The Award-winning World of “The Simpsons”
Wes Unruh - 9/25/2014
The Simpsons won a Peabody Award in 1996 for its first eight seasons, and this weekend’s upcoming 26th season premiere inspired this interview. Professor Jonathan Gray’s 2006 book Watching with “The Simpsons”: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality examined the impact and importance of parody in creating critical cultural commentary. Reading his book and watching many hours of The Simpsons sparked the following discussion.
Wes Unruh: We are about to enter the twenty-sixth season of The Simpsons, now considered the longest-running prime-time animated series on television. It is also the longest-running scripted television series. What accounts for the staying power of The Simpsons?
Jonathan Gray: For a show to have lasted this long requires so many things working for it that it’s hard to list them all. Let me cherry-pick a few. The show is funny, and funny in a way that works well for broadcast television. The humor can be broken up, into scenes, gags, or simple lines. It’s humor that belongs in television since so much of what’s being made fun of is on television. It’s multifaceted humor, with everything from burp jokes, slapstick, and mild wordplay to witty and cutting satire and parody, so that the show welcomes all sorts of viewers in all sorts of mindsets. And though it began with a reputation for the iconoclastic, in truth it’s a rather masterful blend of irreverence and vanilla, snark and charm, and thus over time it’s adapted from being television’s rude uncle to a position of balance between the extremes of cringe comedy and mild, “oh look, that family eats cereal too” banality.
There’s a lot to be said about how it’s produced too. Nobody needs to care that Lisa Simpson (Yeardley Smith) turned fifty this year, as the animation allows her to remain eight years old forever. The characters, meanwhile, are developed well enough to have depth, yet not too much so that only a very small band of writers could ever speak for them, thereby allowing the crew to change over time. From the show’s early days and Bart’s Butterfinger endorsement to today’s world full of Simpsons everything, too, the show has brought in millions upon millions of extra advertising and merchandising dollars for Fox, Gracie Films, and those production personnel with lawyers savvy enough to get them a cut.
But I think it still works because it’s basic premise holds. The final shot of its opening credit sequence should be a hint that the show is preeminently about television, and especially about a certain version of television family that we see again and again. When the super-happy, super-functional families of shows like Full House no longer populate television (and I don’t just mean new television, but the endless syndicated hours), perhaps then The Simpsons will have outlived its time, but until then its satiric play with the American nuclear family serves as a strong base for much of its other humor.
WU: Long before creating The Simpsons, Matt Groening was known for Life in Hell, a long-running comic strip which has been collected in a number of books and which he worked on from 1977. It appears that this strip nearly became animated in its own right, but that a last minute decision brought The Simpsons to life. How has this strip’s influence impacted The Simpsons?
JG: The story goes that Groening was waiting to meet with Fox execs when he realized to his horror that if he gave them the Life in Hell characters, he’d lose control of them. So he quickly created a family to give them instead (based suspiciously on his own. Groening’s parents are called Margaret and Homer, while his younger sisters are called Lisa and Maggie). So the characters are new, but much of the irreverent humor is carried over from Life in Hell. There’s a playfulness to Groening’s critique that is rather unique, in that the substance of critique is still there – he doesn’t just move on from it in three seconds (as does Family Guy, for instance) – but there’s usually the touch of a loving, well-meaning regard that rarely if ever makes it mean or abrasive. I know of few others who have as consistently managed to strike that balance between what are called Juvenalian (bitter) and Horatian (lighthearted) satire.
Life in Hell also paved the way for The Simpsons in regularly criticizing institutions and systems, not just individuals. Sure, silly people are held to scorn, but some of the funniest of Groening’s work has bigger fish to fry. The Simpsons similarly goes after an education system as much as Principal Skinner, for instance, after corporate capitalism as much as Mr. Burns, after a certain image and imaginary of the nuclear family as much as Homer, and after the logics of television in general as much as Krusty the Clown or Kent Brockman.
WU: You discuss in your 2006 book the complex relationship the show has with advertising, such as the segment ‘Attack of the 50 Foot Eyesores’ in the 1995 Treehouse of Horror VI episode. The segment literally ends with a break to commercial that consciously acknowledges the commercial medium in which it is embedded whilst simultaneously warning the viewer against watching the commercial. As The Simpsons is itself a delivery mechanism for advertisements, this parody of, and preparation for, a commercial interlude, it seems to be both subverting and reinforcing the commercial medium. Does this nuanced relationship with advertising influence the commercial success of the show, and has this ever caused legal or contractual difficulties with sponsors?
JG: I’ve never heard of them getting in trouble, since here’s the odd thing with The Simpsons. On one hand, I challenge anyone to list a hugely successful show that is as consistently critical of consumerism and of advertising, yet on the other hand I challenge anyone to list a hugely successful scripted show that has been more of a Godsend for its advertisers. The show may attack ads, but its characters then appear in more than a few ads. What we make of that will be up to the individual viewer: to some, The Simpsons is therefore a champion of corporate advertising, to others it’s counter-cultural and deeply critical, while to others it’s neither. In aggregate, it’s capitalized well on that ambivalence, never entirely justifying the critique of “sell-out,” yet certainly not justifying an advertiser boycott either.
Personally, though, and as much as I realize its ad-friendliness on other levels, I greatly appreciate that it’s one of the only shows out there in commercial media land regularly mocking ads and showing us how they work. It doesn’t just criticize ads, after all: it shows us specific strategies for how they work, pulling the emperor’s clothes off in the process, and arming us with knowledge and laughter to use when we encounter the next ad. It’s no angel of anti-consumerism, but on the ground or in the trenches, it’s doing a lot to make us question and critique ads, and I love that about it.
WU: Speaking of criticism of The Simpsons, the show itself features many racial, religious, ethnic, and class stereotypes, some of which are intentionally offensive. You write of hyper-stereotyping, that in a sense the show is undermining the impact of stereotypes. Other animated shows (Family Guy, South Park, Futurama, and The Boondocks) have also followed this satiric path to civic engagement of its audiences. Certainly comedy has always been used to speak to social issues that are too prickly to deal with in a sincere way, but are there aspects unique to The Simpsons, which has enabled hyper-stereotyping to be as effective at subverting stereotypes?
JG: I wouldn’t say The Simpsons has done this better than most, especially since many of their hyper-stereotypes appear so fleetingly, whereas I can think of many shows that engage hyper-stereotypes with a lot more depth and focus (Key and Peele or Inside Amy Schumer right now, for instance). But it’s also better than others. Family Guy, for instance, often finds racist, sexist, or other prejudiced ideas too titillating to walk far enough away from them critically.
In general, though, being animated helps. Animation allows something to be starkly drawn, both figuratively and literally. Moreover, animation is always already coded for viewers as not real, as larger than life, and thus the rather dangerous, tricky strategy of hyper-stereotyping enjoys certain benefits in this realm. If one ever expects The Simpsons to show an accurate depiction of the world, one’s making a mistake, and thus its characters and stories always-already hold different representational powers.
WU: One of the points that really jumped out at me while I was reading your book Watching with the Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality was the way you explored how we talk about the show itself. In some ways, it seems The Simpsons has a multiplicity of audiences, and those audiences all approach The Simpsons in different ways. How much of this is driven by the show itself (through split-second gags seemingly directed at only a fraction of the viewers) and how much is driven by the cloud of marketing and trans-mediated presence of the show by way of the film, comics, online clips, fan-driven community, and video games?
JG: There’s something interesting about The Simpsons that’s always helped the show. Everyone I’ve ever talked to about it seems to think there are two audiences – those who get the smarter parts of it, and those who don’t. Everyone, though, considers themselves one of those who gets it. So while in theory there probably are some audiences who enjoy it solely at the level of finding its animation pleasing, or of appreciating the physical and visual humor, and while the show allows that, I’d also want to wave a flag of warning, and say that a lot of people consider themselves “in the know” and part of the supposedly small group of savvy viewers, to the point that I think that’s been a key part of its success. It convinces everyone that they’re part of an elite, when in fact they might not be. And yet, if that’s the case, it probably happened organically, and without too much planning: I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing advertising for The Simpsons, and its ads don’t seem too invested in cultivating this myth of the two audiences.
However, I don’t want to take that idea too far, since we should indeed acknowledge that the show offers different things to different people, or at least to the same people at different times (since even the smartest of people can appreciate a good fart joke). It also seems to allow viewers to “level up” over their history with the show. Here, therefore, I’d point to its success internationally, in some markets where surely some of its appeal is visual, but where those who know American culture and/or language better can get progressively more out of it. Or, quite simply, this explains the show’s success in syndication, on DVD, and probably soon via app, as each successive viewing can allow other resonances. Its “joke per minute” rate has always been faster than most shows, which means inevitably you’ll miss something and could appreciate a second viewing.
Meanwhile, though, as your question alludes to, the show has a strong fan following, and a huge cloud of merchandise, spinoffs, and such, some official, many unofficial. It’s become as much a culture and a community as a show, so there’s a whole extra life that the show has outside of the 22 minutes a week on the Fox network. Any time a show enjoys that, it grows, deepens, and evolves in interesting ways.
WU: Another point in your book that I found fascinating was the power of parody to create a critical awareness in the mind of the viewer; parody helps punch through the constructed nature of a genre. Certainly the most consistently parodied genre in The Simpsons is the family sitcom, or domesticom. The Simpsons seems like a “fever dream” of American life, a kind of mirror that begins with a constructed audience sitting patiently on the couch, waiting to be entertained by the television. If we understand The Simpsons as a sitcom, the only stable state of grace is that race to the couch, and the agelessness of the characters. Are we to accept The Simpsons is a sitcom, or a parody of the sitcom, or is it perhaps something else entirely?
JG: There are some scholars of parody who argue that parody always peaks at a particular point in a genre’s life, when that genre is long in the tooth, having grown old and boring, and when it needs to be challenged, shaken out of its complacency with certain ways of seeing the world, and when audiences need to step back from it and ask for something better. The Simpsons illustrates that theory quite beautifully, since it came at a time when the family sitcom as we knew it had run its course. In the early days of the family sitcom, its apparent verisimilitude and familiarity (think of real-life Ozzie, Harriet, and their kids playing Ozzie, Harriet, and their kids, or of Lucy and Ricky playing Lucy and Ricky, Burns and Allen, and more) was meant on one hand to comfort a post-war America with a suburban idyll, and on the other hand to assure honesty and sincerity of this relatively new medium that was elsewhere, in the quiz show scandals and the like, worrying many. But its generic form started to become insidious, suggesting that paradise had indeed been created in the suburbs, that America had settled down and everything was okay, and that everyone was happy. As well-intentioned as this fantasy might have been, it’s important to consider the white-washing involved as the genre became more absurdly delusional, losing touch with anything resembling reality. The Simpsons wasn’t the first to challenge this, of course: Norman Lear woke people up in the seventies with his sitcoms, but the pendulum swung backwards in the eighties with a spate of Father Knows Best mimics. And thus The Simpsons came along and not only gave us a new type of family (as did Lear in his various sitcoms), but centered much of the humor on laughing at the silliness and excesses of the sitcom itself.
So, yes, The Simpsons is in the sitcom family, but it’s the member of the family who regularly airs everyone else’s dirty laundry, who shares its dark secrets with others, and who makes Thanksgiving a pain in the ass for those who are still invested in suggesting everything’s just peachy, but is the life of the party for everyone else. Or, rather, it was. In its wake, many other shows took up its lead, like South Park or Malcolm in the Middle.And also in its wake, it challenged the family to be something new, asking sitcom writers to do something new, while also asking sitcom audiences to demand more and to regard more skeptically the parade of older family sitcoms that still haunt us through syndication. It did its part to kill the laugh track and with it the idea that we should all be laughing together, and helped kick off a new era in primetime network comedy.
WU: 552 episodes were shown consecutively in the longest-ever television marathon recently, on the relatively new cable channel FXX. News has reported that the ratings were nearly three times higher than the network expected, and with the new online portal Simpsons World it seems as if the show will never end. Yet there have been significant changes to the team over the years, the animation rendering has changed, and even our world which The Simpsons seeks to mirror has transformed. In your mind, what are the biggest shifts within the show itself over the last twenty-five seasons?
JG: One could point to some key moments in its production history, such as when it went high def. Fans often enshrine certain writers’ tenure with the show, as with Conan O’Brien in particular. But I’d rather look at three eras: (1) when The Simpsons was a “bad object”; (2) when it had lots of colleagues and imitators; and (3) when it settled down into the background. Importantly, I don’t see too many differences in the show itself across those eras – save for a certain drop in the crispness of its humor in the second and third eras. The shifts, then, are mostly about what was happening around the show.
In that first era, Bart was freaking out parents, teachers, and principals. America had seemingly forgotten that animation could be for adults too, and there was a moral panic about Bart teaching American kids to be losers and proud of it, man. Then in 1992, George and Barbara Bush saw it as symbolic of a devolution of the American family, and regularly attacked it on the campaign trail, which made it A Bad Show to some Americans, and for others made it all the more countercultural. It was scheduled against The Cosby Show and talked back to it. It made the Fox Network young, hip, cool, and edgy. Moving into the second era, it was no longer alone. South Park and Eric Cartman helped parents realize that Bart was pretty tame, and now attacking the sitcom and the nuclear family was a group sport. It was no longer leading a countercultural push, nor the object of many people’s ire and concern. While it had been a bastion of the new niche-programming era in American television, it was now just one of the mix, and Comedy Central and HBO were regularly ruder and edgier. Fast-forward another decade or so, and it could now be looked back upon nostalgically, and though it amazingly seems impervious to low Nielsen ratings, few of its fan base claim still to watch it. It’s now older than most college students, and those students never even lived through its first era. Its greatest political and generic impact happened a whole generation ago. But it’s still a good show, a smart parody, and its voice actors are still the very, very best in the business. I don’t want to end by suggesting it’s atrophied: Lisa Simpson is still one of the most progressive characters on television, and she and Homer are in many ways the gold standard of American comedy.
About the Interviewee: Jonathan Gray is a full professor of media and cultural studies at University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is author of Show Sold Separately (2010), Television Entertainment (2008), and Watching with The Simpsons (2006); coauthor of Television Studies (2011); and coeditor of A Companion to Media Authorship (2013), Satire TV (2009), and Fandom (2007).
Note: The opinions of all interviewees are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinion of the Peabody Board.