The Simpsons, Hyper-Irony, and the Meaning of Life

By Carl Matheson

From “The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D'oh! of Homer” by Open Court Publishing.

Disaffected youth #1: Here comes that cannonball guy. He's cool.
Disaffected youth #2: Are you being sarcastic, dude?
Disaffected youth #1: I don't even know anymore.
("Homerpalooza," season seven)
What separates the comedies that were shown on television fifty, forty, or even twenty five years ago from those of today? First, we may notice technological differences, the difference between black and white and color, the difference between film stock (or even kinescope) and video. Then there are the numerous social differences. For instance, the myth of the universal traditional two-parent family is not as secure as it was in the fifties and sixties, and the comedies of the different eras reflect changes in its status although even early comedies of the widow/widower happy fifties, sixties and seventies were full of non-traditional families, such as are found in The Partridge Family, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Julia, The Jerry van Dyke Show, Family Affair, The Courtship of Eddie's Father, The Andy Griffith Show, The Brady Bunch, Bachelor Father, and My Little Margie. Also, one may note the ways in which issues such as race have received different treatments over the decades.

But, I would like to concentrate on a deeper transformation: today's comedies, at least most of them, are funny in different ways from those of decades past. In both texture and substance the comedy of The Simpsons and Seinfeld is worlds apart from the comedy of Leave it to Beaver and The Jack Benny Show, and is even vastly different from much more recent comedies, such as Mash and Maude. First, today's comedies tend to be highly quotational: many of today's comedies essentially depend on the device of referring to or quoting other works of popular culture. Second, they are hyper-ironic: the flavor of humor offered by today's comedies is colder, based less on a shared sense of humanity than on a sense of world-weary cleverer-than-thou-ness. In this essay I would like to explore the way in which The Simpsons uses both quotationalism and hyper-ironism and relate these devices to currents in the contemporary history of ideas.


Television comedy has never completely foregone the pleasure of using pop culture as a straight-man. However, early instances of quotation tended to be opportunistic; they did not comprise the substance of the genre. Hence, in sketch comedy, one would find occasional references to popular culture in Wayne and Shuster and Johnny Carson, but these references were really treated as just one more source of material. The roots of quotationalism as a main source of material can be found in the early seventies with the two visionary comedies, Mary Hartman Mary Hartman, which lampooned soap eras by being an ongoing soap opera, and Fernwood 2Night, which, as a small-budget talk show, took on small-budget talk shows. Quotationalism then came much more to the attention of the general public between the mid-seventies and early eighties through Saturday Night Live, Late Night with David Letterman, and SCTV. Given the mimical abilities of its cast and its need for weekly material, the chief comedic device of SNL was parody, both of genres (the nightly news, television debates), particular television shows (I Love Lucy, Star Trek) and movies (Star Wars). The type of quotationalism employed by Letterman was more abstract and less based on particular shows. Influenced by the much earlier absurdism of such hosts as Dave Garroway, Letterman immediately took the formulas of television and cinema beyond their logical conclusions (The Equalizer Guy, chimp cam, and spokesperson Larry "Bud" Melman).

However, it was SCTV that gathered together the various strains of quotationalism and synthesized them into a deeper, more complex, and more mysterious whole. Like Mary Hartman, and unlike SNL, it was an ongoing series with recurring characters such as Johnny Larue, Lola Heatherton and Bobby Bittman. However, unlike Mary Hartman, the ongoing series was about the workings of a television station. SCTV was a television show about the process of television. Through the years, the models upon which characters like Heatherton and Bittman were based vanished somewhat into the background, as Heatherton and Bittman started to breathe on their own, and therefore, came to occupy a shadowy space between real (fictional) characters and simulacra. Furthermore, SCTV's world came to intersect the real world as some of the archetypes portrayed (e.g. Jerry Lewis) were people in real life. Thus, SCTV eventually produced and depended upon patterns of inter-textuality and cross-referencing that were much more thorougoing and subtle than those of any program that preceded it.

The Simpsons was born, therefore, just as the use of quotationalism was maturing. However, The Simpsons was not the same sort of show as SNL and SCTV. One major difference of course, was that The Simpsons was animated while the others were (largely) not, but this difference does not greatly affect the relevant potential for quotationalism although it may be easier to draw the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise than to rebuild it and re-enlist the entire original cast of Star Trek. The main difference is that as an ostensibly ongoing family comedy, The Simpsons was both plot and character driven, where the other shows, even those that contained ongoing characters were largely sketch driven. Furthermore, unlike Mary Hartman Mary Hartman, which existed to parody soap operas, The Simpsons did not have the raison d'etre of parodying the family based comedies of which it was an instance. The problem then was this: how does one transform an essentially non-quotational format into an essentially quotational show?

The answer to the above question lies in the form of quotationalism employed by The Simpsons. By way of contrast, let me outline what it was definitively not. Take, for instance, a Wayne and Shuster parody of Wilde's The Portrait of Dorian Gray. In the parody, instead of Grey's sins being reflected in an artwork, while he remains pure and young in appearance, the effects of Grey's overeating are reflected in the artwork, while he remains thin. The situation's permissions and combinations are squeezed and coaxed to produce the relevant gags and ensuing yuks. End of story. Here the quotationalism is very direct; it is the source both of the story line and of the supposedly humorous contrast between the skit and the original novel. Now, compare this linear and one-dimensional use of quotation for the purposes of parody with the pattern of quotation used in a very short passage from an episode from The Simpsons entitled "A Streetcar Named Marge." In the episode, Marge is playing Blanche Dubois opposite Ned Flanders' Stanley in Streetcar!, her community theatre's musical version of the Tennessee Williams play. In need of day care for little Maggie, she sends Maggie to the Ayn Rand School for Tots, which is run by the director's sister. Headmistress Sinclair, a strict disciplinarian and believer in infant self-reliance, confiscates all of the tots' pacifiers which causes an enraged Maggie to lead her classmates in a highly organized reclamation mission, during which the theme from The Great Escape plays in the background. Having reacquired the pacifiers the group sits, arrayed in rows, making little sucking sounds, so that when Homer arrives to pick up Maggie, he is confronted with a scene from Hitchcock's The Birds.

The first thing that one can say about these quotations is that they are very funny. However, I don't want to play the doomed game of saying why they're funny, because any crinkly-eyed chuckler who tries to analyze sources of humor ends up seeming about as funny as Emil Jannings in Blue Angel (and not in the really funny part where he is cuckolded by a circus strong-man, forced to do a grief-stricken and impotent imitation of a rooster in front of his jeering students, and sent off to die a broken man, but in the less funny parts before that). To see that these quotations are funny just watch the show again. Second, we note that these quotations are not used for the purpose of parody. Rather, they are allusions, designed to provide unspoken metaphorical elaboration and commentary about what is going on in the scene. The allusion to Ayn Rand underscores the ideology and personal rigidity of Headmistress Sinclair. The theme music from The Great Escape stresses the determination of Maggie and her cohorts. The allusion to The Birds communicates the threat of the hive-mind posed by many small beings working as one. By going outside of the text via these nearly instantaneous references, The Simpsons manages to convey a great deal of extra information extremely economically. Third, the most impressive feature of this pattern of allusion is its pace and density, where this feature has grown more common as the series has matured. Early episodes, for instance the one in which Bart saws the head off the town's statue of Jebediah Springfield, are surprisingly free of quotation. Later episodes derive much of their manic comic energy from their rapid-fire sequence of allusions. This density of allusion is perhaps what sets The Simpsons most apart from any show that has preceded it.

However, the extent to which The Simpsons depends on other elements of pop culture is not without cost. Just as those readers who are unfamiliar with Frazier's Golden Bough will be hindered in their attempt to understand Eliot's "The Wasteland," and just as many modern day readers will be baffled by many of the Biblical and classical allusions that play important roles in the history of literature, many of today's viewers won't fully understand much of what goes on in The Simpsons due to an unfamiliarity with the popular culture that forms the basis for the show's references. Having missed the references, these people may interpret The Simpsons as nothing more than a slightly off-base family comedy populated with characters who are neither very bright nor very interesting. From these propositions they will probably derive the theorem that the show is neither substantial nor funny, and also the lemma that the people who like the show are deficient in taste, intelligence and/or standards of personal mental hygiene. However, not only do the detractors of the show miss a great deal of its humor, they also fail to realize that its pattern of quotations is an absolutely essential vehicle for developing character and for setting a tone. And, since these people are usually not huge fans of popular culture to begin with, they will be reluctant to admit that they are missing something significant. Oh well. It is difficult to explain color to a blind man, especially if he won't listen. On the other hand, those who enjoy connecting the quotational dots will enjoy their task all the more for its exclusivity. There is no joke like an in-joke: the fact that many people don't get The Simpsons might very well make the show both funnier and better to those who do.

Hyper-Ironism and The Moral Agenda:

Without the smart-ass, comedy itself would be impossible. Whether one subscribes, as I do, to the thesis that all comedy is fundamentally cruel, or only to the relatively spineless position that only the vast majority of comedy is fundamentally cruel, one has to admit that comedy has always relied upon the joys to be derived from making fun of others. However, usually the cruelty has been employed for a positive social purpose. In the sanctimonious M*A*S*H*, Hawkeye and the gang were simply joking to "dull the pain of a world gone mad," and the butts of their jokes, such as Major Frank Burns, symbolized threats to the liberal values that the show perpetually attempted to reinforce in the souls of its late twentieth-century viewers. In Leave it To Beaver, the link between humor and the instillation of family values is didactically obvious. A very few shows, most notably Seinfeld, totally eschewed a moral agenda. Seinfeld's ability to maintain a devoted audience in spite of a cast of shallow and petty characters engaged in equally petty and shallow acts is miraculous. So, as I approach The Simpsons I would like to resolve the following questions. Does The Simpsons use its humor to promote a moral agenda? Does it use its humor to promote the claim that there is no justifiable moral agenda? Or, does it stay out of the moral agenda game altogether?

These are tricky questions, because data can be found to affirm each of them. To support the claim that The Simpsons promotes a moral agenda, one usually need look no further than Lisa and Marge. Just consider Lisa's speeches in favor of integrity, freedom from censorship, or any variety of touchy-feely social causes, and you will come away with the opinion that The Simpsons is just another liberal show underneath a somewhat thin but tasty crust of nastiness. One can even expect Bart to show humanity when it counts, as when, at military school, he defies sexist peer-pressure to cheer Lisa on in her attempt to complete an obstacle course. The show also seems to engage in self-righteous condemnation of various institutional soft-targets. The political system of Springfield is corrupt, its police chief lazy and self-serving, and its Reverend Lovejoy ineffectual at best. Property developers stage a fake religious miracle in order to promote the opening of a mall. Mr. Burns tries to increase business at the power plant by blocking out the sun. Taken together, these examples seem to advocate a moral position of caring at the level of the individual, one which favors the family over any institution.

However, one can find examples from the show that seem to be denied accommodation within any plausible moral stance. In one episode, Frank Grimes (who hates being called "Grimey") is a constantly unappreciated model worker, while Homer is a much beloved careless slacker. Eventually, Grimes breaks down and decides to act just like Homer Simpson. While "acting like Homer" Grimes touches a transformer and is killed instantly. During the funeral oration by Reverend Lovejoy (for "Gri-yuh-mee, as he liked to be called") a snoozing Homer shouts out "Marge, change the channel!" The rest of the service breaks into spontaneous and appreciative laughter, with Lenny saying "That's our Homer!" End of episode. In another episode, Homer is unintentionally responsible for the death of Maude Flanders, Ned's wife. In the crowd at a football game, Homer is eager to catch a t-shirt being shot from little launchers on the field. Just as one is shot his way, he bends over to pick up a peanut. The t-shirt sails over him and hits the devout Maude, knocking her out of the stands to her death. These episodes are difficult to locate on a moral map; they certainly do not conform to the standard trajectory of virtue rewarded.

Given that we have various data, some of which lead us towards and others away from the claim that The Simpsons is committed to caring, liberal family values, what should we conclude? Before attempting to reach a conclusion, I would like to go beyond details from various episodes of the show to introduce another form of possibly relevant evidence. Perhaps, we can better resolve the issue of The Simpsons's moral commitments by examining the way it relates to current intellectual trends. The reader should be warned that, although I think that the comments on the current state of the history of ideas are more or less accurate, they are greatly oversimplified. In particular, the positions that I will outline are by no means unanimously accepted.

Let's start with painting. The influential critic, Clement Greenberg, held that the goal of all painting was to work with flatness as the nature of its medium and he reconstructed the history of painting so that it was seen to culminate in the dissolution of pictorial three-dimensional space and the acceptance of total flatness by the painters of the mid-twentieth century. Painters were taken to be like scientific researchers whose work furthered the progress of their medium, where the idea of artistic progress was to be taken as literally as that of scientific progress. Because they were fundamentally unjustifiable and because they put painters into a straitjacket, Greenberg's positions gradually lost their hold, and no other well-supported candidates for the essence of painting could be found to take their place. As a result painting (and the other arts) entered a phase that the philosopher of art, Arthur Danto, has called "the end of art." By this Danto did not mean that art could no longer be produced, but rather that art could no longer be subsumed under a history of progress towards some given end. By the end of the nineteen-seventies, many painters had turned to earlier, more representational styles, and their paintings were as much commentaries on movements from the past, like expressionism, and about the current vacuum in the history of art, as they were about their subject matter. Instead of being about the essence of painting, much of painting came to be about the history of painting. Similar events unfolded in the other artistic media as architects, filmmakers, and writers returned to the history of their disciplines.

However, painting was not the only area in which long held convictions concerning the nature and inevitability of progress were aggressively challenged. Science, the very icon of progressiveness, was under attack from a number of quarters. Kuhn held (depending on which interpreter of him you agree with) that there either was no such thing as scientific progress, or that if there was, there were no rules for determining what progress and scientific rationality were. Feyerabend argued that people who held substantially different theories couldn't even understand what each other was saying, and hence that there was no hope of a rational consensus; instead he extolled the anarchistic virtues of "anything goes." Early sociological workers in the field of science studies tried to show that, instead of being an inspirational narrative of the disinterested pursuit of truth, the history of science was essentially a story of office-politics writ large, because every transition in the history of science could be explained by appeal to the personal interests and allegiances of the participants. And, of course, the idea of philosophical progress has continued to be challenged. Writing on Derrida, the American philosopher Richard Rorty, argues that anything like the philosophical truth is either unattainable, non-existent, or uninteresting, that philosophy itself is a literary genre, and that philosophers should reconstrue themselves as writers who elaborate and re-interpret the writings of other philosophers. In other words, Rorty recommends that philosophers view themselves as historically aware participants in a conversation, as opposed to quasi-scientific researchers. Derrida himself favored a method known as deconstruction, which was popular several years ago, and which consisted of a highly technical method for under-cutting texts by revealing hidden contradictions and unconscious ulterior motives. Rorty questions whether, given Derrida's take on the possibility of philosophical progress, deconstruction could only be used for negative purposes, that is, whether it could be used for anything more than making philosophical fun of other writings.

Let me repeat that these claims about the nature of art, science, and philosophy are highly controversial. However, all that I need for my purposes is the relatively uncontroversial claim that views such as these are now in circulation to an unprecedented extent. We are surrounded by a pervasive crisis of authority, be it artistic, scientific or philosophical, religious or moral, in a way that previous generations weren't. Now, as we slowly come back to earth and The Simpsons, we should ask this: if the crisis I described were as pervasive as I believe it to be, how might it be reflected generally in popular culture, and specifically in comedy?

We have already discussed one phenomenon that may be viewed as a consequence of the crisis of authority. When faced with the death of the idea of progress in their field, thinkers and artists have often turned to a reconsideration of the history of their discipline. Hence artists turn to art history, architects to the history of design, and so on. The motivation for this turn is natural; once one has given up on the idea that the past is merely the inferior pathway to a better today and a still better tomorrow, one may try to approach the past on its own terms as an equal partner. Additionally, if the topic of progress is off the list of things to talk about, an awareness of history may be one of the few things left to fill the disciplinary conversational void. Hence, one may think that quotationalism is a natural offshoot of the crisis of authority, and that the prevalence of quotationalism in The Simpsons results from that crisis.

The idea that quotationalism in Simpsons is the result of "something in the air" is confirmed by the stunning everpresence of historical appropriation throughout popular culture. Cars like the new Volkswagen Beetle and the PT Cruiser quote bygone days, and factories simply can't make enough of them. In architecture, New Urbanist housing developments try to re-create the feel of small towns of decades ago, and they have proven so popular that only the very wealthy can buy homes in them. The musical world is a hodgepodge of quotations of styles, where often the original music being quoted is simply sampled and re-processed.

To be fair, not every instance of historical quotationalism should be seen as the result of some widespread crisis of authority. For instance, the New Urbanist movement in architecture was a direct response to a perceived erosion of community caused by the deadening combination of economically segregated suburbs and faceless shopping malls; the movement used history in order to make the world a better place for people to live with other people. Hence the degree of quotationalism in The Simpsons could point towards a crisis in authority, but it could also stem from a strategy for making the world better, like the New Urbanism, or it could merely be a fashion accessory, like retro-Khaki at The Gap.

No, if we want to plumb the depths of The Simpsons' connection with the crisis in authority we will have to look to something else, and it is at this point that I return to the original question of this section: does The Simpsons use its humor to promote a moral agenda? My answer to the question is this: The Simpsons does not promote anything, because its humor works by putting forward positions only in order to undercut them. Furthermore, this process of undercutting runs so deeply that we cannot regard the show as merely cynical; it manages to undercut its cynicism too. This constant process of under-cutting is what I mean by "hyper-ironism."

To see what I mean, consider "Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield," an episode from the show's seventh season. In this episode Marge buys a Coco Chanel suit for $90 at the Outlet Mall. While wearing the suit, she runs into an old high-school classmate. Seeing the designer suit and taking Marge to be one of her kind, the classmate invites Marge to the posh Springfield Glen Country Club. Awed by the gentility at the Club, and in spite of sniping from club members that she always wears the same suit, Marge becomes bent on social climbing. Initially alienated, Homer and Lisa fall in love with the club for its golf-course and stables. However, just as they are about to be inducted into the club, Marge realizes that her newfound obsession with social standing has taken precedence over her family. Thinking that the club also probably doesn't want them anyway, she and the family walk away. However, unbeknownst to the Simpsons, the club has prepared a lavish welcome party for them, and is terribly put out that they haven't arrived -- Mr. Burns even "pickled the figs for the cake" himself.

At first glance, this episode may seem like another case of the show's reaffirmation of family values: after all, Marge chooses family over status. Furthermore, what could be more hollow than status among a bunch of shallow inhuman snobs? However, the people in the club turn out to be inclusive and fairly affectionate, from golfer Tom Kite who gives Homer advice on his swing despite that fact that Homer has stolen his golf clubs -- and shoes -- to Mr. Burns, who thanks Homer for exposing his dishonesty at golf. The jaded cynicism that seems to pervade the club is gradually shown to be a mere conversational trope; the club is prepared to welcome the working-class Simpsons with open arms -- or has it realized yet that they are working class? Further complicating matters are Marge's reasons for walking away. First, there is the false dilemma between caring for her family and being welcomed by the club. Why should one choice exclude the other? Second is her belief that the Simpsons just don't belong to such a club. This belief seems to be based on a classism that the club itself doesn't have. This episode leaves no stable ground upon which the viewer can rest. It feints at the sanctity of family values and swerves closely to class-determinism, but it doesn't stay anywhere. Furthermore, upon reflection, none of the "solutions" that it momentarily holds are satisfactory. In its own way, this episode is as cruel and cold-blooded as the Grimey episode. However, where the Grimey episode wears its heartlessness upon its sleeve, this episode conjures up illusions of satisfactory heart-warming resolution only to undercut them immediately. In my view, it stands as a paragon of the real Simpsons.

I think that, given a crisis of authority, hyper-ironism is the most suitable form of comedy. Recall that many painters and architects turned to a consideration of the history of painting and architecture once they gave up on the idea of fundamental trans-historical goal for their media. Recall also that once Rorty's version of Derrida became convinced of the non-existence of transcendent philosophical truth, he reconstructed philosophy as an historically aware conversation which largely consisted of the deconstruction of past works. One way of looking at all of these transitions is that, with the abandonment of knowledge came the cult of knowingness. That is, even if there is no ultimate truth (or method for arriving at it) I can still show that I understand the intellectual rules by which you operate better than you do. I can show my superiority over you by demonstrating my awareness of what makes you tick. In the end, none of our positions is ultimately superior, but I can at least show myself to be in a superior position for now on the shifting sands of the game we are currently playing. Hyper-irony is the comedic instantiation of the cult of knowingness. Given the crisis of authority, there are no higher purposes to which comedy can be put, such as moral instruction, theological revelation, or showing how the world is. However, comedy can be used to attack anybody at all who thinks that he or she has any sort of handle on the answer to any major question, not to replace the object of the attack with a better way of looking at things, but merely for the pleasure of the attack, or perhaps for the sense of momentary superiority mentioned earlier. The Simpsons revels in the attack. It treats nearly everything as a target, every stereotypical character, every foible, and every institution. It plays games of one-upmanship with its audience members by challenging them to identify the avalanche of allusions it throws down to them. And, as "Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield" illustrates, it refrains from taking a position of its own.

It would be quite right to point out that many other episodes are far less bleak and/or narratively unstable than the Frank Grimes and the country club episodes. Most of the early shows, such as the episode in which Bart decapitates the town statue, possess simple family-oriented resolutions. Later shows contain some cosmetic under-cutting. Early in "Deep Space Homer," from season five, Bart writes "Insert Brain Here" in felt marker on the back of Homer's head. Later, after Homer the astronaut saves his space capsule. Bart writes "Hero" on the back of Homer's head. Here, the illusion of under-cutting serves merely to bitter-coat an otherwise unpalatably sugary pill. Or does it? After all, Homer saved the space mission by mistake: he unintentionally repaired a damaged air-hatch while trying to kill another astronaut with a carbon rod. The air hatch in question had been shaken loose during an attempt to evacuate some experimental ants which Homer had accidentally released. In addition, the world -- and Time magazine -- recognized the "inanimate carbon rod" for saving the space-craft, not Homer. Therefore, it would be fair to say that the moment between Homer and Bart was somewhat contaminated by previous events.

However, to be fair to those who believe The Simpsons takes a stable moral stance, there are episodes which seem not to under-cut themselves at all. Consider, for instance the previously mentioned episode in which Bart helps Lisa at military school. In that episode, many things are ridiculed, but the fundamental goodness of the relationship between Bart and Lisa is left unquestioned. In another episode, when Lisa discovers that Jebediah Springfield, the legendary town founder, was a sham, she refrains from announcing her finding to the town when she notices the social value of the myth of Jebediah Springfield. And, of course, we must mention the episode in which jazzman Bleeding Gums Murphy dies, which truly deserves the Simpsonian epithet "worst episode ever." This episode combines an uncritical sentimentality with a naive adoration of art-making, and tops everything off with some unintentionally horrible pseudo-jazz which would serve better as the theme music for a cable-access talk show. Lisa's song "Jazzman" simultaneously embodies all three of these faults, and must count as the worst moment of the worst episode ever. Given these episodes and others like them, which occur too frequently to be dismissed as blips, we are still left with the conflicting data with which we started the section. Is The Simpsons hyper-ironic or not? One could argue that the hyper-ironism is a trendy fashion accessory, irony from The Gap, which does not reflect the ethos of the show. Another critically well-received program, Buffy The Vampire Slayer is as strongly committed to a black and white distinction between right and wrong as only teenagers can be. Its dependence on wisecracks and subversive irony is only skin deep. Underneath the surface, one will find angst ridden teens fighting a solemn battle against evil demons who want to destroy the world. Perhaps, one could argue, beneath the surface irony of The Simpsons one will find a strong commitment to family values.

I would like to argue that Simpsonian hyper-ironism is not a mask for an underlying moral commitment. Here are three reasons, the first two of which are plausible but probably insufficient. First, The Simpsons does not consist of a single episode, but of over two hundred episodes spread out over more than ten seasons. There is good reason to think that apparent resolutions in one episode are usually undercut by others. In other words, we are cued to respond ironically to one episode, given the cues provided by many other episodes. However, one could argue, that this inter-episodic under-cutting is itself undercut by the show's frequent use of happy family endings.

Second, as a self-consciously hip show, The Simpsons can be taken to be aware of and to embrace what is current. Family values are hardly trendy, so there is little reason to believe that The Simpsons would adopt them whole-heartedly. However, this is weak confirmation at best. As a trendy show, The Simpsons could merely flirt with hyper-irony without fully adopting it. After all, it is hardly hyper-ironic to pledge allegiance to any flag, including the flag of hyper-ironism. Also, in addition to being a self-consciously hip show, it is also a show that must live within the constraints of prime-time American network television. One could argue that these constraints would force The Simpsons towards a commitment to some sort of palatable moral stance. Therefore, we cannot infer that the show is hyper-ironic from the lone premise that it is self-consciously hip.

The third and strongest reason for a pervasive hyper-ironism and against the claim that The Simpsons takes a stand in favor of family values is based on the perception that the comedic energy of the show dips significantly whenever moral closure and/or didacticism rise above the surface (e.g. in the Bleeding Gums Murphy episodes). Unlike Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Simpsons is fundamentally a comedy. Buffy can get away with dropping its ironic stance, because it is an adventure focussed on the timeless battle between good and evil. The Simpsons has nowhere else to go when it stops being funny. Thus, it's very funny when it celebrates physical cruelty in any given Itchy and Scratchy Show. It's very funny when it ridicules Krusty and the marketing geniuses who broadcast Itchy and Scratchy. It's banal, flat, and not funny when it tries to deal seriously with the issue of censorship arising from Itchy and Scratchy. The lifeblood of The Simpsons, and its astonishing achievement, is the pace of cruelty and ridicule that it has managed to sustain for over a decade. The prevalence of quotationalism helps to sustain this pace, because the show can look beyond itself for a constant stream of targets. When the target-shooting slows down for a wholesome message or a heart-warming family moment, the program slows to an embarrassing crawl with nary a quiver from the laugh-meter.

I don't mean to argue that the makers of The Simpsons intended the show primarily as a theatre of cruelty, although I imagine that they did. Rather, I want to argue that, as a comedy, its goal is to be funny, and we should read it in a way that maximizes its capability to be funny. When we interpret it as a wacky but earnest endorsement of family values, we read it in a way that hamstrings its comedic potential. When we read it as a show built upon the twin pillars of misanthropic humor and oh-so-clever intellectual one-upmanship, we maximize its comedic potential by paying attention to the features of the show that make us laugh. We also provide a vital function for the degree of quotationalism in the show, and as a bonus, we tie the show into a dominant trend of thought in the twentieth century.

But, if the heart-warming family moments don't contribute to the show's comedic potential, why are they there at all? One possible explanation is that they are simply mistakes; they were meant to be funny but they aren't. This hypothesis is implausible. Another is that the show is not exclusively a comedy, but rather a family comedy, i.e., something wholesome and not very funny that the whole family can pretend to enjoy. This is equally implausible. Alternatively, we can try to look for a function for the heart-warming moments. I think there is such a function. For the sake of argument, suppose that the engine driving The Simpsons is fuelled by cruelty and one-upmanship. Its viewers, although appreciative of its humor, might not want to come back week after week to such a bleak message, especially if the message is centered on a family with children. Seinfeld never really offered any hope; its heart was as cold as ice. However, Seinfeld was about disaffected adults. A similarly bleak show containing children would resemble the parody of a sit-com in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, in which Rodney Dangerfield plays an alcoholic child-abuser. Over the years, such a series would lose a grip on its viewers, to say the least. I think that the thirty seconds or so of apparent redemption in each episode of The Simpsons is there mainly to allow us to soldier on for twenty-one and a half minutes of maniacal cruelty at the beginning of the next episode. In other words, the heart-warming family moments help The Simpsons to live on as a series. The comedy does not exist for the sake of a message; the occasional illusion of a positive message exists to enable us to tolerate more comedy. Philosophers and critics have often talked of the paradox of horror and the paradox of tragedy. Why do we eagerly seek out art forms that arouse unpleasant emotions in us like pity, sadness and fear? I think that, for at least certain forms of comedy, there is an equally important paradox of comedy. Why do we seek out art that makes us laugh at the plight of unfortunate people in a world without redemption? The laughter here seems to come at a high price. The Simpsons' use of heart-warming family endings should be seen as its attempt to paper over the paradox of comedy that it exemplifies so well.

I hope to have shown that quotationalism and hyper-ironism are prevalent, inter-dependent, and jointly responsible for the way in which the humor in The Simpsons works. The picture I have painted of The Simpsons is a bleak one, because I have characterized its humor as negative, a humor of cruelty and condescension but really funny cruelty and condescension. I have left out a very important part of the picture however. The Simpsons, consisting of a not-as-bright version of the Freudian id for a father, a sociopathic son, a prissy daughter, and a fairly dull but innocuous mother, is a family whose members love each other. And, we love them. Despite the fact that the show strips away any semblance of value, despite the fact week after week it offers us little comfort, it still manages to convey the raw power of the irrational (or nonrational) love of human beings for other human beings, and it makes us play along by loving these flickering bits of paint on celluloid who live in a flickering hollow world. Now that's comedy entertainment.

© Carl Matheson & Open Court Publishing 2001. Used with permission.

An excerpt from “The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D'oh! of Homer

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Last updated on March 3, 2001 by Jouni Paakkinen (