AMONG MY earliest encounters of The Simpsons was an animation festival in Philadelphia, in the Spring of 1989. I was doing some work with Habitat for Humanity and decided one night to take in a movie. The first episode of The Simpsons proper was months in the future: in early 1989, the rough and amateurish output of Matt Groening which I saw that night (and which didn’t much impress me) was recognizable only as the interludes of the Tracey Ullman Show. Ullman then was known as an accomplished impersonator and a sharp witted Brit, but within a couple years she was eclipsed by this inauspicious cartoon team constituted of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. Who knew? From such humble beginnings came what is arguably the most successful animated series of television history.
Reflecting on those early days of The Simpsons, I’m slapped in the virtual face by the surprising recollection of an earlier time. When The Simpsons came along, television was yet the dominant medium. These were the days before widespread cable television and the multi-channel universe. CBS, NBC, and ABC defined and circumscribed the cultural landscape. In the mid ’80s, a fellow named Rupert Murdoch arrived on the scene, setting up his shop on that weird and peculiar bit of the airwaves known as UHF. I took in my very first Simpsons episode on a Buffalo Fox affiliate, again not much impressed by the quality of the effort but rather drawn and intrigued by the scandal.
The scandal? Well, yes. And here is where the rude shock — the face-slapping mentioned earlier — comes in. The TV world pre-Murdoch was governed by a kind of Presbyterian code of ethics. George Carlin made from this fact his most famous comedic sketch, ‘Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.’ Today we tend to think of Homer as the thematic core of the Simpsons, a view which regards the show as essentially a sardonic critique of American overindulgence, complacency, consumerism, ignorance, laziness and stupidity. But in 1989 there was no doubt that The Simpsons was all about Bart. Murdoch’s Fox network was throwing hand grenades into the Department of Television Ethics, and Bart represented a good deal of this effort. I well remember the ensuing scandal and outrage, particularly among the religious right. From a conservative point of view, Bart Simpson advanced the cause of mere anarchy. Even the President, George H. W. Bush, felt compelled to attack. Polemicists seized upon this little yellow skateboarding menace and assimilated him to critiques of cultural decline and moral dissolution. The Simpsons nicely illustrated, both metaphorically and literally, the dumbing-down and coarsening of the American nuclear family.
The show became more interesting, for me at least, in the ‘Film Roman’ years when production was moved from Klasky Csupo. Things then got even more interesting when David Mirkin took over. In my estimation the years 1993-1997 were the golden age of The Simpsons, the period during which a brash cartoon evolved into sharp, uninhibited and courageous satire. The Simpsons’ principal weapon as early as 1992 was a comedic variation on the Hegelian dialectic. Every critic who dared set himself up in anti-thesis to the show was soon absorbed into the higher unity of the program’s ironic, multi-layered, and all-encompassing vision. Like the Flintstones, The Simpsons was adult television, and it devoured everything in its environment. By this process, the Bushes went from being the President and First Lady critics of the program to its featured star characters, in an episode entitled Two Bad Neighbors. The Simpsons digested the cultural flotsam of their detractors and expressed the cultural flotsam of social satire — the essential point here being that after Murdoch television was sufficiently iconoclastic and sufficiently rude to overwhelm and outmanoeuvre persons of supposed gravitas.
Groening had retreated somewhat to the background, relinquishing the artwork to teams of Korean illustrators and industrial-corporate production methods. That should have been the end of things, artistically speaking, yet somehow the show just got better. Homer took the place of central interest initially held by Bart, as the show became about the adult world of hypocrisy rather than the child-world of rebellion. Another important shift was the program’s growing prestige, which drew in an endless queue of guest star celebrities. One appears on The Simpsons paradoxically to be part of this elite club made fun of and dressed down in cartoon form. (In this context the example of the singer Bono comes to mind, who, in his guest appearance on the show self-importantly lectures a Springfield concert audience about protecting the environment. His bored band mates take off to the local pub for a drink.)
The most probable reason for The Simpsons success is self-awareness, the explicit understanding that a cartoon is prima facie a mere trifle. By taking nothing too seriously, and — more to the point — by assembling everything in the culture on a level plane (levelled both in degree of prestige and in fairness of game), The Simpsons created a canvas which could mirror whole a society. A kind of double-edged sword, rendering television both smarter and more cynical, The Simpsons could not have achieved what it did without advancing the very coarsening of the culture which it reflected. Ironic, smart, fun, and soaked to its bones in irreverence, The Simpsons was (like Mad Magazine and Lenny Bruce and Married with Children) a step on the way of a culture’s evolution as well as dissolution.