Mmm ... Television
A study of the audience of "The Simpsons"By Jon Horowitz
"If cartoons were meant for adults, they'd put them on in prime time." -Lisa Simpson 
Well, the observant, animated child is definitely onto something. And so was Matt Groening, creator of the animated television series "The Simpsons," when the cartoon family first appeared in prime time on "The Tracey Ullman Show" in 1987.
But an animated family in prime time was not a new idea. More than 25 years prior, "The Flintstones" made its debut on evening network TV. However, much like the setting on the show, "The Flintstones" is prehistoric, outdated. "The Simpsons" was, and is, the bedrock of standards for modern, animated prime-time TV.
What makes the show such a landmark in prime-time history? Its ability to connect to its audience - mostly "adults," as Lisa so astutely pointed out. "The Simpsons" is a sitcom meant for adults. It's meant for the educated, the intellectual, the pop culture-conscious.
A cartoon meant for adults? With all those crazy colors and zany looking characters? Absolutely. The medium is only the first clue to the show's ability to successfully break from convention, to break the rules. "Rather than using the form to ape reality - as did "The Flintstones," transposing "The Honeymooners" humor to a time with dinosaurs - 'The Simpsons' employs cartooning to deepen and expand the sitcom's parameters to sharpen the satire." 
Addressed more subtly, creator Groening says the show's original inspiration "was just an attempt to justify all the wasted hours of watching television" growing up. 
I was a big fan of "Leave It to Beaver" and "Ozzie and Harriet" And the most interesting character in "Beaver" was Eddie Haskell, the too-slick supporting character always getting his school friends in trouble with his schemes. Why not make him the star? 
Groening's goal was to create a show filled with the stuff he wanted to see on TV but did not. 
While Bart's schemes, sight gags and slapstick humor were the supposed initial draw, the show's producers aimed for a higher level of humor. "Even though it's a cartoon," says executive producer Josh Weinstein, "in a lot of ways it's more realistic than a lot of sitcoms."  The realism in the show is its portrayal of the average American family (beyond the freedom animation provides), living in Springfield, U.S.A. Homer is a blue-collar father whose soul is perpetually being crushed by his routine existence. His only motivations are beer and television, "the opiates of today's masses."  Marge is a housewife whose life did not turn out as she planned, but rather than letting her spirit be broken she repressed herself to become the woman she is,  the voice of reason in a slightly dysfunctional suburban household. Bart is the misanthrope, the rebellious older child who seeks attention from his peers and adults. Lisa is the glimmer of hope in the dim existence of Springfield - a gifted, non-conformist child uncomfortable with her place in the world. Maggie's role is uncertain - only having spoken one word in the show's ten-year existence. At best projection, she is a mix of Bart and Lisa, perhaps Generation Y apathy epitomized.
In portraying these realistic characters in often bizarre situations, the levels of emotion are often greater enhanced by the creators. The show can even been labeled a drama instead of a sitcom. The dramatic element of the show can be attributed to the vast layering of comedy. "There are the obvious jokes, the visual sight gags, the subtle literary allusions and the most subtle, what we call the freeze-frame gags - jokes you can only get if you videotape the show and play it back in freeze frame," says Weinstein.  The conscious decision by the show's creators to employ such depth in comedic elements is done with one key group in mind: the audience. "What we try to do is reward people for paying attention," says Weinstein.  While much of TV programming's goal is to attract and retain an audience, "The Simpsons" achieves its goal like no other show. Taking Weinstein's statement one step further, media critic Alexander Nehamas writes, "Television rewards serious watching."  "The Simpsons" requires serious watching on the part of its audience. The audience must be conscious of all aspects of the show - of the characters, of its past, of popular culture, of modern media trends. The audience must be smart, watching this two-dimensional animation in multiple dimensions.
In this essay I will discuss how "The Simpsons" rewards its audience. In that breakdown, I will discuss the broad audience of the show and how references to the television medium within the show are what keep the audience so finely tuned to Our Favorite Family.
(sung by a choir in tune to the theme song of "The Simpsons")On the side of any good jar of salsa sauce is a graphic illustration of a chili pepper. The pepper is usually split into three levels: mild, medium and hot. The bar drawn on the pepper indicates the salsa's level of spiciness.
THE MERCILESS PEPPERS OF QUETZLZACATENANGOFans of "The Simpsons" can be classified into these pepper categories. Mild fans enjoy the site gags on the show - Homer falling down, Bart pulling off pranks, someone's pants dropping. Their viewing rituals are random. Medium fans of the show watch with more consistency and identify some of the layers of humor within each episode. Hot fans are regular viewers, know many of the characters in the show's enormous cast, remember episodes, catch pop culture references and laugh out loud every time Homer is on-screen.
All are legitimate fans. But picture a rookie Mexican food muncher dipping a nacho into some homemade salsa and taking a bite. At that moment, the "hot," store-bought salsa could be used as a chaser. The salsa aficionado is the truly devoted fan. His ranking of fandom - jalapeño.
The jalapeño "Simpsons" fans treat Sunday as a day of worship. Not early mornings at church - 8 p.m. in front of the holiest of holies, the TV tuned into the FOX network. Practicing fans do not merely worship once a week. Monday through Friday the show is on twice a night between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. on FOX (depending on region), and again on at 11 p.m. (again, depending on region). The show can also be found on Saturday and Sunday evenings from time to time. That's anywhere from 10 to 20 shows a week to watch (or videotape).
Who are these zealots? Are they hermits? A scant few. Do they have jobs? Yes, indeed. Do they have a high school diploma or GED? Absolu-diddly-dootily. Confused about a devoted TV audience that actually thinks? Read on.
While a small part of "The Simpsons" audience may mirror the Simpson family, the target audience is filled with rows of those who are not entranced by the hypnotic glow of the TV, but rather aware of it and able to comprehend it or laugh at it. Among members of "The Simpsons" audience - mild to jalapeño - are suburbanites, the pop culture-conscious, academics, critics and fanatics. Many of these categories tend to overlap common fans of the show.
SPRINGFIELD, U.S.A.The average suburbanite watches "The Simpsons" because it takes a slice of Americana and puts it out on a zesty sandwich for its audience to devour. "The Simpsons are a fun-house mirror reflection of the 'average' American family, as it still persists in our national imagination."  Not everyone wants to watch TV as a window into his living room. The TV is indeed an arena for escapism and reflection, but "The Simpsons," in terms of the fun-house mirror reflection, offers a different perspective on everyday occurrences.
"It's one of the few shows that the family can sit down together and watch, and there's something in it for everyone," says executive producer Mike Scully. He watches the show regularly with his wife and five kids ages 9 to 16. Perhaps a bit of a biased viewer, Scully says, "I love the mix of intellectual and lowbrow humor. My wife and I tend to laugh more at some of the verbal jokes, while the kids will be laughing at Homer falling down the stairs." 
POP 'N' FRESHThe pop culturally conscious fans of the show are predominantly Generation Xers, from people who grew up watching the show as little rascals mirroring Bart to college-age people who certainly never outgrew the show's rich content. Now college-age folks to those about to surpass the 18- to 34-year-old demographic, those same fans keep coming back to the show for its commentary on pop culture, on society, on politics. Watching each episode is a test of these fans' awareness of the media-saturated world we live in - "That was straight out of 'Clockwork Orange' and that's a reference to Gerald Ford." These pop culture morsels are placed in every episode for fans to feed off of.
And these fans watch the show with regularity, taking advantage of many of the syndicated time slots as well as the prime-time airing.
One fan whose job forces him to watch too much TV is media critic Jeff MacGregor of The New York Times. In an article on "The Simpsons," MacGregor is brutally honest about the lifestyle of his job - "not all glamorous beer and glitzy skittles."  It is endless hours spent watching mindless TV. In the endless sea of mediocre programming, "The Simpsons" is "the only laugh-out-loud show on television. It is the antidote to what ails most of the medium," he says. "Were it not for 'The Simpsons,' I'd have thrown the remote out a long time ago."  Here is a man enveloped in media proclaiming "The Simpsons" as his savior in the otherwise seemingly vast wasteland of TV.
SUPERFRIENDSPop culture chic turns to pop culture geek, especially in cyberspace. The loyal Web surfers congregate at the hub of all things Simpson at "The Simpsons Archive" (www.snpp.com). The "intention is to serve as a home for all useful materials created by fans of the show."  The site offers details about the show's production, articles written about the show, interviews with creators and cast members, links to other "Simpsons" sites and lists galore. The feeling resonating from this Web site is a sense of community, a place where fans mild to jalapeño can check out what's going on with Our Favorite Family. That sense of community is justified in the bounty of fan sites, which range from sites devoted to individual characters to sites about cast members to merchandise sites to the official FOX Web site to sites bashing the FOX site.
Visiting these sites opens up a new world of fandom - from enlightening to frightening. Some sights, including www.snpp.com, offer collections of quotes or audio clips. others offer pictures from the show. Then there are the more bizarre. "Mr. Burns' Casino"  allows fans to play virtual blackjack with Homer. At "Mentalism ala Simpsons,"  the Great Mysto's Web site reads viewers' minds.
While this may sound over-the-top to some, cyberfans are an active part of "The Simpsons" audience. They're not all mind readers, but they do know that people are definitely out there willing to surf around "Simpsons" sites, chat about the show or test their trivia.
JOCKS AND NERDSGeekdom also prevails in the world of academia, where nerdiness about "The Simpsons" is revered.
In her article "Seducing the innocent," Lynn Spigel uses episodes of "The Simpsons" as examples of Homer being reduced to the level of a child, "yelling and screaming" over a video game battle with son Bart.  Spigel writes about the different roles of TV in childhood, and "The Simpsons" serves as a key example in her article.
Simulcast to colleges and universities across the country in October 1998 was "Prime-Time Animation: A Conversation with the Creators of The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and South Park" hosted by The Museum of Television and Radio. Made possible by the University Satellite Seminar Series, Groening, "Beavis and Butthead" creator Mike Judge and "South Park" co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone answered questions from college students. The topics ranged from the serious - about pop culture and the effects of animated programming meant for adults on children - to the light-hearted - about specific characters or voices on the show. In this program, creators of animated sitcoms aimed at a more mature audience were seen in a positive light, in the light of academia.
Even at the high school level, "The Simpsons" can be used for teaching purposes. In New Jersey, East Brunswick High School English teacher Dan Moran occasionally uses references to "The Simpsons" to draw parallels between pop culture and what his class is studying, even if the literature is 300 years old.
Securing an audience in the world of academia gives "The Simpsons" "educational" merit in addition to the cultural weight it holds for its other fans. That classification allows the program to be analyzed, examined and studied as a cultural phenomenon, a landmark in TV and perhaps a work of art that, if not already, will be looked upon as high culture.
The series' acceptance in the realm of academia allowed me to write this essay.
GRIMEYNot all of "The Simpsons" audience is full of fans. Some people who take offense to the show may watch it with as much regularity as fanatics. But with anything that takes a chance in art or media, there is the risk of backlash. Rather than deny it or fight it, Groening accepts it. "I'm doing my job when part of the audience is in stitches and another part is totally offended."  But the intention of the show is not to offend, that is just a common side effect. Groening says the people who see the show as subversive or anarchistic don't get it.  "The fact is, the show is about celebration - that's been my goal from the beginning," says Groening. 
THE TV WITHIN THE TVNow that we know who's watching "The Simpsons," it's time to see what the Simpson family is watching on their TV.
"The Simpsons is ... about the process of watching TV," says Groening.  At the heart of many episodes of the series is the TV and its god-like control over the Simpson family, as well as the greater conglomerate of Springfield's citizens. Simply stated, "The Simpsons are ... utterly addicted to TV."  The characteristic makes sense. The creators wanted to depict the average suburban American family - nothing says suburban like a family plopped in front of the boob tube.
Much like its fans who watch the show religiously, the Simpson family worships its TV. Bart and Lisa are "Itchy & Scratchy" (the animated cat-and-mouse duo a la "Tom & Jerry") and "Krusty the Clown" gurus. Marge tends to stay away from the TV, while Homer watches everything else on the tube (re-runs of TV classics, infomercials, the news, anything hypnotic).
DEEP SPACE HOMERIt is not merely through this writer's eyes that the family Simpson's reliance on TV is apparent. It is written out in bold letters in many episodes - especially those where Homer is fixated on TV. In the episode "Treehouse of Horror V" (the "Treehouse" episodes appear annually on Halloween), Homer is a madman in the sketch "The Shinning." In the skit, the Simpsons have to look after Monty Burns' estate. Before Burns leaves, he cuts off the cable TV signal and removes all the beer.  "Deprived of his two favorite things, Homer slowly goes insane."  His rage is played out to parody the Stephen King novel and Stanley Kubrick film "The Shining," but the message is straight-forward: "No TV and No Beer Make Homer Go Crazy." Perhaps applicable in 90 percent of the series' episodes, Homer literally spells the message out this time, scribbling the line all over the walls of an abandoned room at the estate. He describes the TV as "teacher, mother, secret lover." His need for the two components necessary to his survival turn him to madness, as he kills Groundskeeper Willie and threatens his family. It is not until he discovers a mini-TV set Willie left in the woods that Homer's urge to kill subside.
While "Treehouse V" is far-off from the "regular" episodes, much is revealed about Homer's media consumption. He turns to the TV as "teacher" for knowledge and wisdom. He turns to it as "mother" for guidance and understanding, perhaps even as a babysitter. The TV being his "secret lover" exposes Homer's love of TV as a scandalous affair, as something he may be ashamed of but cannot ever be satisfied by enough.
Why is Homer so enraptured in the TV? "They're creatures of consumption and envy, laziness and opportunity, stubbornness and redemption." says Groening, "Just like the rest of us. Only exaggerated." 
While Homer is watching TV at Moe's Tavern in the episode "Bart the Daredevil," Bart is watching the same program at home. A commercial appears on the tube for a monster truck rally. When Truckasaurus, the robotic car-crushing monster, is announced, Bart and Homer simultaneously go bonkers over it. Homer rushes home to find Bart, and the two rejoice with a collective, "Truckasaurus!"  Homer is again controlled by the TV, this time by the commercial influence that only child Bart is expected to succumb to.
While advertising did its part to seduce Homer to the monster truck rally, its attempts at luring him away from the dark side often fail. Plopped on the couch in the episode "So It's Come to This: A Simpsons Clip Show," Homer hears the following announcement from the TV announcer: "The following is a public service announcement. Excessive alcohol consumption can cause liver damage and cancer of the rectum." The graphic details do not faze Homer. His reaction, a salivating: "Mmm ... beer."  Of the 19 words the TV announcer fed him, Homer only bit at one - alcohol. His brain could only go so far as to process that word to beer, which, to Homer, equates to delicious. This is clear evidence that Homer is a lazy TV viewer, only picking up what he wants, not processing the information any further than the world he lives in.
In the episode "Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(annoyed grunt)cious," Homer notices Marge is not in a good mood. While sitting on the couch in front of the TV he says to the kids, "Your mother seems really upset. I better go have a talk with her - during the commercial."  Here the TV takes priority over family matters, another clue to dysfunctionality.
PORTRAIT OF AN ASS-GRABBERTo Homer, the TV is all-knowing, always right, always there for him - a "friend, mother" and yes, "secret lover." But in "Homer Badman," the media turns against Homer. In this episode, Homer and Marge head to the Candy Industry Trade Show and leave feminist grad student Ashley Grant to baby-sit the kids.  At the trade show, Homer steals a rare, gummy Venus de Milo. After heading home and dropping off Marge, he has to take Ashley home. As she gets out of the car, he notices that the gummy Venus de Milo is stuck to her posterior. The sight of the candy turns him into a drooling slob, saying, "Sweet candy," and grabbing for the gummy gem. Ashley mistakes the move as a sexual advance and begins a sexual harassment campaign against him.
Protesters picket his house, follow him around town and call him names like sexist pig. Fed up, Homer decides to clear his name by going on TV with tabloid reporter Godfrey Jones. Homer's statement to Jones is:
RABBIT EARSWhen the Simpsons choose to purchase a new TV in the episode "Scenes From the Class Struggle in Springfield," the children have their own ideas of what a new TV should look like. After Bart, Lisa and Homer cheer in unison about the prospect of getting a new TV, the following dialogue ensues:
Bart: Let's go to the Sharper Image. They've got a TV shaped like a fifties diner! Lisa: No, let's got the Nature Company. They've got a TV assembled by Hopi Indians! Marge: Mmmm ... we can't afford to shop at any store that has a philosophy. We just need a TV. We're going to the outlet mall in Ogdenville. This scene depicts values associated with the TV set. Bart's idea reflects his rebellious, "that's cool" attitude, Lisa's plan has political implications, and Marge's thought is simple: get the most basic TV.
KAMP KRUSTYWhile the previous scene shows how the Simpson children want their TV to be more involved in their culture somehow, the programs they watch directly affect their culture - and actions.
Bart's idol is Krusty the Clown, the washed-up local children's variety show host. His room is decorated in Krusty the Clown merchandise, his personality is decorated with clown-like shtick. In a sense, Bart is the typical 10-year-old boy - of 1989 and today. Exchange his Krusty merchandise for Pokémon paraphernalia and he'd mesh with any other grade-schooler (although he'd be wheelin' and dealin' for those trading cards). Bart's devotion goes beyond what the audience might call reality. He has direct interaction with Krusty and his show in numerous episodes.
In "Krusty Gets Busted," Krusty is arrested for robbing the local convenience store, the Kwik-E-Mart. He is positively identified by Homer, who was at the store at the time of the robbery. Krusty gets kicked off the air and his sidekick, Sideshow Bob, takes over as host. While everyone in town labels Krusty a crook, Bart does not lose faith. His belief in Krusty leads to an investigation, aided by "smarter" Simpson, Lisa. After putting together the evidence, Bart is able to prove Krusty's innocence while proving Sideshow Bob guilty. While such devotion may exist in real-world America, Bart's level of involvement is a bit over-the-top. But it does further shed light into his worshipping of his TV deity, Krusty.
Proving Sideshow Bob guilty does not end with that episode. Bob stalks Bart and plots his death in many seasons to follow, not only giving the show a running storyline, but giving Bart running involvement with people normally seen on the other side of the TV screen. Other episodes with Bob include "Black Widower," where Bob marries Bart's Aunt Selma , "Cape Feare," where Bob stalks Bart a la the film "Cape Fear ," and "Sideshow Bob Roberts," in which Bob runs for mayor of Springfield. 
STEAMBOAT ITCHYAnimated TV devotion is also found in the Simpson household. Lisa and Bart are loyal fans of the cat-and-mouse tandem "Itchy & Scratchy." Even more so than Krusty, Bart must drop everything he's doing to watch the cartoon (Sound familiar?). Unlike "The Simpsons" and its layered scripts, "Itchy & Scratchy" - the toon within the toon - is one-dimensional. The cat and mouse try to kill each other in every episode, and the mouse, Itchy, always wins. It's "Tom & Jerry" meets Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.
Once again, the family is directly involved with the creators of a TV show. In "Itchy & Scratchy & Marge," the Simpson family learns that baby Maggie's violent tendencies toward Homer are a direct result of her watching "Itchy & Scratchy." Outraged, Marge composes a letter to the producers of the cartoon:
While Marge is temporarily able to effect change at Itchy & Scratchy International, she ends her crusade when the protesters she once led want to ban Michelangelo's David from being exhibited at the local museum.
Marge is not the only Simpson who wrote for "Itchy & Scratchy." In the episode "The Front," Bart and Lisa watch a boring episode of "Itchy & Scratchy" and decide they can write funnier cartoons than the show's writers.  They send in a script, but it is rejected because Bart and Lisa are too young. The duo replace their credits with Grampa's name, and the producers fall in love with the script and hire Abe Simpson as a staff writer. The kids continue to generate new scripts while working under Grampa's pseudonym. The scripts get Grampa nominated for an award, and when he accepts it he says he's never seen the show until the day before - and he thinks it's too violent. The kids' cover is never found out, however.
Taken a step further than writing for the show, Bart and Lisa wind up starring in it in the episode, "Treehouse of Horror IX." Similar to the film "Pleasantville," Bart and Lisa are warped into their TV set after a discrepancy with the remote control.  Bart and Lisa are excited about their upgraded seating arrangement, but when Itchy and Scratchy notice the kids laughing at them, the cat and mouse get angry and turn their rage onto the kids. Suddenly their favorite cartoon has turned into a real-life nightmare for the kids. Meanwhile, Homer is watching the cartoon and gets bored of seeing Lisa and Bart being chased by the duo. He changes the channel, but the chase continues into "Regis and Kathie Lee." Homer gets aggravated with the TV at first, but then realizes he must help his children. They get Homer to push the exit button on the remote, and they are back in Springfield. But Itchy and Scratchy follow them out of the TV. Out of their element, Itchy is easily trapped in a cage and Scratchy falls in love with Simpson cat Snowball II.
Although it is part of the show's Halloween tales, "The Terror of Tiny Town" skit serves an urban legend-esque warning for children about watching too much TV.
THE TV BITES BACKNow we know the Simpson family's TV viewing habits like they were our next-door neighbors. And being able to relate to how a fictional family acts and reacts toward its TV is excellent insight not only into that family but into the audience's viewing habits as well.
But "The Simpsons" creators know that fans deserve more than one-level of TV-culture consciousness. Nehamas says, " ... Only the ignorance of the medium of TV could have ever suggested that the program is naively and straightforwardly realistic."  He is suggesting that viewing a TV program on its surface is being ignorant of the medium, that there is so much more underlying meaning in mixing fiction and reality, with what he refers to as "intertextuality."
"The Simpsons" not only weaves fiction and reality-based events within the frame of events revolving around TV culture, it mixes in specific references to TV and other pop culture throughout each episode. While these references include movies, music, politics, news, advertising, theater, the Internet and other areas of pop culture, my argument will remain focused on specific TV references.
What better place to start than to mock its ancestors? In "Marge vs. the Monorail," Homer howls "Yabba Dabba Doo!" and proceeds to slide down a pipe and crash into a window of his car, a la Fred Flintstone's end of the day ritual, in which he slides off the tail of a dinosaur and into his foot-powered car. Homer then bursts into his version of "The Flintstones" theme song:
Other distinct TV-show references include Bart's "Wonder Years"-style narration in the episode "Three Men and a Comic Book." After Bart asks Marge and Homer for money, he is told to get a job. Then, in Kevin Arnold fashion (voice-over provided by "Wonder Years" narrator Daniel Stern) he says, "Me? A job? Were they serious? I didn't realize it at the time, but a little piece of my childhood had slipped away forever."  Adding to the sentimentality often displayed in the "Wonder Years" is the song "Turn, Turn, Turn" by The Byrds. "The Simpsons" effectively makes an easy-to-spot reference to another popular TV show that adds both power and humor to Bart's predicament.
A show often parodied on "The Simpsons" is "Cheers." At Moe's Tavern, the bar Homer frequents, a constant parody is "Simpsons" character Barney Gumble. A slovenly drunk who seems to never leave the bar, Barney mirrors George Wendt's character Norm. In the episode "Flaming Moe's," bartender Moe is marketing "his" new drink, the Flaming Moe. In a TV commercial within the show, the song suspiciously sounds like the "Cheers" theme song. 
Up a notch on the awareness meter is the episode "Krusty Gets Canceled," in which Krusty's show is canceled due to the soaring popularity of rival variety show host Gabbo. As with many Krusty catastrophes, Bart and Lisa save the day by suggesting Krusty put on one last show with major celebrities. A slew of celebrities agree, including Johnny Carson and Bette Midler. Bette sings "Wind Beneath My Wings" to Krusty as he's sitting at his desk, getting weepy. Recall Johnny Carson's final night of "The Tonight Show"  - Bette sings "Wind Beneath My Wings" to Johnny as he's sitting at his desk, getting weepy. Johnny being in this "Simpsons" episodes either nudges the audience closer to the reference or just makes the parody work better.
In the more obscure realm of TV land, the same episode has Gabbo saying, "That ought to hold the little S.O.B.s," after the camera is turned off. The line is taken from a similar 1950s kids' show "in which the host asked, 'Are we off the air?' and then said, 'That ought to hold the little S.O.B.s for another week.' He did not know he was on the air and was summarily dismissed." 
SO IT'S COME TO THISReferring to classic TV satisfies the cravings of the pop culture-conscious fan indeed. But referring to past episodes of "The Simpsons" rewards all fans. Despite their having not technically aged a day, the Simpson family has provided its audience with over ten years of laughs. With all that time, it's impossible to not have some sort of history. The continuing saga of Sideshow Bob seeking vengeance on Bart serves as one example. Bart's best friend Milhouse being perpetually in love with Lisa and Principal Skinner and teacher Edna Krabappel having an on-and-off affair are others.
What better way to highlight "Simpsons" history than with the standard sitcom technique - the clip show. Always conscious of conformity, "The Simpsons" producers named their first clip show, "So It's Come to This: A Simpsons Clip Show," making it very clear how pathetic they think clip shows are to them. In the episode, Grampa provides the segway into the clip show by describing his coma, "You relive long lost summers, kiss girls from high school, it's like one of those TV shows where they show a bunch of clips from old episodes."  The series offers a few other clip shows throughout its eleven seasons, but other episodes just reflect on the past.
In "The Cartridge Family" episode, the following dialogue appears:
Marge: Homer, I don't want guns in my house! Don't you remember when Maggie shot Mr. Burns? Homer: I thought Smithers did it. Lisa: That would have made a lot more sense. The reference to Maggie shooting Mr. Burns goes back to the season-ending "Who Shot Mr. Burns? (Part One)"  and the season-opening "Who Shot Mr. Burns? (Part Two)"  (both subtly spoofing the TV show "Dallas" and the 1980s defining slogan, "Who Shot J.R.?"). Homer's line about Smithers being guilty refers to "The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular," in which clips from prior episodes and outtakes are shown to the audience. One outtake offers an alternate ending to "Who Shot Mr. Burns? (Part Two)" where Smithers murders Mr. Burns. Lisa's comment echoed the sentiment of many "Simpsons" fans.
Like any good TV show tries to do, the previous Lisa remark segways into yet another realm of "Simpsons" referential comedy: that which points out "The Simpsons" as being, after all, just a TV show.
TV announcer: Coming up next, "The Flintstones Meet the Jetsons!" Bart: Uh, oh. I smell another cheap cartoon crossover. (Homer and Jay enter). Homer: Bart Simpson, meet Jay Sherman, the critic. Jay: Hello. Bart: Hey, man. I really love your show. I think all kids should watch it. (shudders) Ew. I suddenly feel so dirty. Bart's encounter is with Comedy Central's main character on "The Critic," animated to perfection on "The Simpsons" and voiced by Jon Lovitz (who provides the voice in the actual show). Bart's foreshadowing set-up line works to perfection, but then the use of TV characters to attract a larger audience (perhaps for Sweeps Week) is made to seem cheap and dirty.
A random crossover occurs with characters from the comic book "Archie." In "Sideshow Bob Roberts," Homer is tossed out of a car and onto his front lawn by Archie, Jughead, Moose and Reggie from the comic. Moose tells him, "Duh, stay out of Riverdale."  On occasion, Homer has been known to watch "Archie" or read the comic and comment on "those stupid Riverdale punks."
"The Simpsons" had a "spooky" crossover with fellow Sunday-night line-up show "The X-Files." While they were animated, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson provided the voices for Fox Mulder and Dana Scully (their characters in "The X-Files") in "The Springfield Files."  From the onset of the episode, the parody is apparent, even if "Simpsons" fans have only seen commercials for "The X-Files" and never watched an episode of the sci-fi series. In the opening credits, Bart scribbles on the chalkboard (he writes a different message for each episode) "The Truth is Not Out There," mocking "The X-Files" opening credits, which usually read, "The Truth is Out There." Throughout the show, Duchovny and Anderson mock their characters - most notable is Mulder identifying himself in a sexy voice while showing his badge, which is a photo of him scantily clad.
The cross-over cliché gets even wackier in "The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase." An episode hosted by B-movie star Troy McClure, he explains the show's intention:
DISCO STU DOESN'T ADVERTISEComedy in "The Simpsons" is like a seven-layer cake. Here's the icing - "The Simpsons" make references to the animation process and production elements of the series.
The theme song and opening of "The Simpsons" is legendary among fans - two things change every week: what Bart writes on the chalkboard and how the family arrives on the living room couch. This rewards fans, but making references to these devices within an episode is even more brilliant. In "Lisa's Date With Destiny," she gets in trouble and must stay after school to write on the blackboard. Her hand cramps and she asks, "How does Bart do this every week?"  Perhaps he does get in trouble each week, but the audience knows better - that this comment relates to the chalkboard gag in the opening credits.
The infamous opening credits always begin with the title "The Simpsons" appearing in an empty sky and an angelic choir singing, "The Simpsons." This, too, is parodied within a few episodes. In "Cape Feare," when the Simpsons enter a witness relocation program and are forced to change their name to the Thompsons, the angelic scene appears with the Thompson name replacing the Simpsons.  In "Hurricane Neddy," a hurricane is approaching Springfield, and residents are preparing for the worst. After a few scenes, a black-and-white cloudy scene appears, and the phrase "The Hurricane" is sung a la the opening credits. 
The show's creators also parody themselves. Writers names appear randomly in many episodes, and occasionally their animated likenesses can be found on-screen. Creator Matt Groening, a full-head-of-haireded, goateed man in his late 30s, appears in "The Front" and "The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular" as a bald, scarred, eye-patch-wearing, angry, drunk Southerner.  While the appearance is funny regardless of its stretching the truth, it is even funnier to fans who know what Groening actually looks and acts like.
Tying "Simpsons" reality into the TV show's world is another audience tester. At the entrance to the Springfield Convention Center in "Three Men and a Comic Book," a sign reads: "Close Encounters of the Comic Book Kind - Admission $8 - $5 if you're dressed like a cartoon character." Lisa's comment: "Too bad we didn't come dressed as popular cartoon characters."  Of course, they already are popular cartoon characters.
In "Lisa the Beauty Queen," Lisa is upset about a charicature drawn of her. Homer consoles her, saying, "Oh, Lisa, this isn't real. It's just how you might look if you were a cartoon character."  Again, she already is a cartoon character.
As cartoon characters, the Simpsons are yellow-skinned and four-fingered. In "Lady Bouvier's Lover," Homer is worried about Grampa marrying Marge's mother. "If he marries your mother, Marge, we'll be brother and sister! And then our kids, they'll be horrible freaks with pink skin, no overbites, and five fingers on each hand."  The family then momentarily morphs into the most basic-looking white American family. Homer is freaked out, but the joke works to cast their animated look as being normal.
Another slap at life in the world watching Our Favorite Family comes in "Flaming Moe's." Homer is angry at Moe for stealing his flaming alcoholic concoction. He says, "How could you do this to me, Moe? This bar was going under and it was the drink I invented that saved it! If there was any justice, my face would be on a bunch of crappy merchandise!"  Justice did not prevail for Homer, but it did (and does) prevail for the fans, as Homer's face is on "a bunch of crappy merchandise" - action figures, boxer shorts, mugs, notebooks, posters, T-shirts, all the paraphernalia of mass consumer consumption.
MMM ... CONCLUSIONCreating "The Simpsons" as a fun-house mirror reflection of the "average" American family is the genius behind the series. It is a show devoted to its TV audience, yet its characters oftentimes are a TV audience - and the show's creators are conscious of this and how the mirror reflects different images.
The beauty in the show's literacy of pop culture is that ultimately, "The Simpsons" reigns as the king of pop culture - wearing two crowns, that of most pop culturally aware and that of most referred to in pop culture. "The Simpsons" is a universal language in a world of niche marketing and segregated cultures. It is fodder for good conversation. It's a way of showing pop culture elitism. It's being highbrow but in still being contemptuous toward typical highbrow culture.
"The Simpsons" audience embodies Darwinism - survival of the most socially and politically fit. The people who watch "The Simpsons" - the mild, medium, hot and jalapeño level fans; the cybergeeks, the hipsters, the academics, the suburbanites, the critics - are all upwardly mobile. They feed off the show as the lifeblood of culture. It is the nipple being suckled on the breast of America. It is as addictive as the purest heroine or cheapest whiskey. But it is not a bad habit. It is enlightening, educational, entertaining, cathartic. "It is a show that has evolved into the funniest, most sophisticated comedy on television." 
And its audience definitely knows that. Otherwise the masses wouldn't be tuned in.
Perhaps the most astounding observation about the show's complex layering of humor and weaving of pop culture is it's ability to remain simple whenever necessary. The show - beyond being chicken soup for the pop culture soul - is not just an answer to humor and pop culture riddles. It boasts the answer to life's most difficult situations or perplexing questions, summed up in two simple sounds: the soothing, "Mmm ... " and the abrupt, "D'oh!"
**Note: Examples from Episode 4F12, "The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show," were purposely omitted so the episode as a whole could be discussed as a specific case study within this paper's thesis.
© Jon Horowitz, Rutgers University, December 23, 1999.
Last updated on April 21, 2000 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)