[24 July 2007]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
In 2003, the BBC conducted an online poll asking Britain to name history’s greatest American. In second place was Abraham Lincoln. In third, Martin Luther King Jr.
And the winner? Homer Simpson. By a massive margin. Homer got 47.2 percent of the vote; Lincoln drew 9.7 percent.
There you go. Homer Simpson. Best. American. Ever.
And, sure, why not? Did Lincoln anchor the longest-running comedy in TV history, lasting 18 seasons and counting? Was he a part of 23 Emmys, a Peabody Award and an estimated $2.5 billion in earnings? OK, there was that national leadership thing and the Gettysburg Address, but did Lincoln ever skewer scores of movies, dozens of TV shows, and nearly every sacred idea embedded in our culture?
Did Lincoln even go to the Rolling Stones Rock N’ Roll Fantasy Camp? (“Rule No. 1,” Mick Jagger says. “No rules. Rule No. 2: No outside food.”)
More to the real point, has anyone on TV ever given America and the world more funny, brilliant, arrow-to-the-heart true lines about everything on the planet?
So, it’s not just crazed American fans who are counting down until “The Simpsons Movie” opens Friday. The television show is seen in 70 countries, and this may be the most internationally anticipated TV-show-to-movie event in history.
For all the early school-marmish scolding and the huffy misinterpretations, despite Time magazine naming Bart Simpson one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century, it’s never been Bart’s impishness or his long-gone lines, like “Don’t have a cow,” that have fueled the series.
The heart of the show has always been Homer, and the Simpsons family as a whole. That’s what this national treasure of a series has been about—family.
“The Simpsons” is toweringly unsentimental, just as it can be ragingly silly, but its message—and, yeah, there was always a message—has been that, for more than 400 hundred episodes, if you do just one thing right in the world, it’s that you always love your family.
And Homer is the perfect creature to carry that message because he’s a schlub who can’t do anything else right. But, no matter what else, he puts his family first. Maybe tied with donuts, but still up there.
That tone was set in episode one, when Homer lost the family’s Christmas money at the dog track, so the Simpsons adopted the dog who let him down and finished last.
Still, there has been so much more than just a message. “The Simpsons” is the standard-bearer for witty pop culture commentary, and for brilliantly subtle, serious social analysis. And all of that starts with Homer, too. In his enduring Homerness, he stumbles onto the real truths and real ambiguities of everything in our society.
It’s surely not because he’s some font of wisdom. He’s way more a font of confusion and downright idiocy. But precisely because of that, he gets to the core of things in our muddled, complicated world.
Homer on TV: “Teacher, mother, secret lover.”
Homer on church: “What if we’ve picked the wrong religion? Every week, we’re just making God madder?
Homer on life: “Kids, you tried your best and failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.”
He says these things with earnestness and genuine belief, and because he thinks he’s doing the right thing.
Doing the right thing, living with some kind of moral compass, is actually a strong force in “The Simpsons.” Bart, too, is not the scofflaw he appears to be on the surface. For all his scheming and tricks, Bart is at his heart a populist and an egalitarian. He doesn’t actually hate Principal Skinner—Bart just knows he’s supposed to battle The Man because he wants his freedom, like everyone else.
Yet, in way, all of that is over-thinking “The Simpsons.” The reason why it’s lasted so long, the reason why “The Simpsons Movie” feels nearly akin to a Beatles reunion for some, is that it is, first of all, a very, very funny show.
The writing for years and years has been understated and nimble, even though there’s plenty of visual slapstick. The yucks have always played out at a bunch of levels, including the laugh-out-loud moments, the digging irony, and the real gold—those moments that fans talk about years later, like, say, that rock n’ roll camp.
But it’s easy to over-think “The Simpsons,” which is also part of its magic. Dissertations have been written about the series. College classes have critiqued the show. It’s been examined for its impact and commentary on sociology, philosophy, science, mathematics and religion. This spring, a study in Australia said “The Simpsons” might even help fight mental illness—people might not feel so isolated because they can relate to the characters. Plus, the study figured out, it makes folks laugh.
That gets to the crux of it. Relatable characters who make you laugh. “The Simpsons” is the brainchild of Matt Groening, and it started in 1987 as a series of 30-second spots that ran between sketches on Fox’s “The Tracy Ullman Show.”
On Dec. 17, 1989, “The Simpsons” premiered on Fox and immediately got the public scolds pointing and whining that Bart was a bad influence because he didn’t respect authority and because he pushed such anarchistic ideas as skipping school.
But critics and fans immediately realized they had found a mother lode, and we’re still learning how rich it is.
“The Simpsons” was the first successful prime-time cartoon since “The Flintstones” and “The Jetsons” of the 1960s, and it taught comedy writers that they could do more and say more with animated characters.
“The Simpsons’” lineage is directly traceable through animated shows like “Beavis and Butt-Head,” “King of the Hill,” “South Park” and “Family Guy,” but its DNA can be found in many, many of the great television comedies—the range goes from “Arrested Development” to “Scrubs” to even “Everybody Loves Raymond.” That influence comes from its gentle irreverence, its intelligence and speed, and simply from how it set the bar for wit so enormously high.
It’s unfortunate that the current version of “The Simpsons” has lost a comedic step or two, and it suffers by comparison to the best years of the show. But all signs are that “The Simpsons Movie” will have all the traits of the classic days, which is to say subversive, absurd, toweringly dopey and incredibly smart. And Homer, Bart and the family will, despite themselves, probably end up doing the right thing, because it wouldn’t be “The Simpsons” if they didn’t.