Parade to Distract Joyless Citizenry
-front-page headline, The Springfield Shopper
Bart. Homer. Marge. Lisa. Dear, sweet Ned Flanders. "Diamond" Joe Quimby. Reverend Lovejoy. Vaudeville refugee Krusty the Klown. Sideshow Bob. The Comic Book Store Guy. Chief Wiggum. His son, Ralph, as smart as masonry.
When The Simpsons debuted on Jan. 14, 1990, only a Wiggum-esque fool-or an evil genius like nuclear-plant boss Monty Burns-would foresee this motley crew's ascent to cultural iconhood. The show was an oddity. A half-hour, prime-time cartoon? On Rupert Murdoch's joke network, Fox? Centered on a maniacal skateboarding kid?
Welcome, joyless citizenry, to Springfield.
Sixteen seasons later, the creation of 50-year-old Lincoln High graduate Matt Groening is one of network TV's sturdiest franchises. Homer Simpson's tangerine-skinned family is the most famous brood on the box since the Bunkers. Many Americans probably know more about the Simpsons' hometown of Springfield ("America's Sorrow") than about their own cities.
And yet the show still lobs its satire with the zeal of a Maoist rebel, often cramming more jokes into a single scene than most sitcoms manage in an episode. As for mischief, Bart is still king.
On The Simpsons, the Republican National Committee meets at Dracula's castle. (Springfield Democrats, meanwhile, rally under a banner proclaiming "We Hate Life and Ourselves.") When Bart gets busted for mooning the American flag, a Bill O'Reillyish Fox anchor barks at Marge: "What is it you hate most about America? Is it the freedom?" And when Homer starts performing gay weddings for money, he asks Rev. Lovejoy, "If you love the Bible so much, why don't you marry it?"
"The Simpsons is the most subversive, radical satire that's ever been on American mass media," says John Alberti, a Northern Kentucky University professor who edited a new book of essays on the show. "They've gotten away with things no one else has ever tried. Now, they've been doing it so long, you don't even notice."
So how do they-he, really, since Groening, transplanted to Los Angeles, still oversees The Simpsons writers and pens his comic strip Life in Hell-keep it up?
"It's a struggle," Groening told WW recently. "Here it is, 3:30 on a Friday, and next week's Life in Hell is due, and I'm talking to you. My personal hell is that I'm always thinking about solving some creative problem, day and night. It makes no sense that I keep doing the strip. It's very labor intensive. I guess I do it because I had a weekly deadline 24 years ago and learned to live with it."
Today, Groening stands at the center of a pop-culture cottage industry of books, syndication, memorabilia and DVDs. But he clawed his way up via a truly Dickensian occupation: drawing cartoons for alternative newspapers.
After graduating from Olympia's Evergreen State College in 1977, Groening moved to L.A. Reportedly, he started drawing cartoons about angsty rabbits as letters home-after all, his dad, Homer, always encouraged him to draw. Thus, Life in Hell, which debuted in the L.A. Reader and became a national underground hit. In 1987, British comedian Tracy Ullmann hired Groening to make 30-second animated shorts for her Fox show.
"One of the best things about The Simpsons is that I'm no longer dependent on alternative newspaper editors for my living," Groening says.
The artist brought a disciplined indiscipline he developed hunching over each week's Life and welded it to a working-class family as authentic as it was completely surreal. When The Simpsons spun off to become a full-fledged show, the results were combustible.
Kids immediately recognized Bart, the show's central madman, as the embodiment of their own pre-sexual Ids. Stickers of Bart's sneering face popped up everywhere. His trademark catchphrases-"Don't have a cow, man" and "Ay, carumba!"-had the peculiar property of being both really dumb and also perfectly skewering the twaddle of his elders.
Naturally, the proper authorities took note. Parents banned their kids from watching the show. At the 1992 Republican convention, President George H.W. Bush yearned for families "more like the Waltons, and less like the Simpsons." (Bart's response: "We're like the Waltons. We're praying for an end to the Depression.")
"There are so many urgent fears to deal with," says Groening now of his former career as civilization's pariah. "And then they dissipate immediately. Our culture has such amnesia, we don't even remember they ever existed."
The furor probably helped the show. Adults who felt duty-bound to tour this cultural whorehouse found a mother lode of jokes designed to whiz over kids' heads. As the rift between Reagan/Bush and the alt-'90s became a chasm, millions of wiseacres adopted the smart-ass dream team of Bart and Homer. Long-suffering Marge and girl-genius Lisa provided a none-too-subtle counterpoint to their male relations' idiot behavior.
Today, the show enjoys faithful followings among kids, hipsters, intellectuals, Latinos and the hard-hat class.
"The real secret is that you can't pin it down," says Alberti, whose Leaving Springfield: The Simpsons and the Possibility of Oppositional Culture proves the show is loved by academics, too. "The plots resist neat closure. The Simpsons are yellow, not black or white. The politics are left-leaning-you have characters saying, 'No child has ever defied the Republican Party and lived!' But the show ridicules everyone."
Most especially, The Simpsons never wavers in its contempt for the powerful. Springfield's grandees-Burns, unctuous Rev. Lovejoy, corrupt Mayor Quimby (indeed! Groening named many characters after Portland streets)-are either villainous or silly. The Simpsons, no matter how ludicrous their foibles, are always sympathetic.
That bent, of course, only makes it more ironic that Groening works for the world's favorite right-wing media oligarch.
"Rupert Murdoch," Groening says. "Well..." He pauses. "We make him billions of dollars and he... uh, dives into his vault of money and swims around in it, I guess."