The Simpsons has been on for a long time. I mean, irritatingly long, as in kids who are graduating high school this year have never lived in a world where Fox wasn’t producing new episodes. And that just makes me feel very, very old, the same reason I dislike telling people what magazines I subscribe to and going to the mall on Saturday nights.
Anyone from my generation can tell you when they first watched The Simpsons. It’s just like the Kennedy assassination or the time Sally Wiggin went on the air without her makeup; everyone knows the time and the place of their first viewing of this remarkable animation.
Well, okay, I don’t. I remember watching the first episode about Santa’s Little Helper, but I also watched the shorts on the Tracy Ullman Show, and I have no conceivable reason to remember when I first watched this. All I remember is that it wasn’t Scooby Doo and it wasn’t the Snorks, thank goodness, but I certainly didn’t know what the hell it actually was and I knew I wouldn’t get half the jokes until I was in my early adulthood, which at that time was approximately 2,000 years away.
It was revolutionary in more ways than one. It was a cartoon aimed at adults. Sure, there was the Flintstones, and on a bad day you could spend an afternoon reading the cultural subtext of Inspector Gadget. But c’mon, cartoons were produced foremost for kids, what with their bright colors, nonsensical situations, and devotion to supporting an industry that pays Malaysians about ten cents an hour to color in cells. This wasn’t Bugs Bunny dressing like a cocktail waitress or Mickey Mouse chasing jogging dandelions or whatever the hell that fruit was doing in Fantasia; this was jokes told by badly drawn yellowish folks about the perils of middle age, the gifted program, the boredom of the suburban housewife, and electroshock therapy.
And today’s kids, processing South Park at a normal rate of shock and awe, have absolutely no idea the impact The Simpsons had on the parents of the day. Bart’s deviance was nothing new to television; youngish scamps getting in trouble was a tired plot device back in the tube’s glory days before TV was even invented. The difference was that back then, youngish scamps who got in trouble repented after an appropriate punishment was metered out, like being grounded or ratting out commies. But in Bart Simpson’s world, he wasn’t only an underachiever, but he was, as a T-shirt so eloquently put it, proud of it, man.
Simpsons apologists cranked up their noise level, pointing out that Edgar Allen Poe was an opium addict and Lewis Caroll enjoyed the company of youngish girls, apparently hoping to point out that while Bart may sass his elders, at least he’s not high and hitting on Girl Scouts. Still, promoting charging $12 for a plastic key chain that says “Don’t Have A Cow, Man” in a muffled Nancy-Cartwrightish voice that cost about a quarter to make isn’t exactly a dismissible crime, either.
What makes The Simpsons so peculiar is how they’ve managed to keep it fresh and topical for so long. Here, I am assuming that you stopped watching The Simpsons around 1996 or so. The Simpsons, like many other television programs, tend to rely on formula to crank out season after season of programming. As a general rule, episodes were structured as thus:
1. Some completely arbitrary series of events concludes with the introduction of some current hot social topic, like gay marriage or influenza;
2. Homer screws it up;
3. A secondary character utters some random line every ultrafan on the intraweb will have as their signature for the next month;
4. Lisa has a solution she presents as pretentiously as possible;
5. Several self-referencing jokes are made;
6. A celebrity voice unrelated to the plot is crammed into the show’s sequence;
7. Some random deus ex machina wraps everything up;
8. Joseph Barbera dies just a little inside.
The culmination of all 400 episodes so far produced the holy grail of Simpsons fans: the Simpsons Movie. Even thought the plot is largely an expanded version of a regular episode, and the animation is a touch crisper, it permits the writers to expand their creativity to fit the big screen, a format known to encourage creativity, as evidenced by this summer’s blockbusters Live Free and Die Hard, Evan Almighty and Air Bud 8: Dog Plays Lacrosse Or Some Other Shit Like That. Actually, I strongly suspect it’s going to have the humor quotient of a regular episode, expanded out to about an hour and a half, and you gotta pay eight bucks to see it. Still, it will be nice to see what happens when writers and animators are no longer restricted by the medium of televsion and are given a chance to be creative that they would not find anywhere else, except perhaps HBO. Or books. Or the comics. Or straight-to-DVD collections. Or basic cable. Hmm. Perhaps the motion picture industry will be presented with a very cromulent opportunity, after all.