The Simpsons - Just Funny or More?

By Gerd Steiger

To Uter, our little ambassador to Springfield

8.30 p.m.: It's prime time.

As the white marshmallow clouds quickly start to move out of the picture, an angelic choir cautiously sets in and from the bright blue sky emerges the title of our yellow theme. CUT. Music changes. Band-play begins. A grotesquely drawn child is being punished, is being taught not to waste any chalk. As the yellow boy is writing the same sentence over and over on the blackboard, he senses the absurdity of the task, the pointlessness of the punishment. - The bell rings: 3 o'clock. This above all: Aye Carumba! Bart escapes his classroom. CUT. A man in a protective suit. He is handling some greenishly fluorescent substance. In the background: an old man, his loyal assistant and their (evil?) plan. The odd couple. The siren: off-duty! Adieu, adieu. Parting is such sweet sorrow! Not for him and certainly not now. Homer throws away his protective mask, next moment, - and he's gone. CUT. A woman with towering blue hair and an orange necklace. She is reading the Mom Monthly magazine while waiting at the cash register. Along with her groceries, her pacifier-sucking baby is getting scanned. Value: 847.63 dollars. - Expensive little girl! Shocked for one short moment, Marge now realizes that her toddler is sitting in the grocery bag. A relieved grin rushes over her yellow face. Marge, Maggie and the groceries leave. CUT. Music changes slightly. Distortion sets in. School band-play begins! A spiky-haired girl and her saxophone passionately play that jazz, - completely out of the tone of the collective. Lisa has just left the building. And she left it, eyes closed, continuing to play it her way, continuing to put all her blue feelings into that instrument of hers. CUT. A yellow house. A car rapidly turns into the driveway. Bart quickly runs over it on his skateboard, Homer gets out. "D'oh!," just in time he manages to get out of Lisa's way as she is coming in on her bicycle. That was close. Now calm do... "Aah!" Marge and Maggie are arriving. - This time, it's a car! Homer rushes into the house. CUT. Inside. A couch the TV set chaos! They're all yellow and they are hectically rushing in from all sides. - The panic is over. They have all squeezed themselves onto their couch. They're an animated family and they're about ready for the show to begin, when in all of a sudden the couch transforms into a frightening monster and swallows the entire clan. The surreal. ---

A final cut puts an end to the hectic hustle and bustle of the rapid-fire opening sequences of America's favorite animated television show The Simpsons, revolving around "the normal American family in all its beauty and all its horror," as the series' executive producer James L. Brooks once described the pounding heart of the show, the Simpson family itself. Not even distantly related to families such as the prehistoric Flintstones or the space-age Jetsons, the Simpsons are a family of the 90s, nuclear and down-to-earth, "under the relentless pressures presented by modern life" and mutually supportive all at the same time.

"I've always said it's a celebration of the American family at its wildest," states the creator and executive producer of the yellow bunch, Portland, Oregon native Matt Groening (his name rhymes, as he remarked, with 'complaining'), who modeled the various Simpson family members on his own parents and his sister.

Born in 1954, Groening started drawing monsters for his neighborhood Creature Club as early as in fourth grade. After graduating from high-school, where he "attempted to rewrite the constitution to give himself absolute power", the "mordant alternative" cartoonist opted to attend Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington because of the institution's "no-grades, no-exams policy".

"Then in college, I studied Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. [...] You study that in the winter, in a rain forest in Olympia, Washington, and you get very moody," Groening points out the reflection of the disillusioned and ironic zeitgeist of the 1970s in his personality and work. Upon graduating from college in 1977, the man who originally intended to become a professional writer soon celebrated his first success as a cartoonist, when his Life in Hell comic strip debuted in the Los Angeles magazine Wet in 1978. Featuring "crudely drawn angst-filled characters", such as the two rabbits Binky and his one-eared son Bongo, as well as the human Jeff and Akbar, Groening's comic strip "recapitulate[s] the human lot with a lack of sentimentality that borders on the savage" - an "irreverent portrayal of broken life", evidencing Groening's qualities as a watchful observer, a personality trait which is an essential prerequisite for any socio-critical satirist.

"The frivolity of drawing rabbits can get to me. [...] That's why I hope to write something that will be taken a little seriously." - And so the husband and proud father of Homer, his almost ten-year-old son, doubtlessly did: When asked to create a series of short animated vignettes to be aired as so-called "shorts" on the then extraordinarily popular The Tracey Ullman Show on the Fox Network, Groening, in an office foyer, within fifteen minutes sketched a yellow-colored family of five: the Simpsons. -

This was the birth of an animated series, which - packed with vicious social satire and at times subtle, at other times profound pop-culture allusions - would evolve to have a considerable impact on the television landscape of the nation in the following years. Due to its enormous popularity, The Simpsons was soon extended to become a half-hour series, attracting not only children and teenage viewers, but also an audience of adults well beyond their Mickey Mouse and Looney Tune years.

Today in its tenth season on prime time television, the show's value and popular conception can impressively be documented by reviewing its critical recognition in generally accepted and established publications: In 1990, Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker called The Simpsons "one of the few current works of popular art that posses wit and integrity"; in 1991, David Bianculli from the New York Post referred to the series as "the most multi-layered cartoon since Rocky and Bullwinkle"; in 1994, Time magazine's very own Richard Corliss hailed the series as the "most satisfying show on television[,] [...] at the apex of quality", labeling it "uniquely dense and witty" and, in 1998, as an extraordinary highlight, "Time editors and writers in consultation with CBS and outside experts and artists" chose the cartoon character of Bart Simpson - on behalf of the entire series - to be included in Time magazine's list of the top 100 key cultural and most influential figures of our century, side by side with a number of outstanding artists such as Picasso, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan or The Beatles.

In addition, since The Simpsons was first aired as a half-hour program almost precisely ten years ago, the show's exceptional voice-performance and creative teams around Matt Groening have been honored with a number of various awards, among them several Emmies and Environmental Media Awards (between 1991 to 1998), the E Pluribus Unum Award (in 1996), the prestigious Peabody Award (in 1997) and also the People's Choice Award (in 1990 to 1991).

The Simpsons appears to be more than just another hilarious TV show - which, as a fact that can be supported by the show's tremendous popularity not only in the U.S., means a mighty accomplishment by itself! No, the reasons to believe that this animated television program is projecting more into our living-rooms than mere entertainment are extremely compelling.

However, which exactly are the elements that make the show what it accordingly to Time's Bruce Handy indeed is, namely "both first rate and of lasting quality" and why will it "still be being viewed and enjoyed when a lot of contemporary, serious literature is forgotten"? And besides: If The Simpsons definitely is of such dramatic quality, how does Groening manage to elevate the artistic genre of animation to the most sublime level of serious literature and what are the elements contributing to his overwhelming popular success? -

It should be clear beforehand that it will not be possible to answer all of these questions in a completely satisfactory manner, and yet, a thorough analysis of The Simpsons might give at least some more insight into Groening's concept and at the same time prove interesting and worthwhile.

According to a survey published by the Christian Science Monitor only 41 percent of American teens can name the three branches of government, though 74 percent can give the name of the place Bart Simpson calls his home town.

The name of the city which is supposed to offer a certain similarity to towns in Oregon, but which is basically "anytown USA", is Springfield , a fictional location just about as close to Boston and New York as to Hollywood and the near Capital City, another metropolis most probably introduced by Groening and company, in order to give their setting the greatest possible universality, without leaving it too anonymous for the audience to still recognize their very own community. Precisely this "floating type of geographical location relative to the rest of the country", Springfield's ambiguous atmosphere created by blending provincial with urban everyday life, opens up a unique opportunity for the series to portray - and thus comment on! - almost every facet of American public life and at the same time, in its most condensed humorous ways, appeal equally to the blue-collar worker from Small-Town, USA, as to businesswoman Joanna Smith from the Big Apple.

Founded by local folk hero Jebediah Obadiah Zachariah Jebediah Springfield, whose statue can be admired in the city center, but whose legendary historical status may only be admired and at no time be questioned in order not to be branded a disrespectful rebel and liar, the town which has seen well over a hundred most diverse characters at least drop one or more lines in the course of time, contains numerous elements on which The Simpsons' creative team frequently falls back on when plotting new story lines.

While the Simpson family is the viewer's main perspective, public life in Springfield often evolves from, but under no circumstances is limited to, either everyday-like or extraordinary incidents or events occurring at locations such as the near dam, the waterfront, the prison, the mall, or even the well-frequented center of the town's glamorous nightlife , the local burlesque house, of which, funnily enough, all of Springfield's residents - and especially the town gentry - until recently were completely oblivious.

The most important "institutions", however, include the local TV station, the Kwik-E-Mart, a small convenient store operated by hard-working semi-legal immigrant Apu Nahasapeemapetilan, the Springfield Retirement Community, as well as the Springfield Elementary School, whose principal Seymour Skinner is still living with his mother. Moe's Tavern, the local pub, which is populated by certain permanent denizens, is the place where hard-core alcoholic Barney Grumble has literally made himself at home.

However, both overshadowing and "enlightening" anything else the town has to offer, is the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, short SNPP. Owned by the exploitative Mr. Burns, the SNPP is Springfield's major employer and regularly at the center of public life. Besides producing nuclear power, the plant also causes nuclear waste, a fact very rarely noted by the citizens of Springfield.

By bringing life to such a "wonderfully congested cosmos", Groening manages to leave the main plot line undetermined for a relatively long period of time: "[T]he first few minutes of any episode are so packed with comic detail that the story could go in any of a dozen directions," as Richard Corliss correctly stated.

The series' setting and basic composition contribute to and are preconditions for an exceptional variety of highly diverse plot lines, opening up the whole infinite universe of storytelling the genre of animation is capable of; that is portraying both reality and the surreal in an artistic as well as dramatic manner which is otherwise particular to literature only and can rarely be found in modern film.

When The Simpsons was first aired on prime-time television, the then revolutionary show went head to head with Bill Cosby's The Cosby Show, a series revolving around the upper middle-class picture book TV-family and centering Cliff Huxtable as the impeccable father, " the very symbol of the network establishment".

In an interview published in March of 1990, Groening and company suggested that they "love the [Cosby's] characters, but [are] [...] worried that millions of Americans think that a good-humored, intelligent father can solve all the problems in a family". - And exactly therein most probably lies the reason why Groening decided to satirically document life of a family which is much more complex, much more relevant to its surrounding world and, even more important, to which the surrounding world is much more relevant as well.

By animating The Simpsons, Groening managed to reach a higher degree of realism, while he is still entertaining and thus appealing to his audience. Naturally, the most entertaining elements are the show's numerous fictional characters. In order to analyze how much these are contributing to The Simpsons' realism, but also to its often-proclaimed quality of being "biting satire", brief characterizations of the series' protagonists and its most interesting figures appear indispensable:

Homer J. Simpson

As the patriarch of the Simpson family and "worker drone/safety inspector" at the SNPP, a "dead-ending blue-collar job", the overweight Homer is the average loser. At age 36, Homer holds the plant record for "most years worked at an entry-level position" and, at his high school reunion, has won the awards for "most weight gained", "most improved odor", "most hair lost", "oldest car", and "lowest-paying job". Homer holds the promises his outward appearance suggests: Not only is he fat, lazy and incompetent, no, he is also a slow-witted, bumbling dreamer, who, when under witness-protection is asked for a new identity, wishes to be star-quarterback John Elway. Homer's intellectual abilities reach about as far as to comparatively substantial questions as "Why are all the good things so tasty?" and result from his dislike of his brain:

        Homer: All right, brain, you don't like me and I don't like you. 
               But let's just do this, and I can get back to killing you 
               with beer.
Homer's brain: It's a deal!

Homer's favorite pastimes include "sitting on the couch while watching TV and drinking beer" and going bowling and...drinking beer. But Homer also likes food - and despite his triple bypass operation, there are few things that he wouldn't eat: It just has to be unhealthy. Homer's trademark utterances are "D'oh!", when things don't work the way he thinks they should be working, and "Mmm...", when being tempted. And, living in the capitalistic America of the '90s, Homer gets tempted almost every single minute of the day.

Homer is an unaware hedonist, but at the same time, he is the most "lovable oaf", as Matt Groening once described him, one can imagine. While not always being the perfect husband and father, he is always faithful to his wife and willing to do anything for his kids, even if it means working around the clock to buy his daughter Lisa the pony that she is wanting so badly:

"I'll work from midnight to eight, come home, sleep for five minutes, eat breakfast, sleep six more minutes, then I have ten minutes to bask in Lisa's love, then I'm off to the power plant fresh as a daisy."

And while from time to time he may feel not understood, he finally always becomes aware of his failures and eventually manages to show his love, affection and even desperation:

"Marge, I need you more than anyone else on this entire planet could possibly ever need you. I need you to take care of me, to put up with me, and most of all, I need you to love me, because I love you."

Homer is more human than any human, always yearning for any kind of indulgence, but at the same moment loving and desperate to be loved .

His dramatic function is that of basically being a test subject at the mercy of the manipulating forces of the modern world: entertainment, commercials, even politics. Homer unawarely internalizes what the various components of pop culture permanently try to suggest: that violence is not that bad, mass-consumption of anything is a must and that nuclear power is the safest form of energy there is. The character of Homer is a powerful dramatic tool, an awareness factor. By being so completely naive towards any influence of manipulation, he shakes the viewer, pointing precisely on the very manipulating influences relevant in our capitalistic popular culture.

Grampa:  Homer was never stubborn. He always folded instantly over 
         anything. It was as if the had no will of his own. Isn't that 
         true, Homer?
 Homer:  Yes, Dad.

Marjorie Simpson

In her threefold role as loving wife, nurturing mother and busy homemaker, Marge partly fulfills the cliché of the typical, easily satisfied housewife who takes pride in her family, her home-sweet-home and, well, in Marge's case, in her "mountainous blue hair", dye #56.

Marge, whose slightly rough voice displays a certain calmness and affection, without a doubt is the stabilizing element, "the thread [that] holds the Simpson family together". She is the center and the anchor, in short: she is the family's very own 'Mom'.

No, of course, Marge does not always immediately know the right answers, as when she told Lisa always to smile even though Lisa was really unhappy, but in the end, she always manages to do or say the right thing.

In the course of the series, Marge has not only been admired by the show's audience, but has also been wooed by Moe the bartender, minor-league baseball player Flash Baylor and Springfield's most powerful man, Mr. Burns. However, as one might expect, Marge has always remained faithful to her pasha husband, her self-pitying daughter and her bratty son:

"Oh, Homie, I like your in-your-face humanity. I like the way Lisa speaks her mind. I like Bart's...I like Bart."

There is reason to believe that the 34-year-old could achieve much more in her life, yet, she is being held back by her overwhelming love towards her family, probably sharing her destiny with millions of women all over the nation: Marge finds herself caught in her threefold role.

From time to time, Marge's yearning for a more comfortable and stimulating life turns into some sort of activism, which often results from a desire to protect her children from any negative influence. Out of this background, Marge has, for instance, been trying to close down the local burlesque house and to ban the violent Itchy & Scratchy Show from television.

The tragic lying within her role of the "often smothering" mother of an average American, and as such maybe at times also abusive family, is hinted at when Marge comments on Blanche's behavior in Tennessee Williams' drama A Streetcar Named Desire:

"I just don't see why Blanche should shove a broken bottle in Stanley's face. Couldn't she just take his abuse with gentle good humor?"

Marge is very aware of Homer's endless list of flaws and failures, a fact which can be observed again and again, still, she is not even close to shove that bottle in his face. Her motherly love is infinite, but at the same time a millstone round her neck, holding her back on her way to self-realization.

Marge: (speaking at a rally) The first step to liberation is to free 
       ourselves from these...(she pulls out a bra)...male imposed shackles.
  Kim: I didn't think it would burn so fast.
Marge: I guess it's the tissue paper inside. 
       - Marge's first act of activism

Bartholemew Jo-Jo Simpson

In a society of achievers, Bart is an "underachiever - and proud of it," as could be read on millions of T-shirts in the early '90s. The ten-year-old boy with the "paper bag-shaped head" and a "modernist silhouette" is Marge's "special little guy", "devious, [...] school-hating, irreverent [and] clever".

Bart's abilities range from vandalism to international fraud, his specialty being prank calls to Moe's Tavern, where he has the slow bartender call out embarrassing names. In all of the "provocateur['s]" antics lie so much energy and verve that he was loved by the media from the first moment he was "born": Ripostes like "Eat my shorts!", "Cowabunga!" or "Don't have a cow, man!" soon were an essential part of the basic vocabulary on every school yard.

Bart is "brilliant at being bad", a "hell-raising" "constant prankster", and, due to his cleverness, common sense and natural skepticism, every authority figure's nightmare.

However, while he may be full of mischief, Bart also has an extremely sensitive and vulnerable side: While Bart loves his family, he also needs to be loved.

When Lisa is on the verge of turning into an obnoxious kid, it is Bart who doesn't get tired of telling her not to wreck her life and even takes the blame for her wrongful doing, he, who likes to pick on his sister 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Bart functions on two levels:

As a bad role-model he becomes an entertaining element on the show. Amused by Bart's bad behavior, the viewer also witnesses the consequences of the boy's antics. Bart's adventures are always didactic.

As a "cynical muckraker", Bart stands "firmly in the tradition of the bad boy in satire", comparable even to Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer.

Richard Corliss called him "a complex weave of grace, attitude and personality, deplorable and adorable, a very 90s slacker who embodies a century of popular culture [...]". - And that he is, much too well-rounded and ambiguous a character to be characterized accurately.

"Part of this D-minus belongs to God." - Bart the equivocator: in Shakespearean times he would have been lynched! "Aye Carumba!"

Lisa Marie Simpson

"Well, I'm going to be a famous jazz musician. I've got it all figured out. I'll be unappreciated in my own country, but my gutsy blues stylings will electrify the French. I'll avoid the horrors of drug abuse, but I do plan to have several torrid love affairs. And I may or may not die young, I haven't decided."

Whatever Lisa may eventually decide to be when she has grown out of that cute little dress of hers and the necklace around her neck has become too tight, the "intelligent, precocious" little girl will be very likely to succeed - whenever her talents get recognized.

Lisa is quite different from Bart, mostly because she is never indifferent to anything. The "near genius" loves literature and is keen on poetry, she is eager for knowledge and moderately ambitious. Within Lisa's personality, the incorruptibility and naiveté peculiar to children blend with a philosopher's intellect and wisdom, in order to form the personification of a generally accepted moral instance. Lisa holds her ethical standards to be self-evident and as a consequence never appears to be moralizing: Lisa is always credible.

Being only eight years old, she is - just as Bart - being used as a "satirical vehicle" and "fit[s] well into an established tradition of using children in satire to fly 'under the radar' of viewers who dislike [...] societal commentary per se".

But Lisa is more: besides having a dramatic function, Lisa also serves as a tragic example. She is "the unrecognized talent" and at times feels unappreciated. Out of this result a certain self-doubt and her fear of being average, two personality traits which come to the fore especially when she meets Allison, the at least equally gifted, but even younger girl who seems to be besting her at anything she is good at.

When Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins had his guest appearance on the show, he might have felt that melancholy and infinite sadness like never before - because whenever Lisa, the convinced idealist, is getting disillusioned by tough reality, she becomes "the saddest kid in grade number two," as she once called herself. Then, the kid "whose intelligence deprives her of friends [...] [,] sublimates her rancor by playing her sax" or she just let's it all out:

The city of Washington was built on a stagnant swamp some 200 years ago and very little has changed; it stank then and it stinks now. Only today, it is the fetid stench of corruption that hangs in the air."

After having to witness congressman Bob Arnold take a bribe from a lobbyist, Lisa loses all her faith in the democratic process and changes her Patriots of Tomorrow essay to a painful accusation of the wrongs within the current political system.

However, while Lisa is "wise beyond her years", she has also developed a crush on her substitute teacher Mr. Bergstrom and wishes nothing more than to have her very own pony.

After all, Lisa remains a child.

"Like, you know, whatever. Like, you know, whatever."
Lisa, trying to adapt her language to the level of other children.

Margaret Simpson

As the youngest family member of the Simpsons, Maggie toddles "unsteadily throughout the show", expressing "frazzled wisdom beyond her years with the merest suck on her pacifier". Maggie is only one year old but evidence suggests her being a genius: in the course of time, she has spelled out Einstein's theory of relativity with her toy blocks and has managed to write down her name all by herself.

Maggie Simpson is always an entertaining element on the show: whether she gets lost in her mother's gigantic hairdo or drinks from the dog dish, the viewer will always be caught by her irresistible toddler-charm.

According to the supermarket scanner in the show's opening sequences, Maggie's monetary value is $847.63 - supposedly the amount of money required to raise a baby for one month in the U.S.", a fact, which - if correct - speaks for itself.

But the toddler has already shown some rebellious tendencies as well: when her pacifier was taken away from her at the Ayn Rand School for Tots, it was Maggie who led a baby rebellion to recapture what belongs to her. That way, the little girl is always just one pacifier-suck away from being a crowd favorite.

The Family Unit

The Simpson family, "good-hearted, but at the mercy of their extremely volatile emotions - rage, self-pity, disdain," as Matt Groening described his protagonists.

While each family member is a well-rounded, three dimensional character with certain dramatic functions, the Simpson family as a whole consequently builds up to a highly complex weave of internal relationships, displaying more realism than traditional TV families such as the Cosbys or the Waltons. Of course, there can be no denying the fact, that any "functional" family should primarily teach generosity and love, - values which also the Simpsons are yearning for - but, as Time's Barbara Ehrenreich stated, "even in the ostensibly 'functional', nonviolent family, where no one is killed or maimed, feelings are routinely bruised and often twisted out of shape".

And precisely that is the reason why the Simpsons can under no circumstances be seen as an irresponsibly dysfunctional family, an accusation carried forward by numerous critics mainly in the series' early years.

The Simpsons are the satirical portrayal of a 90s real-life pop-culture family. The values they transmit are nothing new. They have been prevailing for a long time!

The renowned British anthropologist Edmund Leach once stated that "far from being the basis of the good society, the family, with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets, is the source of all discontents". Long before he created The Simpsons, Groening must have realized that family life also includes "deep, impacted tensions and longings", that it is "so complicated, so full of inarticulated desires and fears, that it can never be reduced to a mere collection of wisecracks".

Seen from that angle, Groening must even be seen as a pioneer: never before has a family sitcom been as realistic. The use of the word revolutionary is clearly justified.

However, as has already been hinted at, The Simpsons also contains a uniquely fascinating range of additional characters which are just as indispensable for the continuity of the show's plotting. Their exact dramatic function remains unclear. Thus, a brief analysis of just the most important additional protagonists appears necessary and might prove revealing:

Mr. Charles Montgomery Burns and Waylon Smithers

"[...] Schindler and I are like peas in a pod! We're both factory owners. We both made shells for the Nazis, but mine worked, damn it!"

As the rich and ancient owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, Mr. Burns is not just the most power-ful man in terms of electricity.

The exploitative and unscrupulous man is Springfield's major employer and as such always thinking of new ways to maximize his profits.

Mr. Burns is domineering. In addition, he is power-hungry and constantly greedy for anything. Mr. Burns is old and, judged by his attitude towards labor unions or modern health care, he is a relic from the industrial revolution.

Knowing every trick in the exploitative employer's book, "Monty" has been trying to offer his workers a free beer keg at their union meetings in exchange for giving up their dental plan and frequently has to bribe the agents from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission because his plant is light years from being conform with national safety standards:

"The watchdog of public safety. Is there any lower form of life?"

Of course, that was a rhetorical question. - His ultimate goal being to block out his greatest nemesis, the sun, Mr. Burns knows how to twist the public round his little finger:

"Oh, meltdown. It's one of those annoying 'buzzwords'. We prefer to call it an unrequested fission surplus."

Evil-looking Mr. Burns is a master of euphemistic language, except when he is talking to his only companion, his personal assistant Waylon Smithers, "the sober 'yin' to his raging 'yang'".

Smithers' relationship towards Mr. Burns can genuinely be described as a platonic sado-maso relationship, in which Smithers is to be nothing but a spineless little worm.

Smithers' duties for Mr. Burns include tucking him in at night, moistening his eyeballs, removing his dead skin and lying to Congress, all of which he fulfills with the greatest pleasure.

Even though evidence suggests that Smithers may secretly be in love with Mr. Burns - in the course of the show, it has been revealed that his computer screen-saver is featuring a naked Mr. Burns - nothing has been proven yet.

Burns and Smithers form an essential element for the plot, since their power plant is at the center of public life. Even though, or probably even exactly because their characters are usually portrayed as merely one-dimensional, - especially Mr. Burns seems to fit into the common cliché of the evil, exploitative old industrial - Burns and Smithers form a hilarious couple and contribute widely to the show's entertainment.

And so, for a long time, Mr. Burns will keep doing his famous hand-rubbing gesture, stating:

"Look at them, Smithers. Goldbrickers, layabouts, slugabeds! Little do they realize that their days of sucking at my teat are numbered!"

Ned Flanders and his family

"I've learned that life is one crushing defeat after another until you just wish Flanders was dead."

While Homer's aversion to Ned Flanders and partly also to Ned's family seems inexplicable, everybody somehow does know why Homer just can't stand his left-handed neighbor.

Flanders always seems to be the happiest man on earth. Flanders is god-fearing and successful, he has a beautiful wife named Maude and two kids, Todd and Rod, who are just as keen on bible stories as on church. Flanders has a slightly southern accent and likes to ornate words with friendly sounding syllables: "Absatively posilutely!"

Flanders is solid middle-class and one would just love to expose his religious attitude as nothing but a phony fuss, but - unfortunately, it seems genuine. In short, Flanders is impeccable. And exactly that is why to Homer, he is a constant pain in the neck!

Maybe the reason for Homer's dislike of Flanders is that he senses that he is nothing but a bad influence on Ned and his family - or maybe he is just jealous of Flanders superficially happy life.

Superficially? Yes, because when Flanders' home got blown away by a hurricane - while all of Springfield's other homes remained undamaged - and he eventually revealed his deepest and meanest attitudes to his neighbors, it turned out that he is in no way the happy and satisfied man everybody held him to be. No, Flanders would probably be Dr. Freud's most complicated case ever - because Flanders is a master of suppression.

Functionally, Flanders strongly appeals to the audience. Or is there any viewer who does not know somebody like Ned, somebody who is just perfectly nice, but for some reason, you just can't stand that guy.

And precisely that is what makes Homer's relationship to Flanders so very delightful, so incredibly entertaining.

Krusty the Clown

"Hey, Mel. Bring me another nicotine patch. I think there's some space on my butt."

Krusty the Clown is one of the few permanent celebrities of Springfield and as such not only Bart's idol. Krusty's show has once been "condemned by parents and educators for simple-minded TV mayhem" even though the "happy-go-lucky" clown knows all of the greatest tricks: Krusty knows how to smoke cigarettes and cigars, he has been gambling money, he knows how to throw a cake and has been seen around Springfield's burlesque house more than once. Krusty, with his big nose, big red hair and loud, baggy clothes, is just a funny guy who can very rarely be seen without his clown costume - and due to his enormous popularity, he is the role-model of all of Springfield's kids. And that's why Krusty's behavior is completely unacceptable and irresponsible!

"I've based my whole life on his teachings." Bart has been deeply impressed by the marvelous clown's sense of humor, without being aware of Krusty's true objectives:

Krusty has not become a clown because he felt called upon to amuse children, but because he needs to make money in order to indulge in his extravagant lifestyle. And as long as Krusty will manage to hold up the pathos, the merchandising of his products will continually keep thriving, because every kid in Springfield will one day need a Krusty Mug, Krusty's Sulfuric Acid, the Lady Krusty Mustache Removal System, or Krusty's Home Pregnancy Test.

In all his greed and pathetic fuss, Krusty differs from Mr. Burns in that he is basically a simple-minded clown, even when he is not performing.

Krusty is not purposely the way he is and most probably neither purposely indifferent to his role as a role-model. However, Krusty does not seem to have enough sense to just recognize his tremendous social influence as a celebrity, a fact which makes it impossible for him to experience the importance of behaving responsibly.

In conclusion, Krusty has to be seen as the personification of show biz in general, which, for the sake of cheap amusement, throws overboard valuable standards, creating unacceptable and simple-minded entertainment, and refuses to pay tribute to its tremendous social influence.

"Ahh, there's nothing better than a cigarette...unless it's a cigarette lit with a $100 bill!"
- Krusty's "impressive" lifestyle.

While the Simpson family contributes the major part to the show's realism and is the viewer's center perspective, the additional characters mainly serve to trigger the plotting while also displaying social criticism and while broadening the series' dramatic spectrum.

By creating a cosmos of over a hundred most diverse animated characters fictionally living in the most universal town, Groening has managed to set up all the necessary components he needs to document a large share of modern 20th century culture.

How Groening's concept is functioning within the concept of one particular episode shall be exemplified by briefly analyzing the episode Bart vs. Thanksgiving:

The special holiday of Thanksgiving has arrived and Lisa has constructed a decorative centerpiece for the family's dinner table. When Bart starts a momentous quarrel about where exactly to place the fragile decoration, the struggle ensues and the creation ends up in the fireplace, where it burns to ashes.

Shocked and devastated by her brother's behavior, Lisa runs upstairs to her room while Homer and Marge decide to punish Bart by grounding him.

Feeling mistreated, Bart decides to run away but soon finds himself walking in the streets all alone, feeling cold and hungry. When he finds a homeless shelter serving Thanksgiving dinners, he decides to enter in order to satisfy his hunger and warm up a little bit.

Bart being the only kid in the shelter, a television team always on the search for potentially sensational stories becomes aware of the little boy and senses a touching story ideal to boost the TV-ratings.

Upon seeing their son on television, Homer and Marge notify the police while Lisa is worried about her big brother. Returning home and from outside having to watch Lisa cry, Bart realizes his wrongful behavior and apologizes to his sister. Reunited, the family celebrates its Thanksgiving holiday.

As an exemplary episode, Bart vs. Thanksgiving shows various typical elements which have been uncovered in the preceding analysis:

Bart, as the series' prankster and adventurer, hurts Lisa's feelings and causes a conflict within his family. While he is stubborn in the beginning, he eventually realizes his false behavior in the end.

Lisa is the sensitive one, who is - just as her parents - deeply worried about her brother, when it turns out that he has run away. In order to sublimate her rancor on Bart's destroying her centerpiece, she writes a poem titled Howl of the Unappreciated.

Homer shows his indoctrinated trust in nuclear power by thanking the Lord for "the cleanest, safest energy source there is", when speaking the Thanksgiving prayer.

While the episode's plot is completely realistic, Groening also makes use of the genre's surreal possibilities, especially when depicting Bart's bratty behavior and his guilty conscience.

Besides telling a didactic and emotional story, the episode's writers have also managed to include satirical criticism on sensational news reporting merely striving for high ratings.

So what is The Simpsons' historical accomplishment?

The Simpsons has managed to mark a breaking point in the history of the cartoon series by transferring the art of conveying political opinion from its traditional medium, the newspaper, into today's most popular technical gadget primarily used for entertainment; television, in a way which this has never be done before.

The Simpsons' delightful entertainment draws the viewer's attention and at the same time catches his interest in the show. The social commentary is at the same time most sublime but can neither be missed because the various slices of life which are being shown, yes, even documented, mirror even our culture's most unrecognized aspects in all its tiny facets. So even if the viewer does not manage to grasp all the messages transmitted by the series' characters, he or she is always very likely to at least decode some of them.

As a consequence, The Simpsons must be regarded as on one level with Richard F. Outcault's Yellow Kid, the first widely successful single-panel cartoon, and Winsor McKay's Gertie the Dinosaur, the first cartoon series originally drawn for film.

So there you have it: The reason why, while Homer and company have turned the television landscape upside down, the number of people sharing Homer's attitude towards cartoons has shrunk to a minimum:

"Oh, Marge, cartoons don't have any deep meaning. They're just stupid drawings that give you a cheap laugh."
Now...did we have a fun time or what???


Primary Sources:

(Please note that the various episodes have been listed chronologically according to their original airdate.)

  1. Groening, M.: The Simpsons. A complete guide to our favorite family. New York, NY 1997.
  2. 7G02: Bart the Genius.
  3. 7G03: Homer's Odyssey.
  4. 7G06: Moaning Lisa.
  5. 7G10: Homer's Night Out.
  6. 7G12: Krusty Gets Busted.
  7. 7F03: Bart Gets an F.
  8. 7F01: Two Cars in Every Garage, Three Eyes on Every Fish.
  9. 7F07: Bart vs. Thanksgiving.
  10. 7F09: Itchy & Scratchy & Marge.
  11. 7F12: The Way We Was.
  12. 7F13: Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment.
  13. 7F19: Lisa's Substitute.
  14. 7F22: Blood Feud.
  15. 7F24: Stark Raving Dad.
  16. 8F01: Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington.
  17. 7F23: When Flanders Failed.
  18. 8F06: Lisa's Pony.
  19. 8F08: Flaming Moe's.
  20. 8F18: A Streetcar Named Marge.
  21. 8F19: Colonel Homer.
  22. 9F01: Homer the Heretic.
  23. 9F06: New Kid on the Block.
  24. 9F15: Last Exit to Springfield.
  25. 9F16: The Front.
  26. 9F22: Cape Feare.
  27. 1F02: Homer Goes to College.
  28. 1F07: The Last Temptation of Homer.
  29. 1F10: Homer and Apu.
  30. 1F12: Lisa vs. Malibu Stacey
  31. 1F20: Secrets of a Successful Marriage.
  32. 1F17: Lisa's Rival.
  33. 2F12: Homie the Clown.
  34. 2F31: A Star is Burns.
  35. 3F01: Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily.
  36. 3F03: Lisa the Vegetarian.
  37. 3F11: Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield.
  38. 3F13: Lisa the Iconoclast.
  39. 3F20: Much Apu About Nothing.
  40. 3F22: Summer of 4Ft. 2.
  41. 4F06: Bart After Dark.
  42. 4F07: Hurricane Neddy.
  43. 4F17: The Old Man and the Lisa.

Secondary Sources:

  1. Bianculli, D.: Our Expert Panel Rates This Season's Crop of Kid Shows. In: Parent's Guide to Television, 1991, no. 9, pp. 6-9,11,14-15.
  2. A Brief History Of The Simpsons. From the Internet: (12/27/98).
  3. Bruns, B.: The Simpsons Rate TV: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In: TV Guide, 1990, no. 11, pp. 4-7.
  4. Chen, R.: The "Lie of Continuity and "Realistic" Stories. From the Internet: (12/27/98).
  5. Corliss, R.: The cartoon Character Bart Simpson. From the Internet: (12/20/98).
  6. Corliss, R.: Simpsons Forever! In: Time, 1994, no. 18, p.77(1).
  7. Ehrenreich, B.: Oh, Those Family Values. In: Time, 1994, no. 3, page unknown.
  8. Friedman, R.: The 50 Most Influential Boomers. In: Life Magazine Online: (12/27/98).
  9. Gleeson, J.: Yellow Fever. The Simpsons as cultural phenomenon. In: The College Tribune, University College Dublin, autumn 1998.
  10. Gomes Sr., B.: The Simpsons Bibliography. From the Internet: (12/27/98).
  11. Goulart, R. (ed.): The Encyclopedia of American Comics. New York, NY 1990.
  12. Handy, B.: The Real Golden Age Is Now. In: Time, 1995, no.18, page unknown.
  13. Handy, B.: The Time 100. Bruce Handy on Great Artists and Entertainers. Transcript from June 4, 1998. From the Internet: (12/27/98).
  14. Internet document. From the Internet: (12/05/98).
  15. Johns, A.: Anigraphs. In: Millimeter, 1989, no. 4, pp. 9,11.
  16. Kaufman, J.: Life in Hell's Matt Groening goes overboard to make The Simpsons the first family of TV 'toons. In: People Weekly, 1989, no. 25, p. 108(3).
  17. Krampner, J.: Fast Forward: More Crazy Rabbits. In: Playboy, 1988, no. 5, p. 154.
  18. Krantz, M.: Fox Gets Superanimated. In: Time, 1999, no. 1, page unknown.
  19. Lloyd, R.: Cartoon From Hell. In: American Film, 1989, no. 1, p. 112.
  20. Lombard, O.: Characters, Places, and Internal Consistency. From the Internet: (12/27/98).
  21. Lombard, O.: List of Inquiries and Substantive Answers. From the Internet: (12/27/98).
  22. Maier, N.: E Pluribus Unum Award Reasoning. Personal letter upon request.
  23. Mason, M.S.: 'Simpsons' Creator on Poking Fun. In: The Christian Science Monitor, Apr. 17, 1998, no. unknown, p. B7.
  24. McHenry, R. (ed.): The New Encyclopedia Britannica. 41992.
  25. Only 41 Percent of American Teens Can Name the Three Branches of Government. In: The Christian Science Monitor, Sep. 8 1998, no. unknown, p. 9.
  26. Peabody Award Reasoning. From the Internet: (01/14/99).
  27. Pinsky, Robert: My favorite show. Robert Pinsky on 'The Simpsons'. In: The New York Times Magazine, Sep. 20, 1998, no. unknown, p. 55.
  28. The Simpsons. From the Internet: (12/05/98).
  29. Tesser, N.: 20 Questions: Matt Groening. In: Playboy, 1990, no. 7, pp. 130-131, 136-138.
  30. That Homer, He Just Keeps Rolling Along. In: The Chicago Tribune, Sep. 4, 1998, p. 5.
  31. Time 100: Artists & Entertainers - Simpson. From the Internet: (12/20.98).
  32. Tucker, K.: The 101 most powerful people in entertainment: The Simpsons. In: Entertainment Weekly, 1990, no. 38, pp. 50-51.
  33. Tucker, K.: The Simpsons Put Other Comedies to Shame. In: Entertainment Weekly, 1993, no. 161, p. 48(3).
  34. Varhola, A.: The New Yellow Kids. From the Internet: (12/27/98).
  35. Work, W. Keith: From an Obscure Hell to Life in the Fast Lane. From the Internet: (12/27/98).

I would especially like to thank the Austrian radio station FM4 (check out for inspiration in style and tone and the SNPP, best Simpsons page on the net, for great work and friendly support ( go

Big thanks. Thatís all folks!

© Gerd Steiger 1999. All rights reserved.

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