Columns

With Malice Towards Fun

Ryan Smith gives Abe Lincoln his dues.

In a battle to claim The Simpson's for its own, Fox network's favorite family teetered dangerously close to stealing the heart and soul of Springfield, Illinois, away from the man who saved the Union.

Only in our increasingly bizarre postmodern media-centric world where two blonde girls getting trashed in LA (ala Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan) and the wavy mane of an androgynous Indian teen (ala American Idol's Sanjaya Malakar) generates more headlines than a war in Iraq, and a world in which an anthropomorphic snowman directs questions to presidential candidates during televised debates (ala the 2007 Democratic presidential candidate debates) could Homer Simpson have a chance to beat Abraham Lincoln in a popularity contest in Linconl's hometown of Springfield, Illinois.

Outside of Central Illinois this state of affairs comes as no surprise. Evidence has shown that the churlish, beer-swilling, half-witted fictional character, has gathered more stature in most of the world than his Springfield counterpart, the (arguably, of course) greatest president in American history.

In a recent BBC poll, those whip-smart Brits chose Homer Simpson as the "Greatest American" with Honest Abe coming in a distant second -- just ahead of Dr. Martin Luther King. (George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt trailed Mr. T significantly.) As a native of Springfield, Illinois, I witness this snub to Ol' Abe et al firsthand. As a citizen of the birthplace of the 16th President of the United States, I often feel, when conversing with people from other places, as if I’m unwittingly conducting one of those Jaywalking segments from The Tonight Show. The ones where Jay Leno smugly asks people off the street random general knowledge questions like "Do you know who Condoleezza Rice is?" They, of course, stammer answers like, "She's Jerry Rice's wife, right?" which entitles Leno to smirk, the audience to laugh, and everyone involved to feel oh-so-superior to Joe Q. Public.

For someone from Springfield, the Leno-ish scene goes a little like this:

"So, where are you from originally?"

"I'm from Springfield, Illinois."

"Hey, isn't that where the Simpsons are from?"

"I don't know, I don't think the creators have ever said for sure."

It's one thing for this to kind of conversation to happen in Seattle; quite another to have it happen in Springfield, Illinois. The region's nickname -- clearly indicated on every auto license plate -- is "The Land of Lincoln" for the love of Mary Todd! But this summer Fox network's favorite family teetered dangerously close to stealing away the heart and soul of Springfield from the man who saved the Union, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and commanded such a respect and reverence that the poet Vachel Lindsay famously called him, "the quaint great figure that men love / The prairie-lawyer, master of us all." To borrow a phrase from the man of the moment, “D’oh!”

I know I risk sounding Bill O'Reillyesque, as if declaiming that the United States is going to hell because it’s citizens (and others) can more readily name a fictitious cartoon sitcom character than it can a major player who has truly had his hand in shaping its culture. But let me risk it, anyway: this is all Hollywood's fault.

See, there was this film released recently called The Simpsons Movie. You may have heard of it. You may have also heard of a competition / publicity stunt from the movie's marketing team as part of the massive wave of gimmicky hype that involved a dozen or so towns around the country named Springfield. Each of these Springfields made promotional videos touting their town's to The Simpsons. Their aim: to be christened the "real" Springfield and host the movie's premiere. (Go here on USA.com to see the videos submitted by Springfields throughout the US.)

The contest managed to whip many of the good citizens of my hometown into a Simpsons loving frenzy. Morning DJ's couldn't stop blabbing about it; the local newspaper wrote breathless updates on a near daily basis about USA Today poll results like it was reporting on a presidential primary; ordinarily apathetic teens posted MySpace bulletins demanding their friends vote; and a picture of Homer was even added to the front page of the city's official website. Finally, in an act of supreme undignified behavior, Mayor Tim Davlin called a press conference in which he told the other Springfield's to "Eat my shorts!"

Sure, Mayor Davlin's participation was embarrassing in a "My Dad is trying way too hard to seem cool" way, but I didn't getting riled up until I watched the city's official video. In it, legendary retired newscaster Don Hickman (who I always thought of as a poor man's Pat Summerall) introduces Davlin, who cites the BBC poll I referenced earlier and notes that Homer and Abe are "both from Springfield, Illinois." Then a Lincoln impersonator appears in the classic stovepipe hat, beard and the full garb and says, "I reckon when it comes to Homer Simpson, I'm fine with being the second greatest American."

Rubbing Abe's Nose for Luck: A Springfield Tradition

Wha??? Could you imagine if the Queen of England said that London was the home of Danger Mouse and oh, yes, Winston Churchill, too?

As a child I was immersed in stories of Abraham Lincoln. I lived under two miles from his historic downtown home, went on countless school field trips to his New Salem log cabin, rubbed the worn nose of the large Lincoln bust outside of tomb. I attended plays about Lincoln, participated in dramatic readings of the Gettysburg Address, and around the Fourth of July I'd go downtown for LincolnFest (which had less to do with Abe than it did booze and fireworks earning it the snarky nickname 'Drinkenfest'). I took classes at Lincoln School and sometimes passed Lincoln Street or Lincoln Park on the way. After school, I'd go to Lincoln Library to check out books. I liked Lincoln. The only thing I seemed to miss out on in my childhood was Lincoln Logs. (I had Legos.)

Yes, there was something about my youth spent in Lincoln-immersion that was like a Communist China style brainwashing. I was fed the myths right along with the facts. Like the one about Lincoln the Shopkeeper walking for miles (uphill, both ways, etc.) to give a few pennies back to a forgetful customer. Once he supposedly floated down to New Orleans via the Mississippi River, saw slaves being mistreated and declared that one day, (in his folksy, plainspoken way) he'd do something about it. He was strong, too and was the best wrestler, railsplitter, and farmhand in all of the Midwest. If I believed all the propaganda, I’d believe he was a combination of Gandhi, Mother Theresa and Hulk Hogan.

Yet there was enough truth there that growing up as a shy loner reading about this gawky, introverted guy that spent most of his younger years reading books and splitting logs in the rural Illinois and Indiana, I felt a sort of kinship with Abe. His story is the ultimate pull-yourself-up-from-your-bootstraps story, from pauper to President. I didn't want to be a politician, but I did have dreams to one day leave my quiet little Springfield neighborhood for something better and Abe made it all seem possible.

Maybe I'm just the sentimental type. Maybe I've got a place in my heart for the Founding Fathers and other such "dead white men". Alas, maybe Homer Simpson is the Man For Our Times, and maybe he does represent America and Springfield, Illinois better than a politician who died 150 years ago. He’s the anti-hero – a bumbling, ordinary fool with few scruples and fewer ambitions. Someone like the vapid tourists Jay Leno interviews who don't know the answers to simple historical trivia. Someone whom we can laugh at and therefore makes us feel a bit better about ourselves.

At least in the case of Springfield, Illinois however, the state of Vermont saved Lincoln from having to step down to second place in our hearts. Springfield, Vermont won the contest to take The Simpsons as their homegrown pop icon. Don’t get me wrong, I like The Simpsons; the show and the movie is an amusing satire about American life. But I'll take my heroes larger than life, thank you very much, and by that I'm not referring to how they appear on a movie screen.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image