The Simpsons: A Caricature of a Typical Dysfunctional but Loving American Family

Introduction - Who is Matt Groening and How “The Simpsons” Got Started.


It was early 1987, like most of the then thirty-three year old Matt Groening creations “The Simpsons” was a caricature the absurdities of everyday life using animation as a means to comment on all our foibles. 'The Simpsons' was not initially a thoroughly thought out creation, but rather made on the fly while waiting for a meeting with already legendary and award-winning television and film producer James L. Brooks. Brooks who had recently won several Oscars for the feature film "Terms of Endearment" wanted Groening to create an animated series based on his popular underground comic "Life in Hell" which was ran in instalments in the free alternative press paper the ‘Los Angeles Reader,’ and was sold also sold in booklet form at the Licorice Pizza record store - both of which Groening worked for in various capacities. Brooks essentially needed short animated features to break up the skits in a quirky variety show he was then producing called "The Tracey Ullman Show" which was to be show on a new television network enterprise that monolith media company Newcorp was creating called 'FOX' as a satellite to its recent purchase of the well known film studio Twentieth Century Fox. Groening afraid that he would lose the rights to his beloved comic strip decided to think of a new concept right there and in a rush named the characters after the members of his own family. (Turner 13-14; Dalton, et al 477-478; Chocano, 2001)


But who is Matt Groening? Perhaps he is best summed up as the insider who still thinks like the outsider he once was - a sort of ironic, sardonic, rebel with a cause I like to call ‘polite sarcasm.’ Groening's greatest achievement with this series was being revolutionizing the structure of an animated series despite being unable to draw properly. However he was determined to be a success and his ample writing skills and humorous application of Walter Kaufmann-ish and Clifford Geertz–esque social commentary somehow fit a niche that wasn't then being serviced - except by extremely late night comedians, and college humour papers like the “Harvard Lampoon.” In fact his first comic was named after a Kaufmann philosophy tome. (Turner 19-20; Dalton, et al 480; Chocano, 2001)


But as Chocano pointed out "It's clear that Groening's satire feeds on frustration and the stupidity of others. Were it not for the clueless executives, the inane network decisions, the petty betrayal at the hands of people who benefit from his success, he might have stagnated by now." Indeed in many interviews and public appearances it seems that Groening revels in telling stories about how despite his simple Oregonian underdog background he found ways to ‘stick it’ to media executives who more often than not didn’t get his brand of humour. In fact at the Class of 2000 commencement ceremony at his alma-mater Evergreen State College he gave a speech which included a story about a mentality twisted former boss from the local Cooper Point Journal who told him that "I would never get a job in the Pacific Northwest in journalism after my disgraceful stewardship… Hey, they were right!" (Turner 19-20; Chocano, 2001)


But while Groening and Brooks founded of “The Simpsons” they weren’t the only people who shaped the unique, revolutionary show that it had become. The unique process that lent itself to what I will later explain and call “The Simpsons Formulae.” Because FOX at the time was a fledgling network there evolving out of a Film studio there was a large amount of latitude given to those creating shows, much more than typical of any of the other networks of the time. As Chris Turner says succinctly in his book “Planet Simpson” that “The Simpsons was to become like nothing else on TV in part because it was allowed to be produced like nothing else on TV.” (Turner 20-22)


Part of what created their unique sound is that it cast of almost entirely ‘real’ actors instead of voice ones - the exception being Nancy Cartwright aka Bart. They did this so as to purposely avoid a Sunday morning cartoons sound. More importantly though Groening/Brooks believed it was the most important thing to find a team of writers with a similarly warped sense of humour and comedy backgrounds – they recruited “SNL” alumni and underground humour-zine “Army Man” creator George Meyer as well as his side-kicks John Swartzwelder and Jon Vitti. Several other writers Groening humorously refers to as (his) "Harvard-grad-brainiac-bastard-eggheads" who got their start on the aforementioned “Harvard Lampoon” were hired as well. Later as “The Simpsons” gained popularity they recruited additional writing staff including a relatively unknown - and very tall future talk show host - Conan O’Brien; as well as what Turner referred to as [paraphrased] ‘a bunch of Canadians.’ (Turner 47-49)


In fact it has been noted by various authors, journalists, and social scientists that have done articles or studies of various prime time shows that Canada and Canadians are referred to far more often in “The Simpsons” than in just about any other fictional prime time program. In fact with this cultural DNA mix in “The Simpson” writing team one could posit is what gave them the ability to do what is best stated by Marge in the Episode “Large Marge” when she said “That’s good satire. It doesn’t hurt anyone” as both Canadians and Oregonians are known to be polite to a fault. That’s okay though because it balances out the sometimes ascorbic bite of the ‘Crimson’ crew members who are more of the Lenny Bruce school of satire. (Turner 20-22; Chocano, 2001)


In addition in this short essay I will endeavour to elucidate some of the reasons why “The Simpsons” has become the icon it is; how it symbolizes the typical - or maybe even slightly below average - American family as a means to understanding the greater social makeup of the country and issues relevant to our culture over its twenty year run.




The Simpsons - symbolizing parts of our American family culture and identity


Well before “Family Guy” or “South Park” ever existed, “The Simpsons” (and it’s FOX traditional sitcom sibling “Married with Children”) skewered our expectations of the stereotypical American sitcom family via wicked satire, in turn giving us a more accurate picture of the American family as it is currently. This is especially true if one considers that during those its earlier seasons “The Simpsons” was on it was going up against shows like “The Crosby’s” or “Full House” wherein most family problems were easily solved within the hour or half-hour time frame with a well reasoned out solution usually emanating from the father (but sometimes mother or eldest child) and never involving spanking or any such physical or punitive punishments. In contrast Homer is recurrently strangling Bart’s neck, or running after him. Thus by not always using the Dr. Spock approved technique and by showing that parents aren’t always able to solve the problem within the show’s allotted time frame they proved to be a more accurate depiction. (Keslowitz 13-18)


Thus the show also creates a more accurate, but also more zany family, by giving each separate member distinct functions as part of the family and in Springfield’s society. Sometimes the show will also comment on world events or other cultures by using Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie as typical unintentionally rude American’s tourists. In such moments we can humorously look at typical family interactions with each other, as well as how we Americans behave based on our belief systems the effect this has on how we interact with and perceive those from other countries. (Cooper et. al. 2005; Dobson 44-68; Turner 68)


In particular Homer symbolizes the contradictory nature of most American fathers. Like most American fathers he wants to be a good father. However, his lack of intellect and shortcomings such as alcoholism, and penchant for quick fix schemes prevent him from being effective at achieving his goals. For example in the episode “Saturday’s of Thunder” Homer tries to improve his relationship with Bart by first attending ‘The Fatherhood Institute’ though initially failing eventually he bonds with Bart over soap cart racing. Turner posits the message this episode is that “a good father is loyal to his son at all times” but I believe whilst that is important that the overarching message - that one should never give up an interest in one’s family - is the more important one. We can also see in several episodes (Lisa’s First Word, Lisa the Beauty Queen, etc.) that many of his maladaptive traits are learnt from his father (Grandpa Abraham) and that Homer is trying to ‘will’ himself to overcome them somewhat unsuccessfully. (Keslowitz 20-28, Turner 77-117)


Next we have Marge who symbolizes the weary modern housewife. Though she is more than capable of having a career outside the home and is better educated than her spouse – she chooses to make the raising of her children and husband raison d’ĂȘtre and thus is mostly stays at home taking care for them. This modern phenomenon of women who could have a successful career but decided to either ‘opt out’ or just work occasionally instead is used to comical effect in “The Simpsons” as a post-modern critique of the foibles of extreme-feminisms and far-right conservatism. Marge is in reality is the glue of the family and as illustrated in many episodes, but most poignantly in “Marge in Chains” where not only does the household fall apart almost immediately upon her being sent to jail for an accidental crime, but so does the whole town eventually leading to the mayor pardoning her of the crime and rewarding her with a half-backed statue. Additionally Marge’s crazy hairdo comments on the collective obsession women – especially American and European women - have had with their hair over the centuries, illustrated with clarity in her blue bouffant or in the real world with Amy Winehouse. (Keslowitz 41-43, Turner 231-278)


Bart is often perceived to be a “bad boy,” but though his pranks are annoying most times they are not intentionally vicious – even in the few instances almost killing either Homer, Milhous, or Martin – are all based on the law of unintended consequences. In spite Bart occasionally landing in jail or without supper - I would submit he is just slightly worst than your average 10 year old brat seeking to gain the attention of an underachieving, often lazy father who would be better off giving his son some more attention. As the previously mentioned episode example “Saturday of Thunder” illustrated. (Keslowitz 41-43, Turner 231-278)


Lisa is the smart one who feels that she doesn’t truly fit in with the town or her family. She is Groening’s female alter-ego as well as that of many of the other on the writing team who have expressed not feeling like the fit in with their very pedestrian upbringings. Lisa makes an excellent counter-balance to Bart and Homer’s antics. (Keslowitz 45-48) She is often used as a sounding board for the shows’ writers to express their individual viewpoints on current events topics especially in the DVD commentary bonuses. (The Simpsons Season 4. Matt Groening et. al. FOX. 15 June 2004)


The oft forgotten Maggie is the baby and symbolizes the “.3” in the American average of “2.3” children. I like to call her a “Zen baby” because though she rarely speaks she has on more than one occasion managed to save the bacon of her fellow Simpson’s. She likes to observe the goings on carefully before deciding when and how to act to solve a problem - like when she shot her father’s boss the “evil” capitalist Mr. Montgomery Burns, or when in season seven’s Treehouse of Horror she saved Bart and Lisa from a Freddie Krueger like Groundskeeper Willie. (The Simpsons Season 4. Matt Groening et. al. FOX. 15 June 2004)




The Simpsons reflects the uniqueness of American culture and its place in the world


The distinctiveness of American culture is that it is a created culture - by which I mean that it is constantly in flux; has many regional variants; is derived from and driven by the ingenuity and vibrancy of the various cultures; and most importantly changes as new technologies and cultures become part of its stew. “The Simpsons” comments on this by having the town of Springfield constantly evolve in such a way that during any given season it is a ‘snap shot in time’ of just about any metropolitan or suburban area in the United States during the period that episode was created. In fact the show makes it a point to purposely obscure the state with perpetually conflicting data so as to be able to comment on peccadilloes of just about all regions of the United States. By using a fictional town, in a fictional state to make fun of the absurdities of the cultures and subcultures that make up our country, Groening has given us the proper distance to be able to take a hard look at ourselves and our cultural maladaptations. With the writer’s teams precision use of satire and social science based critiques they are (unlike many other derivative shows such as Family Guy or South Park) able to push a topic without insulting the person(s) or group to whom the behaviour they are making light of belongs. A good example of this is contained in the episodes “Homer the Heretic” and “The Joy of Sect” which has not garnered the huge amount of backlash from religious conservatives typical of religious themed episodes on other animated sitcoms. In many religious quarters these episodes were even praised for being well balanced commentaries (Dalton 477-485; The Simpsons Season 4. Matt Groening et. al. FOX. 15 June 2004)


The fictional city of Springfield - in which the majority of action is placed - reflects the uniqueness of American geography and has purposely built in placelessness. This is so that Springfield is the metaphor for “any town, any state” and then writers can let loose with their depictions or comments on whatever is relevant or topical at the moment.



What “The Simpsons” say about America it’s belief systems and values?


Most of the Characters are some sort of social commentary on our current societal problems. An example is Dr. Hibbert as an archetype of the mostly decent, always pleasant but occasionally too money oriented family doctor. Dr. Steve the chiropractor is Dr. Hibbert’s golf buddy and personal back cracker who he sends Homer to, which then creates a whole send up on the AMA versus ACA still ongoing fight. Dr. Rivieria is the quack who stands in for just about everything that is wrong with the current American medical establishment. (Keslowitz 59-69)


Most of the characters in the show are a walking commentary on the extreme ethnocentrism of many Americans when it comes to other cultures and belief systems, as well as the modern ‘spiritual wanderer’ phenomenon now common in America. (Dalton 483, 485) According to a recent survey done by the ‘Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’ that more than 40 percent of respondents told pollsters that they had changed their religious affiliation since childhood. There has also been a noted increase in the influx of Hindu’s and Muslims due to the high-tech sectors need for qualified workers which we currently lack which has also survey to help diversify the religious landscape of America. (Pew Foundation 2009) “The Simpsons” episode ‘Homer the Heretic’ not only comments on the nature of religious query but also takes a stab at American ethnocentrism in the form of Homer making fun of Apu’s statue of Ganesh and Reverend Lovejoy calling Hinduism religion “miscellaneous.” (Frank 95-105)




What has twenty years in Springfield done to us?


I believe that effects of the show haven’t been as thoroughly studied as they should be, but that it is obvious in several ways that American (and even to a degree world) culture has changed for the better because of the show.


First, I believe that the show has helped make a dent in the excessive pride that both the concepts of ‘American Exceptionalism’ and the “Generation Me” caused us to have. I believe we as a culture are finally become more introspective and less ethnocentric which is a good thing. You are also starting to see more eco-awareness among those in the moderate and conservative ends of the political spectrum – which is a very good thing. (Keslowitz 115-120)


Second, I believe as a whole the culture’s critical thinking skills toward themselves and their beliefs have improved. In particular I see people who have never gone to college and/or read a philosophy text applying Descartes principles just from having watched the episode “Lisa the Skeptic” (Keslowitz 131-136)


Third, but most importantly the creation of “The Simpsons Formulae” now common to all animated sitcoms to one degree or another: 1) establishing a general topic area, 2) riffing off of the topic into as many hilarious tangents as time will allow, 3) adding surface gags, 4) mocking historical and modern pop-cultural references, 5) building on a joke to create several funnier jokes, 6) making fun of your own fame, and most importantly 7) still managing to be polite while being sceptical. I believe the reason why some of the current animated shows irritate viewers (especially older ones) is that they fail to apply the last step of the formulae. In my opinion this makes them less funny. (Keslowitz 83-96, Turner 59-76)


Lastly, look at its penetration into modern society. The cultural diffusion that now has the Oxford English dictionary containing a listing for the word “D’oh” courtesy of Homer. Celebrities and even leaders of state – such as Tony Blair - have guest stared on episodes related to the perception Americans have of their countries or just to have the Mickey taken out of them. Grandpa Abe’s “Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys” has made it into the news media and idiomatic dictionaries as a short hand for French people and France itself. To its skewering American’s glib understanding of Japanese culture. (Dobson 44-68) Even online magazines such as “The Onion” and live shows like “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” follow formulae suspiciously familiar to that first pioneered on “The Simpsons.” (Turner 53-54)



Conclusion


From its pioneering of now heavily copied television format which I like to call “The Simpsons Formulae” or “sardonic animated current events sitcom” to its refreshing willingness to poke fun at even the personal backgrounds of its own staff, producers, writers, and actors. To its ability to make fun of itself, our current culture and subcultures without being degrading toward practising the very things being made fun of by using Kaufmann and Geertz based social theories.


These created the show and its unprecedented success. Groening has said "The success of the show ... has gone beyond my wildest dreams and worst nightmares." (Chocano, 2001) Hopefully it will continue to be successful for well into the future.






BIBLIOGRAPHY


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