Six hundred sixty-one episodes. Thirty years—a disconcerting majority of my lifetime—in 15 days. Not even completed, FXX’sThe Simpsons “Plus-Size Marathon” is for me—and maybe for you—a hilarious yet bizarre time machine. It rockets me in quasi–slow motion from the last days of college through young adulthood, through the eye-opening—and wallet-opening—challenges of being 30-something, and back into the malaise of middle age, where the dreaded Five-Oh somehow sits in my rearview mirror.
Even when laughing myself stupid at the original run of these episodes decades ago, never did this iconic thread of America’s cultural tapestry possess more power than now. Its seemingly non-stop train of killer jokes and crazy plots mark the eras of my life as if they are stations along a train line.
Inconceivably, an animated sitcom became a generational matter. Had The Simpsons been a crackly radio program for which the family gathered around the old Philco, it would have more than spanned the years between the world wars. More tangibly, had I fathered a child, my son or daughter might well now be a teenaged Simpsons viewer—with virtually no hope of catching up on the hundreds of episodes already come and gone. Unless I decided to home-school Junior by simply having him watch the show all day—which, despite being decidedly Homeric in concept, doesn’t seem a bad way of educating a child.
Like many, I first viewed The Simpsons when it was a primitively drawn segment on Fox’s The Tracey Ullman Show in the late 1980s. Not very clever and relying largely on predictable nuclear-family humor, the cartoon sitcom less than impressed.
Completely unaware of the impending series, I missed the pilot, “The Simpsons Christmas Special”, which debuted in December 1989. But several weeks later, as an unregistered student staying the night in a friend’s mind-bogglingly repulsive frat house in hopes of transferring to the University of Maryland for my senior year, we watched “Bart the Genius” on a cheap, portable picto-tube. Though far from the incisive wit and aesthetic appeal into which it soon would evolve, the show hooked me with sporadic but solid belly laughs. (Did I sense my future in Homer’s dim-witted but well-intentioned mediocrity?)
Presidential administrations often demarcate the American timeline—but The Simpsons has existed for so long that it is with what I reflexively associate bygone relationships, jobs, and residences. Not 24 hours into this 661-episode epic, I’m already reliving the twin thrills of moving into Hope’s apartment after an amazing post-graduation courtship and learning that Krusty the Clown springs from the same faith as me. This is further augmented by the fact that the tailor who attires Bart as an orthodox rabbi, Yiddle, shares the same name as one of my great-great-grandfathers.
When navigating gargantuan television marathons, it pays to work at home. Running on a mere nine episodes of sleep, I’m diaphragm-deep in Season 4 guffaws—the start of The Simpsons’ Golden Age. As I sing along to the “Mr. Plow” theme, chant “Monorail”, and chime in with my dead-on, bipartite impression of “Dental plan…Lisa needs braces”. Hope and I are ancient history, and I’m a year into my first professional job.
But The Simpsons never was just about riotous laughter. Scripts bristle with myriad sociopolitical jabs and moments of deeply moving pathos. Think of the episode where Homer, resigned to abandoning his dream job as a pin monkey, returns humiliatingly to the power plant because of Marge’s unplanned pregnancy. He eventually copes with his obligation to newborn Maggie by reminding himself that he’s going back to this job for her. For a show that so cynically pokes holes in the inanities of our plastic, apathetic world, its rough-edged bedrock of brilliantly conceived sentiment can cup a heart without compromising comedic integrity.
By Marathon Day 3, I’m sitting with Penelope on her futon. We’re three weeks into our budding relationship. I’m trying to conceal a misty-eyed smile at Homer’s loving gesture in “And Maggie Makes Three”—the very same reaction I’m having nearly 24 years later. If my long-ago ex, Penelope, watched it again —as we did together in 1995—I suspect her eyes welled, too.
Soon a well-traveled editor at my third publishing company—and the first one utilizing e-mail—electronic water-cooler Simpsons talk bounced around the department for years. After all, what other show offered a break-dancing Jimmy Carter or the Moody Blues, to a man, waxing poetic while physically threatening its lead character? The Simpsons had escorted me right through the decade—into my 30s. A different state, a new century.
I watched “The First Family of American Laughter” bring Ugly Americanism to Australia, England, Tanzania, China, Ireland, Italy, the Holy Land, Blockoland, and even back to 1895. I bust the proverbial gut as Apu sang “Sgt. Pepper” and Krusty discussed collective bargaining agreements with AFL-CIO chairman George Meany. I mourned death of Linguo—I mean, the death of Linguo, as the late Linguo would have corrected me. I even learned the advantages of not not licking toads. The Simpsons enlightened me about how to unleash the awesome power of the apple. Such lessons have improved my life incalculably
Meanwhile, I’ve gone through 11 employers, 15 addresses, and girlfriends totaling somewhere in between. (I seldom failed to receive a Simpsons-related birthday card from my partner, although numerous exes proved indifferent to The Simpsons. I found a woman’s opinion of the show to be a remarkably reliable barometer as to whether she, a potential mate, possessed an adequate sense of humor.)
In fullness of disclosure, I began missing episodes around 2003, when the show started to slip. I couldn’t bear witness to such a precipitous fall from grace. Like Joe DiMaggio, I got out while the getting was good. But just when The Simpsons appeared in serious decline, it blasted through the burn and rode the zone—becoming a genuine American institution. Despite the full-length movie in 2007, rumored to serve as the series’ finalé, The Simpsons—like the domestication of the dog—continued unabated and seems as if it may go on forever.
Part of me hopes that it does, even though the show’s steadiest laughs are behind it and the series can never again mean as much to me as it once did. Yet The Simpsons’ reassuring regularity remains an unsevered link to the better days of my youth—unlike Seinfeld, which, although resounding more deeply in my funny bone, is but an echo from my 20s and early 30s, no matter how much I treasure its reruns.
As if 30 years haven’t slipped by quickly enough, this 15-day time-machining — through the honeymoon phases and breakups of relationships, laughs shared with friends — across an oft-changing career almost as checkered as Homer’s, and within the walls of widely scattered apartments is aging me all over again. I just moved into Hope’s apartment, full of youthful invincibility and promise. How did almost 30 years whiz by nearly as quickly as the last 15 days?
As exhilarating a stroll down memory lane the Simpsons Plus-Size Marathon is, I’m returning to Homeric middle age as rapidly as the start of the marathon whisked me back to my youth. And now I’m losing that youth a second time—so ingrained is the passage of The Simpsons in the passage of my life.
Worst. Depressive episode. Ever.