Tuesday, September 30, 2014
The Simpsons: They've Still Got It
My first television fandom was The Simpsons. In 1996, I went away to university and got a computer that had internet FOR THE FIRST TIME, and the first thing I did was sign up to various Simpsons fan groups and listservs (I have my priorities). I engaged in the chatter, got involved in the arguments and discussions, and when I went to meet a publisher to talk about how to get into the industry, I think the fact that he and I talked about specific Simpsons episodes for half an hour might have had something to do with him ultimately deciding to hire me. One of my best pals, Jeremy, was also a massive Simpsons fan (he went in for all the merch and at one point had a wall of Simpsons figures that I seriously envied) and I would spend several evenings a month at his apartment just eating pizza and watching episodes. We could have entire discussions using just lines from the show. One time we were riding the subway and he was holding a magazine with Simpsons trivia and he said, "OK... when Bart and Homer are playing Scrabble, what fake word does Bart put down on the board?" "Kwyjibo," I responded without thinking, and Jer's eyes widened and he nodded with pride and said, "NICE." Considering he kicked my ass in the trivia games every time, that praise has clearly stuck with me.
When I wasn't online arguing the finer points of why Smithers' skin colour appears different in a few episodes (the people who inked the show got the wrong instructions), I was actually attending classes, believe it or not. And one day the professor was late, so I sat outside the class on a bench and another guy sat down next to me. He was in the class but we sat on opposite sides of the room, so we hadn't said much to each other. He saw the book I was reading and made a comment that was a quote from The Simpsons. I looked up and gave the proper response from the show, and we were instant friends. That guy is Christopher Lockett, the one who does the Game of Thrones episodes with me.
This was in the mid-90s, when The Simpsons was a seasoned show already, but new enough that people still thought it was the most hilarious thing on TV (it was). By the time it was entering its 11th and 12th seasons, it was considered old, and people were starting to move on to newer shows. The King of the Hill came and went, and the episode where Bobby was kicking everyone in the nads is still one of my favourite things on television EVER. Then South Park happened, and suddenly everything that seemed edgy about The Simpsons seemed stodgy and outdated. The Family Guy and subsequent Seth McFarlane shows used the formula from The Simpsons, and people were turning to them. As I became hooked on HBO series and Buffy and Lost, I completely lost touch with that animated show about the yellow family that I'd once loved with all my heart.
After a while, it became cool to bash The Simpsons. I heard people talking about how painfully unfunny it was, that they'd given up watching it. They boasted that they hadn't watched it in almost 10 years, because the show hadn't had a single funny episode in that whole time. I never stopped to realize that those two statements put together don't make any sense.
Then the Simpsons Movie came out, and my husband and I went to see it, and it was hysterically funny. We were doubled over in the theatre with laughter. Still didn't go back to watching the show. We constantly used lines from The Simpsons in our everyday lives. Still didn't go back. I bought the first few seasons on DVD and then realized I'd have to mortgage the house to own the whole series. When we moved in 2012, I dumped the DVDs.
And then... my daughter discovered it. She'd wanted to watch it earlier, but I thought it was a little too old for her. At age 9, I figured we were OK. At the breakfast table, she would perform entire scenes from an episode she'd seen the day before. She could do Cletus's accent perfectly, and would re-enact scenes of him calling out all of his children's names. When she got to "Rubella Scabies" and "International Harvester," I was in stitches. I started watching the show with her. And without exception, I laughed at all of them. There were the new Sunday episodes, but then Fox showed other episodes throughout the week, rarely going back before 2010, and I realized that the last four years of The Simpsons was just as funny as any of the earlier episodes I'd seen. In some cases, funnier.
South Park continues to be hilarious, but has become adult viewing. The Family Guy stopped being funny a really long time ago, and goes for stupid toilet humour above anything intelligent. Same goes for most of its spinoffs. I've watched all of them, and didn't manage to last more than a couple of episodes with most of them. Yes, I know The Family Guy has taken what The Simpsons started and pushed it further, but The Simpsons shows that they were ahead of the curve in the beginning, and recent episodes show they continue to be. We're in a (baffling) Redneck Renaissance right now, where every single reality show seems to be looking at redneck culture as if it's something to hold up with pride, whether it be Duck Dynasty or Honey Boo-Boo or that show where they submerge themselves in filthy water up to their chins and try to catch fish by hand. And Cletus was there LONG before any of them.
Just a couple of weeks ago, we discovered that the Comedy Network is playing old episodes each night, so now my daughter's watching the classics that I loved. The other night they played the Gummy Venus de Milo episode and I nearly lost it with glee, and was saying the words along with the episode... and I couldn't believe HOW MANY of the show's classic jokes were all crammed into one episode. From the satirical Rock Bottom news program to the kids telling Homer that the TV did a better job of raising them than he did, it was utterly brilliant.
And that brings us to this past weekend's premiere. As season 26 began, many people who hadn't watched the show in years tuned in because A) in one episode we were going to lose a character, and B) they were doing a crossover episode of The Family Guy. And afterwards, I saw many people on my Facebook feed complaining that they hadn't watched The Simpsons in years and it hasn't been funny in all that time (question: how do you know it hasn't been funny if you HAVEN'T BEEN WATCHING IT?!) and complaining about the godawful humour of The Family Guy. But if there was anything you could take away from that episode, it was just how vastly superior The Simpsons is with subtle humour. The Family Guy wouldn't know subtle if it drove over Brian in the street.
But I'd rather focus on the other episode. The entire family sat around the TV to watch The Simpsons as the kids speculated on whether it would be Apu (NO!) or Homer (Uh, no) or Reverend Lovejoy or his wife (I said it wouldn't be his wife because they offed Maude Flanders and they wouldn't take out a second wife) and in the end... it was Krusty's dad. The kids were annoyed it wasn't someone major, and I was simply relieved. But that had very little to do with what made that episode brilliant. While The Simpsons has always shown religion in a way other shows no longer dare to do (the family goes to church every Sunday; Reverend Lovejoy is a tit; Ned Flanders is annoying but means well), this week they focused on the Jewish religion, and did a superb job with it. When Krusty's dad tells him that what he really thinks about him as a comedian is "Eh..." and then dies, Krusty is faced with the vast black hole of not knowing if his father approved of him, and it's a sad episode, always made funny with Krusty's drunken spiral. There are a ton of jokes in there for the kids, who laughed and laughed throughout, and really good ones for the adults, like when Marge tells Krusty she made him some chicken soup, and he says he never eats soup. "So why do you have that little spoon around your neck all the time?" she asks. My husband and I were howling with laughter, while the kids kept begging us to explain that joke.
The Simpsons is still funny. REALLY funny. Every time I've watched it with my daughter, it's as funny as I remember it being years ago. Sure, they miss a note once in a while, but for god's sakes, they've done over 500 episodes. There are few comedies these days that can make it to a fifth season while still having anything funny to say, and even Buffy had what I call the throwaway episodes each season, but The Simpsons just keeps on going, and does it brilliantly. While all those other animated shows have come, gone, and will fade into obscurity, The Simpsons will keep going until one of the voice actors from the Simpsons family dies, I suspect.
And think of it this way: I loved The Simpsons as a teenager. Now my daughter is watching NEW EPISODES of the same show, and she loves it as much as I did. This isn't like Buffy, which I keep promising her we can start watching when she's 12, where she's going to be watching a show that's near and dear to my heart, but is so outdated already that no one owns a cellphone, and in one episode Willow scans a book by running the hand scanner over every page individually. This isn't even like Doctor Who, which I love with all my heart, but has different characters, different sensibilities, and different styles than the episodes that aired when I was a kid. The Simpsons now is like The Simpsons then, with the jokes updated to the present day. When I recently went back to watch The Animaniacs with the kids, all the jokes were very Clinton-related, and went right over their heads and felt old to me. The Simpsons, on the other hand, makes topical jokes, yet makes them seem timeless. Who knows how much longer this show will be on the air, but regardless of how many years it has left in it, we should be celebrating a show that has remained fresh and funny for 25 years, rather than knocking it down because it's been around for 25 years.