"The Simpsons" as Fart, D'oh!, ArtBy David M. Basner
In rare cases, something that once began as popular culture leaks into the realm of art. One example of this is a television program that has been around since December 17, 1989, starring characters that will never be seen on the streets of Hollywood. This show is "The Simpsons". "The Simpsons" fulfills every category for art that was read or discussed in class this semester.
Every episode of "The Simpsons" is multi-faceted, allowing it to have different interpretations. There is the superficial layer, which is sprinkled with physical humor and elementary jokes that any audience member can understand. Then there is the more profound level that is replete with allusions to historical occurrences, current events, popular culture, the mass media, and literature. The average viewer may find these references humorous, but the real comedy is exposed when they are fully understood. It is also in this layer where the true message or moral of an episode lies. In the episode titled E-I-E-I-(Annoyed Grunt), the Simpson family cultivates a product, with the help of radioactive chemicals, that is a hybrid of tomatoes and tobacco. In this episode, the tobacco industry offers Homer large amounts of money for the plant. After he refuses, they eventually steal the plant, only to be killed by farm animals that have eaten the product and become angrily addicted. This may look, to some viewers, as a humorous way to portray farm life, but the deeper meaning is an apparent satire on the tobacco industry. The episode indirectly shows that tobacco is addictive and that to market something like it is wrong. One could even go so far to say that those who do market it deserve a fiery death, much like the kind that the tobacco industry representatives suffer in the episode. Some people picked this point up while others simply sat back and enjoyed the slap-stick (or glove-slapping) comedy that they episode presented (the reason the family moved to a farm was because Homer challenged a southerner to a duel by slapping him with a glove). The chance that one may not pick up on deeper meanings or comprehend allusions makes each episode of "The Simpsons" different for each person who watches it.
Each person who watches "The Simpsons" is sure to be made fun of, causing all sorts of disorder. The writers of the show know Poirier's concept that, as artists, each time they air an episode, they risk offending their audience. The makers of the show toy with this idea and are sure to use at least one joke in each episode that pokes at their audience's religion, occupation, status, or character. This allows the audience to lay back a little from their hectic lives, take a step back, and laugh at themselves. This leads to another definition of art, conflict. The viewer does not know whether to get upset by the comments made at their expense or to laugh at them. Luckily for the makers of the show, in most cases the audience winds up laughing. But before this laughter sets in, the viewers are forced to think about themselves for a moment. This is yet another characteristic of art, something that provokes thought. Every episode of "The Simpsons" has some aspect in it that causes the members of the audience to analyze what is going on around them or within them. The allusions ridicule society and the characters are hyperboles of some undesired traits, causing tension and disorder in the viewers, only to be released as laughter.
Allusions are another large part of art and they are a huge aspect of "The Simpsons". Almost every character in the show is a reference to someone, alive or dead, real or fictional, famous or personal. Whether it be the town lawyer, Lionel Hutz, who alludes to Sir Lionel Luckhoo, who succeeded in getting 245 successive murder charge acquittals between 1940 and 1985, or his secretary who is named Della Street, after Perry Mason's receptionist, most of the citizens of Springfield are a reference to another person. The core family, the Simpsons, has references and allusions in their names as well. Matt Groening, the creator of "The Simpsons", had parents named Homer and Marge and siblings named Lisa and Maggie. The origin of Bart is that it is an anagram for the word brat. The surname of Simpson was derived since it translates into "son of a simpleton". There is a possibility that, due to many similarities, Homer may have been named after the Homer Simpson in "Day of the Locust", but this has not been confirmed. In addition to character references, there is a plethora of movie, television, and literature references in each episode. In one episode, the police chief, Chief Wiggum, proclaims, "That's some good work, Lou. You'll make sergeant for this." This is a direct quote from Joseph Heller's Catch-22. In that same episode, references are made to the television series "Frasier" since two guest voices on that episode were those of Kelsey Grammar and David Hyde-Pierce, the stars of "Frasier". Also in that episode was a reference to the movie "Jailhouse Rock" as Krusty plays rock and roll in jail, much like Elvis did in the movie. In addition to these references, the series always has other references to religion, history, politics, the Beatles, folklore, the internet, and homosexuality.
"The Simpsons" is constantly parodying others and poking fun at themselves. Poirier stated that one feature that made The Beatles such fine artists was their ability to parody themselves and others. For this reason, "The Simpsons" too makes for an exemplary form of art. One form of self-parody that the show illustrated was in one opening couch scene, when the family as we now know them was surprised to find sitting on their couch, the Simpsons of the Tracey Ullman era, showing how they once were. In a like opening couch scene, the Simpsons, along with other characters from Springfield, pose as if they were on the cover of The Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album. This is one of many parodies that exists on "The Simpsons". Many of these parodies stem from the various allusions in each episode. Also, since each episode is based on a satire of suburban life or religion or the middle class, every show is in a sense, parodying life. The self-parody and parodying of others helps in defining "The Simpsons" as art.
The self-parody described is a great example to show how "The Simpsons" is continually changing. Externally, the characters have evolved from more complex Simpsons (Lisa and Bart had a lot more spikes for hair) to what they currently are. Their characters have also developed over the years. Poirier would agree that this change portrays that "The Simpsons" is indeed art. David Owen wrote in his article, "Taking Humor Seriously", about the family's ongoing evolution:
Not only character development changes over the history of the show, but the town changes as well. Springfield, like any other town in America (which is the point of its name), gains and loses citizens and businesses. People die, businesses grow, more citizens come to the town and stores shut down. Along with the ever-evolving town, the humor of the show has changed over the years. Starting with a superficial, sophomoric humor, the show has expanded to keep the humor it started with and add to it intellectual comedy that is directed towards a more sophisticated audience. Even when the shows are being written, they are constantly being scrutinized. Owen writes, "Meyer and his colleagues take advantage of that long gestation by repeatedly adding or deleting jokes, inserting scenes, lengthening or shortening pauses by fractions of a second, and calling for rereadings of individual lines by the show's company of vocal performers" (Owen, 66). The changes in humor, setting, cast, and script are even more reasons that "The Simpsons" is art.
Poirier emphasized that sincerity is a necessity for art. "The Simpsons" is perhaps one of the most sincere and modest comedies on television today since they refuse to use a laugh track. Rather than guide an audience when to laugh by teaching them to model behaviors, "The Simpsons" leaves it up to the viewer. In addition, any sound implanted on the show could go over the next joke, causing the audience to miss out. This lack of laughing is not only sincere, but it also displays the makers of the show using only the materials that they have. The show is not nor cannot be filmed in front of a live studio audience and therefore laughing would sound and obviously be fake. The characters on "The Simpsons" are also sincere. Marge's voice will crack from emotions when she gets filled with love, Homer will sacrifice his desires for his family, and Ned Flanders is sincere in everything he does. The humor on the show is sincere too. Each joke has a little bit of the writers' heart in it and each punchline comes across that way. In fact, with all of the parodies and satire, some of the show's humor is anti-sincere. This indicates that, when the audience is being derided, it is all in good fun. As if one is being insulted in a jocular manner by a friend who is smiling. The smile, like the anti-sincerity, is the tip-off that the ridicule is not meant to be offensive. The sincerity and anti-sincerity that are splashed in each episode strengthen the argument that "The Simpsons" is art.
"The Simpsons" is able to become art because the mediums that the show uses shape the reality of the show. The core of the show is a cartoon, something that by itself, may be considered art. "One reason 'The Simpsons' has been able to maintain a high level of sophistication in its humor while still appealing to a mass audience may be that the form of the show is one that viewers accept as inherently funny; it's a cartoon," is what David Owen feels is what makes the show so funny, and what also contributes to its ability to be classified as art. The show uses the materials it has and this forms the shapes and characters of Springfield. It uses computers to create the characters and the creative minds of its writers to add more art to the series. Another aspect of art is the use of descriptive language. Although "The Simpsons" uses simple words such as "D'oh" or "Yoink", they are still words that, when used, all the viewers understand what they mean. Descriptive language need not be complex and "The Simpsons" proves that art can be based on simplistic language.
The characters in "The Simpsons" are united, however each has his or her own special traits. Dr. Julius Hibbert always laughs, Ralph Wiggum eats things he shouldn't, the bumblebee guy is always getting hurt, the comic book store guy is condescending and internet savvy, the list goes on. Poirier said of the Beatles, "They are a group, and the unmistakable group identity exists almost in spite of sharp individuation....It is precisely this unusual individuation which explains, I think, why the Beatles are so much stronger than any other group..." (Poirier, 122). Like The Beatles, "The Simpsons" exhibits stark unity as well as unique characteristics. As a comet heads for Springfield, Flanders allows the entire town to squeeze into his bomb shelter, only to realize there is one person too many in it. The town members bicker with each other about who should leave, giving the audience an idea of who each person is. Eventually, Flanders is chosen to leave since Homer states, while apologizing to Ned's children, "Wait a minute! We all know the one thing we won't need in the future! Left-handed stores. That's you, Flanders!" Ned departs, singing "Que Sera, Sera", as he awaits his imminent doom. Within seconds, the town leaves the shelter and joins him in song as they realize the comet has been cut down by the polluted atmosphere and has become the size of a rock (another example of an episode's message, this one about pollution).
Characters on "The Simpsons" are always having run-ins with characters from other television shows. In this sense, they are mixing styles in the same way that Lennon and McCartney mixed their styles. According to Poirier, this is a characteristic of art. It is difficult to mix styles using animation, but the makers of "The Simpsons" pull it off. They include characters such as: Jay Sherman from "The Critic", Col. Wilhelm Klink from "Hogan's Heroes", and even the lesser known Great Gazoo from "The Flintstones". It is simple for the show to mix characters and styles from other series both animated and live action since they allude to them so often. "The Simpsons" even used a live-action style when Homer got pulled into a black hole that led to an actual street in the world of the viewer. The three dimensional clay figure of Homer falls into a dumpster, claims that the place he is in is the worst place that he has ever seen, walks along a street while receiving looks from humans, and enters an erotic cakes store. (Consequently this one segment of the Treehouse of Horror VI contains many references, even ones no one could pick up on by watching the show in normal speed. These include allusions to astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, a reference to the movie Tron, Euler's formula, equations to Einstein's Theory of Relativity, computer science codes, numbers that translate to "Frink rules!" in ASCII, a computer based language, references to the video game "Myst", the Twilight Zone, the movie Poltergeist, and many more). In addition to mixing animation styles, "The Simpsons" mixes humor styles. They use physical comedy, intellectual comedy, lowbrow comedy, highbrow comedy, satire, stock characters, abusive comedy, sarcasm, puns, double entendres, and one-liners. Rather than simply focusing on one form of comedy as some shows do, "The Simpsons" combines many styles of humor, and in doing so, create art.
"The Simpsons" has been recognized for their excellence in television by awards and imitation. The show has spawned many animated series that attempted to entertain audiences but were unable to. This illustrates how difficult the job of "The Simpsons" is. The makers of the show have been very successful at it, however, as they will enter their twelfth season this year and have been nominated for 33 Emmys, 15 of which they won. The show has also won six consecutive Annie Awards and a Peabody Award.
As discussed in class, art can be interpreted differently, may offend the audience, causes conflict, is sincere, has unity and individuality, mixes styles, and is composed of allusions, parodies, and self-parodies. "The Simpsons", the longest running animated television series in history, is art. It fulfills every requirement that was discussed that classifies something as art, and on top of that, it is enjoyable to watch (yet another attribute of art). Not often do aspects of popular culture get promoted to the domain of art, but on occasion some do qualify. "The Simpsons" has not only made it to art status, but has also become a timeless masterpiece.
© David M. Basner, Muhlenberg College, May 4, 2000
Last updated on May 14, 2000 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)