The Simpsons

From an Obscure Hell to Life in the Fast Lane


by W. Keith Work
In 1989, a new kind of show was born: the first prime time animated series since the The Flintstones, and a show with wit and a very different sense of humor than what had come before it. Based on the comic art of Matt Groening, it's characters were some of the first emotionally "real" ones that we had ever seen in an animated feature. The major characters emotional lives were the basis for the show and backing them up was a small town that many Americans might recognize, and that would provide the writers with an environment in which to entertain as well as inform the audience. Social commentary is made on The Simpsons, but often almost without the audiences knowledge, while still being entertaining and, as it's creator has said, entertainment is definitely the key.

The hand of Matt Groening (rhymes, as he says, with "complaining") and his previous work, can be felt throughout the show. He left college in the early eighties to publish his Life in Hell series of short comics. Drawn in unconventional styles, many were a grid of twelve or more boxes, all exactly alike, but with different captions, others were done like "Sensitive Male" or "Insufferable Co-Worker" magazine covers. These comics had a subversive touch that would carry over into The Simpsons. Life in Hell became popular on college campuses and with smaller, speciality publications and brought Groening a degree of recognition that led to contact with producer James L. Brooks. Brooks liked Life in Hell and when putting together The Tracy Ullman Show, contacted Groening with the idea of animating his series and presenting it as "shorts" in the show. A meeting was arranged and Groening arrived with some trepidation. He knew that animating the series meant sacrificing his copyright and he was not willing to do that. In Brooks' office foyer then, in fifteen minutes, he came up with a family of five, in a town called Springfield. They premiered on The Tracy Ullman Show, and later in their own series. From the start, The Simpsons was an immediate hit.

The main characters, as one might expect, are the Simpson family. Homer, the father, works (although usually depicted as either sleeping, or eating donuts at his desk, surrounded by advanced technological gadgetry) at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. He's characterized as the lovable, if not terribly intelligent, guy who plugs along at what is to him a basically meaningless job that he doesn't particularly like, but is resigned to, and even comfortable in. He tries hard to please his family, his boss, and his friends, to varying degrees of success. Homer's wife, Marge, is a patient and devoted woman. She cares for her children and her husband and is considerably more intellectually gifted than Homer (though that may not be saying much). The oldest child, Bart, is ten years old and is the constant prankster. He became the initial favorite when the show started. His slightly younger sister, Lisa, is marked by her impressive, though unrewarded, intellect (Homer looks to her for frequent definitions). She is also the "sensitive poet" of the show, with a deep respect for jazz (she plays saxophone) and occasional insights belying her age. The youngest child, Maggie, is a baby who only nurses a pacifier and toddles unsteadily throughout the show.

Many citizens of Springfield also play prominently in the show. Among them is Abraham "Grandpa" Simpson, Homer's father who lives at the Springfield Retirement Community (where a sign outside the front door reads "Thank you for not discussing the outside world."); Patti and Selma Bouvier, Marge's sisters who have never liked Homer (the feeling is mutual); and owner of the nuclear plant, Montgomery Burns. He and his personal assistant, Wayland Smithers, seek to rule the town with an iron fist, as they do the plant. Bart's nemesis, Seymour Skinner, is the Principal of Springfield Elementary, and Bart's closest friend (and spit brother) is Milhouse Van Houten.

All of these characters and many more form the backdrop of Springfield, a fictional town founded by Jebediah Obadiah Zachariah Jedediah Springfield (his statue stands in the public square) who is Rumored to have slain a bear with his own hands, though evidence suggests that the bear, in fact, probably slew him. Springfield's one thriving industry is nuclear power, and at the center of the city is the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. Its twin cooling towers dominate what skyline Springfield might offer. Other noteworthy spots include Moe's tavern, where Homer frequently goes to relax and spend time with his friends (all chronic alcoholics), and the Kwik-E-Mart, run by Indian Americans Apu and Sanjay.

One quickly begins to see the "quirky" nature of many elements within the show, and these elements often result in the most entertaining parts. A local minor league baseball team is called the Springfield Isotopes. After Principal Skinner loses his job in one episode, he's shown cooking with an apron that states "Principals do it 9 months a year". In another episode, Bart brings his dog, Santa's Little Helper, to "Show and Tell" at school where his dog gets loose in the air ducts. The school janitor, Willy, has to oil down his body to fit in the ducts, and proclaims, on catching the dog, "There's nary an animal alive that can outrun a greased Scotsman."

At one point, Marge forbids her children to watch "The Itchy and Scratchy Show", claiming that it's too violent. Lisa replies, "But Mom, if you take our cartoons away, we'll grow up without a sense of humor and be robots".

Bart asks her, "Really? What kind of robots?"

This style of humor has been characterized by Groening as "generally annoying to Republicans". He often laces the show with social commentary. Maggie, in the opening of the show, is accidentally scanned by a barcode reader in the grocery store and is listed as costing $847.63, a figure once given as the amount of money required to raise a baby for one month in the U.S.. When Marge writes a letter to the broadcasters of "Itchy and Scratchy", asking them to tone down the violence, they reply;

"Dear valued viewer, thank you for taking an interest in the Itchy and Scratchy program. Enclosed is a personally autographed photo of America's favorite cat and mouse team to add to your collection. In regards to your specific comments about the show, our research shows that one person cannot make a difference, no matter how big a screwball she is, so let me close by saying..."

The camera cuts to Marge reading the letter, "...and the horse I rode in on?"

Groening is often especially harsh on the public education system, which he portrays as oppressive, and demeaning to children. Upon giving Lisa the results of her Career Aptitude Normalizing Test (CANT), the school psychiatrist, Mr. Pryor, tells her that she is best suited to being a homemaker rather than the saxophone player she dreams of becoming, because she has inherited her fathers "stubby fingers". Lisa protests, then realizes, "My God, they are stubby...".

A music teacher giving his professional opinion warns, "I'll be frank with you Lisa, and when I say frank, I mean, you know, devastating.".

These things serve to set the show apart from others that would seek to imitate it. The wit and satire of The Simpsons can be said to be it's defining element, and the key to it's success. It remains popular today, in it's seventh season, and entertains us while at the same time pointing out things that we might not otherwise see about ourselves, our beliefs, and our institutions, and surely that is the mark of quality.


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Document created June 10th, 1996 by Dave Hall

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