It has been 26 years since the Simpsons family was introduced to the world via vignettes bridging sketches on The Tracey Ullman Show. In 1989, the family found its own half-hour slot on the then-burgeoning Fox station and the rest, as they say, is history.
That on-going history has since earned The Simpsons over 30 Emmy nominations, a Peabody, over a dozen TV Guide covers, and a star on Hollywood Boulevard. With 500-plus episodes over 24 seasons, the show is the longest running sitcom in American TV history and the gift that keeps on giving for Fox, which exports the show to 70 other countries, and despite dipping ratings in recent years the show continues to draw in multi-millions of viewers every Sunday night on the home front.
The significance of The Simpsons transcends mere popularity, however, for the show, unlike, say, Everybody Loves Raymond or Two and a Half Men, has also been consistently critically acclaimed; Time magazine echoed the sentiments of many when naming it the best TV program of the 20th century—and that was over a dozen seasons ago. Venturing beyond the usual fluff we consume during primetime, The Simpsons has always taken topical roads less traveled and nowhere is this more apparent than in its regular engagement of personal, institutional, and social issues surrounding religion.
Despite its pervasive influence on our socio-political environment since the Reagan era, religion has been notably absent from our TV screens, regarded by much of the industry as off-limits and even taboo. Fears that any controversial coverage might lead to viewer backlash or sponsor withdrawal have led to a conservative TV landscape where networks and producers have been reticent to touch a topic as sensitive as religion. The consequence has been a curious cultural disconnect whereby religion and religion-related issues are incessantly fought over in ongoing culture scuffles while being avoided by our primary communications and entertainment outlet. A rare exception to this trend has been The Simpsons, which, according to David Feltmate, has incorporated religious references into 95 percent of its episodes (“It’s Funny Because It’s True? The Simpsons, Satire, and the Significance of Religious Humor in Popular Culture”. Journal of American Academy of Religion. (2013) 81).
Unlike on the big screen, where Hollywood has so often used religion as a punching bag, reducing the world of faith down to a collection of bigots and con-men only fit for our scorn, The Simpsons has always shown balance and even-handedness in its religious humor, while still maintaining a critical edge. Of course, recent history has shown—through the examples of Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker, and others—that Hollywood has real precedents for its negative portrayals; however, The Simpsons recognizes that although these televangelist scam artists are a real part of our religious culture, they are only one part of it. Yes, suggests The Simpsons, religious zealots can be dangerous to our society when they censor, discriminate, and invade citizens’ rights, but there are other sides to religion and faith in America, too, that involve social and personal charity, caring, and purpose.
With a philosophy and practice guaranteed to appeal to more viewers than it alienates, The Simpsons employs comedic devices that represent (and undercut) almost all potential perspectives on religious issues. Some see this approach as fair-minded, some as a ratings-driven cop-out, yet the show has always kept faith with its mission to critique not only the failings of religion but also those of its critics; moreover, while invariably questioning and undercutting them, The Simpsons airs pro-spirituality themes as no other TV sitcom has ever done before.
The most common technique used by The Simpsons is the “take-back gag”, whereby a character’s comments—and point-of-view—are immediately undercut by another character offering an alternative—usually opposing—angle on the issue. Such a comedic ploy enables the show to avoid (being seen as) advocating for one side or as positing a sole moral stance. The rough waters of controversy are thus navigated in a fashion that enables opposing camps to feel either equally offended or validated.
This strategy was employed adeptly in “Something About Marrying”, the much mulled over gay marriage episode. Quite a stir preceded its airing as talk show panels speculated over how the issue would be addressed and which character(s) would be involved. Regarding the latter, the smart money was on Smithers, yet it was actually Marge’s gruff sister, Patty Bouvier, who sought to leap forth with her beau, Veronica, a professional golfer thriving on the LPGA circuit.
Characters are pitted against each other as Rev. Lovejoy points to The Bible as the reason why he will not perform a marriage that would validate a “sinful lifestyle”; Marge, in response, provides the take-back gag, asking Lovejoy to cite a pertinent scriptural passage—which he can/does not. Marge is also taken aback, so to speak, as her liberal posture grows uncomfortable when she discovers that it is her own sister who wishes to be a party to such a marriage. All sides are duly ridiculed; as a result, all sides of the viewing public felt that their positions (and/or prejudices) had been voiced while none had been singled-out for sanction.
This broad appeal, built from equal opportunity satire, has led to praise from some unlikely sources. The Archbishop of Canterbury has gone on record as a fan of the show, as has ex-Prime Minister (and Catholic convert) Tony Blair, who even featured and spoke in one episode. Many preachers and Sunday school teachers have also seen the usefulness of the show in reaching their sometimes switched-off youth constituency, focusing upon the pro-spiritual aspects for teaching purposes.
Mark I. Pinsky’s book, The Gospel According to The Simpsons, has become a much-used text in this regard, its pro-religious readings of the program offering substance and sustenance to many faith communities. Pinsky stresses how belief and the power of faith are never condemned by the show, but that its satire of institutional corruption and narrow-mindedness highlight flaws all religions could benefit from being more self-conscious about.
Pinsky clearly revels at the prospect that a cartoon sit-com is providing the morality tales and faith inspirations that traditional religious channels have struggled to communicate—particularly to young people. Like Shakespeare or Aristophanes, The Simpsons employs comedy and comedy forms to appeal, reach, and critique, at both personal and cultural levels. As the divisions and tensions of the culture wars continue to plague us, with religious institutions often feeding rather than extinguishing the flare-ups, it’s ironic that a cartoon built around a dysfunctional family should provide both bridge-building and voices of reason by casting a satirical net over all offending parties. And it’s perhaps no coincidence that the show is set in Springfield, a town name common to 22 states, for The Simpsons is a comedy-drama of the everyman, of the every-family, and of the every-community in the nation.
Despite its longevity and broad acceptance today, The Simpsons’ early seasons were fraught with controversy, condemnatory reactions raining down from all quarters of conservative America. Preachers, especially, spoke out about the show’s flippant irreverence towards religion, so outraged that they overlooked its many pro-faith elements. Then-President George H. Bush even denounced the show in its early years, as did his wife and his “moral” crusading education secretary, William Bennett. Bush Sr. referred to the program in a public speech, imploring that “we need a nation closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons”.
But as with V.P. Quayle’s famous “critique” of Murphy Brown regarding family values, Bush’s political grandstand similarly backfired, particularly after The Simpsons returned fire in their next episode when Bart cracked, “We’re just like the Waltons: We’re praying for an end to the depression, too” (Qtd. in Mark I. Pinsky. The Gospel According To The Simpsons: Bigger and Possibly Even Better! Edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007. p.6).
Today, in a TV environment that includes such extreme cartoon sitcoms as Family Guy and South Park, it’s hard to imagine that The Simpsons could have caused such a national commotion, though I vividly remember the reactions of some of my parent-students when I taught an episode of the show in a college class during the late ‘80s. They were disturbed by the program’s attitude to organized faiths—particularly as expressed through the informal vernacular of Bart—and many vowed never to let their children view it.
Once the dust had settled on the early uproar over the show, a paradigm shift in responses began to occur, not only from the secular world but from religious quarters, too. Pinsky’s book illustrates this sea change. He points out how careful the show has always been to respect all faiths (a definitive “God” is never shown, though unlike the earth-bound characters he has five fingers) and to avoid sensitive areas like the crucifixion and the resurrection. He further argues that The Simpsons is one of the few shows to represent how faith provides hope, meaning, and moral guidance in people’s lives, issues notoriously absent from TV that conservatives have been complaining about for decades. Unlike most families we see on sitcoms, the Simpsons go to church, say grace, pray, and often call on God for assistance—and He invariably answers!
The episode “Bart Sells His Soul” has been much scrutinized and, since its initial airing in 1995, oft used in sermons and Sunday schools as a teaching tool. Here, not only is it suggested that the spiritual soul is real, but that life is meaningless without it. After selling his soul to friend Millhouse—in the form of a contract—for $5, Bart’s life collapses into a barren existence whereby he cannot even laugh at his beloved “Itchy and Scratchy” sketches. As is typical of The Simpsons’ balanced approach to controversial matters, though, Lisa is also employed to offer a more rationalist perspective. She explains that while it might not be literally real, the soul is the symbol of one’s being. The episode ends with Bart’s prayers for his soul’s return answered as Lisa retrieves the contract for him.
Another episode, “Homer the Heretic”, focuses upon the community, charity, and social service that religions call for. Opting for a more leisurely life of sloth, Homer decides to give up on going to church with his family, much to his wife’s chagrin. Marge’s concern is not only about Homer’s apostasy, but also the negative influence his choice will have on his children. “What’s the big deal about going to some building every Sunday? Isn’t God everywhere?” Homer rhetorically asks. “What if we picked the wrong religion? Aren’t we just making God madder and madder?” he adds. These are questions one can imagine Sunday schools picking up on for discussion, particularly in light of Bart’s enthusiastic responses of “tell it like it is” and “testify” to Homer’s rationalizations.
Marge, meanwhile, prays for his return to the fold. The episode then takes a dramatic turn when, while his family and neighbors are at church, the slumbering Homer drops his cigar, setting the house ablaze. Finally, the volunteer fire department (including Hindu shopkeeper Apu) and his Christian neighbor, Ned Flanders, come to his aid and rescue. For Homer, the incident shows that “the Lord is vengeful”, to which Flanders responds that the true moral of the saga is that the rescue was facilitated by God working through the religious inspiration of his neighbors.
Episodes such as these have shifted perceptions of The Simpsons. No longer just seen as the work of irreverent atheists, observers see that faith and its potential virtues are frequently painted in a positive light. Much inter-denominational chatter has ensued over the years, as moderates have embraced the show for exposing hypocrisy and extremism in the church, while fundamentalists have enjoyed the literal interpretations of faith in action, particularly as practiced by their hero Ned Flanders. Symbolic of this reassessment of the show was the appearance of The Simpsons in positive cover stories in both Christianity Today and The Christian Century, two magazines representing markedly different theological strains.
Likewise, Pinsky tends to emphasize the pro-spiritual elements of The Simpsons over the more critically damning ones, though he does make an effort to establish the preferred readings of the show by investigating the intentions of the writers. In a series of interviews with The Simpsons’ staff, he learns that the production process is a collaborative one involving many contributors. Most lean towards liberal and even atheistic orientations, though some, such as writer Jeff Martin, is the Christian son of an evangelical religion professor. All, it seems, share the philosophy that the show’s point-of-view regarding religious concerns is less important than being consistently true to the essence of the characters.
And while some have equated the show’s essential humanity with being pro-faith, writer Mike Reiss asserts that the over-riding goal is to examine religion from multiple angles, thus engaging multiple competing voices in the process (Pinsky, p.211). Such an intention would certainly explain the humor that arises from the resulting conflicts, as well as the polysemic possibilities laid out for multiple interpretations. Pinsky ultimately concludes: “Whether the series… is subversive or supportive of faith is largely in the eye of the beholder” (216).