REVIEW May 1, 2000 Issue
Homer Never Nods
The importance of The Simpsons.
By Jonah Goldberg, NRO editor
ids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is: Never try.” Is this the sort of lesson we want Homer Simpson to be teaching our kids? That’s the question people who don’t understand The Simpsons have been asking, for a very long time. Indeed, The Simpsons is now the longest-running sitcom on television, and it recently became the longest-running cartoon in television history, surpassing The Flintstones.
In 1990, drug czar William Bennett picked a fight with Bart Simpson, the show’s spiky-haired brat. Visiting a Pittsburgh drug-treatment center, Bennett saw a poster of Bart with the caption, “Underachiever and Proud of It.” Bennett responded, “You guys aren’t watching The Simpsons, are you? That’s not going to help you any.” The firestorm caused the normally intractable Bennett to back-pedal, saying he really didn’t know anything about the show. (His wife, however, told the New York Times in 1998 that their kids still weren’t allowed to watch the program.)
Many conservatives still share this negative view of The Simpsons—and that’s regrettable, because it’s possibly the most intelligent, funny, and even politically satisfying TV show ever. The Simpsons is unique among sitcoms. First, it is a cartoon, which allows it to do and say things unimaginable for other shows. Second, of all the successful programs to make serious political points, it is the only one that is reliably funny when it does. All in the Family, M*A*S*H, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show were excellent shows in their prime, but it’s fair to say that when they were funny they weren’t political and that when they were political they weren’t very funny—and they were, invariably and predictably, liberal.
The Simpsons, however, is never predictable; and its satire spares nothing and no one. In one episode, for example, we see signs inside the Republican convention that read, “We want what’s worst for everyone” and “We’re just plain evil”; but we also see signs at the Democratic convention that read, “We hate life and ourselves” and “We can’t govern.”
This even-handedness is noteworthy. Against the backdrop of conventional sitcoms, it makes The Simpsons damn near reactionary; if 50 percent of the jokes are aimed leftward, that’s 49.5 percent more than we usually get. At the end of an episode originally aired in the spring of 1992, Sideshow Bob is hauled off to prison for attempted murder. He declares, “I’ll be back. You can’t keep the Democrats out of the White House forever. And when they get in, I’m back on the street! With all of my criminal buddies!” The mayor of Springfield, Diamond Joe Quimby, is a corrupt, womanizing lush who met his wife when she worked at “La Maison Derrière,” the local brothel. When the Rush Limbaugh character accuses Quimby of being an “illiterate, tax-cheating, wife-swapping, pot-smoking Spend-o-crat,” Quimby replies, “Hey, I’m no longer illiterate.” Did I forget to mention that Quimby has a distinct Kennedy accent?
When Grandpa Simpson starts receiving royalty checks for work he didn’t do, Bart and Lisa ask, “Didn’t you wonder why you were getting checks for doing nothing?” Grandpa responds, “I figured, ’cuz the Democrats were in power again.” The episode dealing with gun rights—“The Cartridge Family”—makes The Simpsons the only sitcom in memory to treat gun control with any fairness:
But the satire of The Simpsons is not primarily aimed at political figures. It is aimed at all of society’s false pieties and therefore works at many more levels than other TV shows. Serious issues like environmentalism, immigration, gay rights, and Christian fundamentalism get the full treatment. But so do comic-book and science-fiction nerds, Jerry Lewis, the French, you name it. Many jabs are highbrow and well hidden, making them all the more rewarding. For example, in one episode the Simpsons put baby Maggie in the “Ayn Rand School for Tots,” where we briefly see a banner that reads “A is for ‘A.’”
What should dismay liberals about this is that so many of today’s pieties are constructs of the Left. Conservatives are accustomed to being mocked constantly in the popular culture. But the experience must come as something of a shock for hothouse liberals. For example, Homer Simpson’s mother is a ’60s radical still on the lam. How did she dodge the feds? “I had help from my friends in the underground. Jerry Rubin gave me a job marketing his line of health shakes. I proofread Bobby Seale’s cookbook. And I ran credit checks at Tom Hayden’s Porsche dealership.” Some important pretensions are being punctured here—but not the usual ones.
If Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the Indian manager of the local Kwik-E-Mart, were portrayed—with his outrageously stereotyped accent, religious oddities, bullet scars, and unapologetic price gouging—as a character in a live-action television show, there would be riots. In an episode dealing with immigration, “Much Apu About Nothing,” Springfield is overcome by anti- immigrant hysteria. Protesters swarm around the Kwik-E-Mart bearing signs that read, “The Only Good Foreigner is Rod Stewart” and “Get Eurass Back to Eurasia.” At first Apu forges a new identity. Reporter: “Apu, is the rumor true that you’re actually Indian?” Apu: “By the gods of Vishnu, that is a lie!” But he thinks better of it. He explains, “I cannot deny my roots and keep up this charade. I only did it because I love this land, where I have the freedom to say, and to think, and to charge whatever I want!”
In a wonderful essay in the December issue of Political Theory, University of Virginia English professor Paul Cantor makes a strong case that The Simpsons celebrates many, if not most, of the best conservative principles: the primacy of family, skepticism about political authority, distrust of abstractions. For example, as Cantor points out, the residents of Springfield are more religious than almost any other cast on television today. Springfield residents pray and attend church every Sunday.
Many detractors look at Homer Simpson, the oafish father, or at Bart, the proud underachiever, and assume—partly because the show is a cartoon, partly because it is on Fox—that the program is a cheaply drawn version of Married . . . with Children. The reality is that virtually every episode ends on an uplifting note (a distinct contrast with, say, the more nihilistic hits of the 1990s like Seinfeld): Homer’s authority is affirmed, albeit tenuously, and family bonds are tightened. Many think the show is anti-family values (Homer: “Oh, my God! Space aliens! Don’t eat me! I have a wife and kids. Eat them!”), when in fact the show is vastly more honest about family life than most other programs—and is therefore more affecting. Homer: “Wait, that’s it! I know now what I can offer you that no one else can . . . Complete and utter dependence!”
Indeed, Homer is probably the greatest parody of them all. Because he is a fool, he offers a perfect way to mock the shortcomings of the increasingly soft American male. “To alcohol,” he toasts, “the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” At the same time, because he is a fool, when he is right about something he is the perfect foil against elite received wisdom: “The information superhighway showed the average American what some nerds think about Star Trek.”
Sadly, the show has declined somewhat this season, partly because there are so few issues left for the writers to tackle. Still, its impact on an entire generation can’t be overstated. And it gives proof of the axiom that if you think there’s nothing good on TV, you’re not looking hard enough.