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The Way Of the Simpsons

Kris Schnee

What is grown “deep in the jungle by the inmates of a Guatemalan insane asylum?” What food has one million calories, thirty pounds of butter per square inch, and chocolate so dark light cannot escape? What does Ralph’s leprechaun tell him to do?

Come on, admit it -- you watch “The Simpsons,” and you probably have your own favorite episodes. The show is a subject of more common public interest than national politics; if you talk about Sideshow Bob or Moe Syzlak, a lot of people will know who you mean. “The Simpsons” is the show historians will watch when studying late 20th-century American culture.

The show reflects the obsessively self-referential nature of modern culture. FBI agents Mulder and Scully from “The X-Files” cross over into Springfield for an episode. Bart and Lisa each have merchandise named for them on the show, while Itchy and Scratchy have an entire theme park “a la Westworld” and “Jurassic Park.” The Simpsons get a teenage tenant named Roy, who’s a human version of Poochie, a cartoon dog played by Homer on the Itchy & Scratchy show, which is a parody of Tom & Jerry. Self-reference is funny in itself because of its surreality, and “The Simpsons” takes it farther by showing, accurately, what we think about a wide variety of people and institutions.

Itchy & Scratchy, the cartoon cat and mouse who brutalize each other on Krusty the Clown’s show, are a comment on modern entertainment. An extreme version of the old Tom & Jerry cartoons, they show how much today’s television and movies thrive on bloodshed. The fictional cartoon’s history also follows real television history. In an “old” black-and-white spoof of “From Here To Eternity,” Itchy & Scratchy advertise Laramie cigarettes while a black butler says, “I don’t know what’s in ‘em; I just know I can’t stop smokin’ ‘em!” A silent cartoon has text panels declaring scenes such as “Itchy runs afoul of an Irishman.” A WWII propaganda episode has the cat and mouse dismembering Hitler as well as each other. The cartoons make a good parody of our attitude towards Disney and the rest of television’s shady history.

Much of “The Simpsons’” humor comes from its willingness to show things we suspect about the real world but can’t prove, and to say what we want to say but are too polite to express. A beer company exec admits his company has no ideas for innovation, standing in front of a machine that pours “Duff Lite” and “Duff Dark” from the same pipe. In the future, Ned says he went blind because he had the laser eye surgery everyone thought was so great in the 90s. Political parodies are common on the show, but the best one is not Clinton (who hits on Marge) or even Sideshow Bob (who runs Reagan’s “Willie Horton” ad during a campaign) but Mayor Quimby. Quimby is suspiciously close to certain Massachusetts political figures with his corruption and philandering. Like our vision of politicians in general, he attends ribbon-cuttings without knowing what they’re for, makes inane promises to name expressways after “Matlock,” and moans “Again?” when told there’s an election in November. There’s a little of the politician’s perspective offered too, such as the incident when Springfield voters want a massive Bear Patrol program (with Stealth bombers) but don’t want to pay for it.

“The Simpsons” is a spiritual show, too. There are already two books analyzing the philosophy and religion presented on the show: The Gospel According To the Simpsons and The D’oh! of Homer. Characters like Lisa, Ned, Bart, and Mr. Burns live by very different kinds of morality. There are several episodes devoted to pious Ned’s loss of Maude and the blandness of his life; another features the “Movementarian” cult while poking fun at its similarities to mainstream faiths. I can personally identify with Lisa and Marge’s argument over the existence of angels. The show manages to tweak everyone’s nose while giving each viewpoint a hearing.

“The Simpsons” is more than entertainment. It is the reference book for the way we live. The real joke, though, will be seeing what future historians who watch it will think of us.

(Answers: 1. Chief Wiggum’s “merciless” chili peppers. 2. A deadly eclair. 3. “He tells me to burn things.”)