NOTE: This was an assignment I had this past semester in a writing for art class. I received an A on it.
More than two decades ago, James L. Brooks and Matt Groening's The Simpsons goofed its way on the Tracy Ullman Show as thirty-second "cartoonlettes," as Groening called them (spotnitz, ew.com). A couple years later, the Tracy Ullman Show show was gone and The Simpsons was a hit half-hour, regularly-scheduled program after its first Christmas special. It has been a cultural phenomenon ever since. The show sells books and music. It sells video games. It even sells clothes and children's toys, though it is not exactly suitable for kids, due to Bart's misbehavior at school and Homer's constant stupor; they do not make good role models for children. The Simpsons has become a cultural icon because of its brazen parodying of everyday life.
In fact, a couple years after her show was canceled, Tracy Ullman sued Twentieth Century Fox because she wanted her share of the fifty million dollars The Simpsons had made in the short time after Ullman's show had been canceled. Fox maintained that as a hired performer with barely any creative control, she was not entitled the merchandising rights to spinoffs (Spotnitz ew.com).
In what many considered a bad move at the time, The Simpsons was placed in the "suicide slot" on Thursday afternoons to compete directly with The Cosby Show, which was, at the time, number one in the ratings. The two shows were almost exact opposites, with The Cosby Show being wholesome and The Simpsons being raunchy. This resulted in denunciations all over the United States for the first few years of its run after it became more popular once it moved to Sundays, according to Mark I. Pinksy. All over the country, the show was selling merchandise, especially shirts with Bart Simpson and his disrespectful catchphrases "Don't have a cow, man!" and "Eat my shorts!" In fact, a school in California banned students from wearing such shirts, while a New Jersey mayor asked retail stores to stop selling them. J.C. Penny stopped selling such merchandizing entirely in the early 90s (Pinksy, p. 5).
Public outrage over the show even affected churches. One church member was upset with his son imitating Bart, so he complained to one of his ministers, Lee Strobel. Strobel then preached a widely reprinted sermon called, "What would Jesus say to Bart Simpson." Preachers and other moral leaders spoke out about how this troubled fictional family was evidence that Western civilization was falling (p. 6). An anti-drug czar visited a rehabilitation center in Pittsburg, where he saw a Bart Simpson Poster with the caption "Underachiever and Proud of It." He asked someone there, "You guys aren't watching The Simpsons, are you? That's not going to help you any" (6) He later backed off from his criticism because he didn't watch it. Then President George H.W. Bush once told the National Religious Broadcasters, "We need a nation closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons" (6). In an episode three days later, Bart Simpson sat watching the speech and remarked, "We're just like the Waltons. We're praying for an end to the depression too" (6). Barbara Bush replied, "The Simpsons is the dumbest thing I've ever seen" (6) A few years later, the show took its final shot at the former president with a parody of Dennis the Menace, where Bart messes up Bush's memoirs, resulting in Bush spanking him. This enrages Homer, who pulls a prank on Bush, further agitating him. The two brawl under the sewers (6).
Commonly referred to as The Simpsons Christmas Special, the first official episode after being spun off The Tracy Ullman Show "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" was about Homer and Bart going to a dog race to win money. They bet it all on Santa's Little Helper, thinking his name was a sign that they were going to receive a "Christmas Miracle". Well, the dog lost the race and the track owner told the dog to get lost. Homer and Bart took him home and he became the family dog, despite their thinking the dog ruined their Christmas. This episode was seen as stereotypical of everyday life among lower class people. Homer, a boorish oaf, is desperate for quick cash after not receiving his Christmas bonus. Marge spends all the family's Christmas money on getting Bart's tattoo removed after seeing him get it. To make up for it, Homer finds a job as a mall Santa, only to become distressed when he sees his net earnings are almost nothing compared to his gross, an over-exaggeration of this country's real-life high tax rate. So he does something foolish and bets on something he thinks is a sure thing, hoping for his Christmas miracle. He does this rather than betting on a dog his best friend, Barney, tells him to bet on. Homer bets a dog named Santa's Little Helper after Bart tells him it's a sign. That sign doesn't bring about what they hoped, but at least the family gets a dog out of it (The Simpsons, 1989).
A few of the character designs and concepts were no accident. Homer's head sports Groening's initials. In some angles, you can see his hair on the back of his head form an M, while his ear below it is a G. The show's characters are also blatant stereotypes of real-life society. Ned Flanders is a Mr. Rodgers-type of character, an Evangelical Fundamentalist Christian who thinks everything is a sin and can take things too far, such as banning the Fox Network from his house because it supposedly shows debauchery and violence. Carl is an African-American stereotype. In "Great Wife Hope" – an episode ripe with sexist and racial stereotypes – Homer asks him if he knows Drederick Tatum (a parody of Mike Tyson). Carl answered, "What? Just because I'm black I know all other black people? Actually, yeah, Drederick and I are very good friends. I met him through Dr. Hibbert at a party at Bleeding Gums Murphy's house." Dr. Hibbert and Bleeding Gums Murphy are also African-Americans in the show. Tatum also has a picture of President Barack Obama tattooed on his chest, as if African-Americans only support him because he is African-American (The Simpsons, 2009).
The Simpsons has appropriated characters from other Fox Network primetime cartoons. Hank Hill from King of the Hill, Bender from Futurama and Peter Griffin from Seth MacFarlane's Family Guy have all appeared in the show at one point. In fact, The Simpsons has actually taken comedic shots at Family Guy. However, MacFarlane once attempted a gag on his show where The Simpsons was advertised at the bottom of the screen with Family Guy character Quagmire raping Marge. She then decided she liked it and invited him back to the Simpson house, where Homer found them. Quagmire went on a rampage, killing the entire Simpson family. The network edited out the entire gag, which, according to MacFarlane, rendered the entire first act less funny. However, he went on to say the entire gag can still be seen whenever the episode runs in syndication on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. MacFarlane said that the two shows were feuding and that it was not exactly fair that the other show could poke harmless fun at his show but he could not poke fun at them (OMMITED). Still, Family Guy took a shot at The Simpsons in a recent episode when a corrupt cop planted Marijuana in Peter's car and arrested him and his friends for possession. After they were convicted and they were being transported to prison, Joe (a paralyzed police officer) remarked, "I don't believe this. Two weeks in prison on trumped up charges. The trial was a total sham" (Family Guy, 2011). Peter replied, "I knew we were in trouble the minute I saw the jury" (Family Guy, 2011). The jury was all Simpsons characters (Family Guy, 2011).
The Simpsons has found its way into every part of life. It is in music. It is in video games. The show has even found its way onto stamps (newslite.tv) and even, somewhat ironically, into education. UC Berkley has had a few classes dedicated to the show, a feat few shows have managed to accomplish. According to Karma Waltonen and Denise Du Vernay, the show "can be used in any type of writing course," even if it is merely writing in a personal journal for one's own personal discovery (Waltonen, Varnay, p. 113). Part of this is its use of linguistics. Any English as a second language student knows the complexities of the English language and how hard it is to pronounce words sometimes, especially since letters tend to sound differently depending on the word. Homer tends to speak a dialect of English called Homer-ese, a stupid form on English. He tends to butcher words like "library" and change them into words like "libary." Homer shows this in "Apocalypse Cow" when he comes to a slaughterhouse. He calls it "laughterhouse" because the S is covered up (p. 160).
Homer can't spell very well either. In "Homer Goes to College", he finally gets into college (despite already being a safety inspector for a power plant). He burns his high school diploma with it still hanging on the wall, which of course, sets the wall on fire. All this is going on while Homer is singing, "I am so smart! I am so smart! S-M-R-T! I mean… S-M-A-R-T!" Linguistically, Homer forgets there is an A in the word "smart" because it sounds like "smrt" with the "A" as part of the "R". However, it is interesting to point out that this mishap wasn't in the original script. Actor Dan Castellenata, who plays Homer, misspoke while in the recording session. The reason the writers left it in the scene was because it fit Homer's character and made it even funnier. The accident has made the song one of the more famous jokes in The Simpsons (Castellenata, Groening, Al Jean).
After twenty-two years, The Simpsons has become one of the most popular shows on television. It has provided many memorable moments, from Homer risking his life to stop Bart from jumping Springfield Gorge on his skateboard only to comically roll down the canyon to Homer brawling with George H.W. Bush. The show may not be around much longer but hopefully the rest of its run will be just as memorable as when it first started.
Groening, Matt; Castellaneta, Dan; Jean, Al. Commentary in The Simpsons: The Complete Fifth Season. 20th Century Fox. 2004.
Pinksy, Mark I. The Gospel According to the Simpsons. Westminister Jon Knox Press, 2007. p. 5-6
Waltonen, Karma and Vernay, Denise Du. The Simpsons in the CIassoom. McFarlane & Company, 2010. p. 160.
"Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" The Simpsons. 20th Century Fox. 1989.
"Great Wife Hope" The Simpsons. 20th Century Fox. 2009.
"Cool Hand Peter" Family Guy. 20th Century Fox. 2011