situations and current events the show so humorously addresses: gay relationships, childhood obesity, ridiculous oversized SUVs, school bullying, child neglect/abuse, alcoholism and so much more. The genius of “The Simpsons” is it tackles serious issues with a humor that transcends the viewer’s urge to feel offended. In other words, it helps Americans take themselves a little less seriously.
It is this author’s opinion that as long as the writers continue to satirize the ridiculous world events so brilliantly as they have for over 18 years, then The Simpsons still has many years of Homer’s moronic antics ahead.
Lionel Hutz. Retrieved August 1, 2006 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lionel_Hutz.
The Simpsons.com Actor/Creator/Executive Producer Bios. Retrieved July 30, 2006 from
Troymcclurepage. Retrieved August 1, 2006 from [http://troymcclurepage.tripod.com/troysounds.html].
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