America's First Family

By Nick Griffiths

© The Times Magazine, Vol. 5 - #16, April 15 2000, p25, 27-28.

Dysfunctional and degenerate they may be, but after ten years the Simpsons have proved that a family that plays together stays together. Nick Griffiths meets the faces behind America's best-loved family since the Waltons

"Several years ago, we tried to get Al Gore on the show and were turned down, very politely," says Mike Scully, writer/producer of The Simpsons. "Now he's running for President, he called us. As far as I was concerned, he'd had his chance.

It's February and Scully is in Aspen, Colorado, with The Simpsons' creator, Matt Groening, and members of the cast to attend the four-day US Comedy Arts Festival. Among the main attractions is The Simpsons Live, a read-through onstage by the cast of two separate Simpsons episodes. These have been billed as highly as appearances by Steve Martin, Jerry Lewis and Robin Williams, and far more highly than those by a host of much smaller acts, including Britain's own League Against Tedium.

Matt Groening (pronounced "graining"), the 46-year-old multimillionaire creator of the show, is a chunky, bearded man with tiny specs, a floppy fringe, Simpsons baseball jacket and baggy jeans. He looks like a big kid.

Oregon-raised and LA-based since college, he conceived the Simpsons family for producer James L. Brooks as a brief animated segment within the new Fox network's Tracey Ullman show. The shorts ran from 1987 and were developed into a full series that made its debut on American primetime - the first since The Flintstones - two years later. From the off, it was a hit, topping Fox's ratings. "It's hard to figure why it exploded so quickly," says Scully, before offering his own theory: "At the core is a family, and everyone can identify with that, which is probably why it plays well overseas, too."

The Simpsons are: Homer, the father, the self-centred, well-meaning oaf; Marge, his wife, the rock; daughter Lisa, the family's social conscious; and son Bart, its antisocial tendencies. Little Maggie is still in nappies - she exists partly to give Homer the opportunity to lose a baby. They mess up and frustrate each other, but they've bonded, albeit with bungee rope.

Strewn around them are Springfield's inhabitants: the Scrooge-like owner of the nuclear power plant where Homer works, and his sycophantic (closet-gay) assistant; the doughnut-obsessed police chief; the holier-than-thou neighbours; the corrupt mayor; the drunken losers in Moe's Tavern - all caricatures of familiar people, from the media or from personal experience. If the comedy or the animation didn't hook you, the soap-opera element would. It's not hard to see why The Simpsons spread through America, Britain, Australia, the world - 94 countries at the last count - particularly among children already sold on cartoons.

The Aspen venue for the Simpsons events is the Wheeler Opera House, built at the height of the silver boom in 1889, recently renovated and boasting the sort of balustrades that cowboys were always being pushed through. On the Simpsons nights it throngs with thirty- and fortysomethings, offspring and a smattering of teens (Aspen is expensive). Both shows are sell-outs and people have to be locked out, on one occasion prompting a scuffle.

The seven-strong cast, augmented by a narrator, take the stage, including Dan Castellaneta (Homer and others), Nancy Cartwright (Bart and others) and Yeardley Smith (Lisa). Among them, they will voice around 30 characters.

The first show finds Harry Grimes, a new power-plant executive, being hounded unintentionally into this grave by Homer. In the second, Lisa falls on love with school bully Nelson Muntz (Bart to Lisa: "I'll probably never say this to you again, but you can do better"). It doesn't matter that both episodes have aired previously on television. Watching Cartwright alone, a short, smiling woman, do Bart Simpson is surreal and deeply impressive.

Stripped of the visual distraction of animation, you also realise how relentlessly clever and funny the scripts are.

Afterwards comes the Q&A session. "Give us a 'Doh!'", "Who does Krusty?", "Who does Ned Flanders?" - nothing insightful, more a celebration. After Thursday's show, Scully acknowledges, "It's times like that when you realise just what an impact the show has on people. A lot of comedies about families come and go, but this one just caught people off guard. The Simpsons were dysfunctional yet you could also see that they loved and stuck by each other. People like that because they don't see it enough in real life."

American sitcoms had a habit of portraying the family as shiny-toothed, wholesome and untroubled, playing to the aspirationally spirited viewer.

Then in 1987, Married... with Children came along, followed by Roseanne, populated by insensitive, bawling parents and spiteful, put-upon children.

The success of both suggested that people were quite ready for television to have a pop at the American dream. At the same time, The Simpsons had arrived, an altogether quieter, more comforting half-hour, but with its own cartoon take on the perplexing reality of family life.

Unwittingly, it hit the Zeitgeist, which the American networks misread as a public craving for more primetime animation. "So without a lot of thought to character and content, they rushed all these show on air and the public rejected most of them," Scully explains. "The networks then tried to rationalise and thought The Simpsons was a fluke, that people don't like animation." Finally, they realised, if a show is done well, it doesn't matter if it's animated.

Without The Simpsons, there would have been no Beavis and Butt-head, Duckman, King of the Hill or South Park. It redefined television animation, spawning shows that seem far more extreme by comparison - which naturally helped its own continual acceptance into the mainstream.

For every action, of course, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

"Every time there's a fad that kids really like, there's gonna be a grown-up going, "Something's wrong here," says Groening. "It happened with video games, heavy metal, rap, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and now Pokémon - though they can't quite figure out what's wrong with it yet."

And it happened initially with The Simpsons. Homer was a disgraceful role model; Bart's insolence to his elders would encourage the same. Bart Simpson T-shirts (notably "Underachiever and Proud of It") became so popular that some schools banned them for their subversive messages. The nuclear power industry waved its own placard. "In the words of one editorial," says Groening, chuckling, "we were needlessly causing the American people to be afraid of nuclear power."

So influential was this cartoon deemed that the President waded in. During his 1992 election campaign, George Bush railed, "We're going to keep trying to strengthen the American family. To make them more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons." (His wife, Barbara, called the show the "dumbest thing" she had ever seen... then later apologised.)

In a small way, The Simpsons probably contributed to the demise of the Bush administration. "It didn't fly with a lot of Americans," recalls Scully.

"People who enjoyed the show didn't want to be told that they were watching something bad or stupid, or something that's wrong for their kids." Adds Groening, "We turned around and said, 'The Simpsons are just like the Waltons - we're both praying for an end to the depression.'

"I have a secret motto which is, 'To entertain and to subvert'. I've tried to keep that in my work since I started doing cartoons," Groening continues.

"It's not so much trying to change the minds of people who are already set in their ways [meaning adults], it's to point out to children that a lot of rules that they're told by authorities who do not have their best interests at heart. If we can point out that teachers, political leaders, your parents, or your peers may be foolish, that's a good lesson. Think for yourself."

Serious issues crop up regularly in The Simpsons, cloaked in humour and vivid animation; the environment, corrupt media and politicians, ineffective policing, the restriction of religion. Some media commentators might find the campaigning surprising coming as it does from a show that did so much to help the launch of both the Fox Network and Sky Television (both part of the media empire of Rupert Murdoch, the chairman and chief executive of The News Corporation, parent company of The Times), and which continues to attract the punters (averaging four million in the States, last season, and around a million here). Gary Newman, co-president of 20th Century Fox Television, admits, "The Simpsons put the Fox network on the map for good." Murdoch was even invited to play himself in the show, and accepted. Scully remembers the recording: "I was nervous about it, because the dialogue we had written wasn't the most flattering, He had to identify himself as, 'Rupert Murdoch, the billionaire tyrant.'"

"The best humour has a strong point of view, and I don't have to agree with it. My politics are fairly progressive but I can enjoy right-wing morons who are funny," says Groening. "Television touches on an issue then dances away from it and never comes back to it. So it has the illusion of having a strong point of view, but the real point of view of television is that nothing matters, because it's going to be replaced in the next millisecond by something different, and then replaced again and again. That's one reason why, in conceiving the show, I made sure that Homer worked in a nuclear power plant, because then we can keep returning to that and making a point about the environment."

The Simpsons' influences are more contrived than surface impressions might suggest. But let's not forget the dumb stuff - Simpsons merchandise generated $2 billion worldwide in its first 14 months alone. That includes the usual clothing, bedding and alarm clocks, but also Australian Bart, Homer and Lisa asthma-inhaler covers, car mats, cheque-book holders, condiment sets, bandages and sunscreen with moisturisers.

Sam Young, a 36-year-old government attorney, flew to the Comedy festival from Minnesota purely for The Simpsons. He met his best friend through the show: "I heard him say 'Doh!' one day at law school and went over and started a conversation." A collector of the merchandise, he spent $3,300 on two animation cels alone, and $500 on a trading card drawn by Groening. His study and living room are full of Simpsons clutter, including a 4ft-tall Homer. His girlfriend finds this "charming", he maintains.

For a decade, the series' characters have been used by advertising agencies to promote their products: most recently, a Portuguese bank, a British luncheon snack, a detergent, and by Heinz and Pepsi in France. Cartoon characters won't sway the public? I bought a Butterfinger bar in America purely because Bart had one and Homer wanted it, and it wasn't very nice.

Then there are the catchphrases: "Doh!", "Aye carumba!", "Don't have a cow, man!", "Mmmm... [insert name of foodstuff]"... Nations ring to them.

"Seldom does a week go by when I'm not out somewhere, a store, a gas station, wherever, and I hear somebody say 'Doh!'," reckons Scully. "It happens all the time." "Eat my shorts!" Bart's catch phrase for the unwelcome, was recently included in the revised Oxford English Dictionary of Quotations.

So this television show, a mere animation series, has helped bring down a president, brushed aside the wheedling attentions of a vice-president, quietly subverted the world's youth (apart from in China, possibly, where Bart's behaviour is genuinely frowned upon), been stamped all over what we wear, influenced what we eat and where Portuguese people bank, changed the face of contemporary animation and inveigled itself into our exclamations.

Professor Stephen Hawking - who has appeared in it - even requested that guests to his millennium New Year party dressed as a character from The Simpsons. Hawking, cleverly, went as himself.

Now academics are using it in schools and in Universities. Having the Donut and Eating it: Self-Reflexivity in The Simpsons is Professor of Literature Alistair McCleery's lecture, part of the Introduction to Cultural Studies module, for his students at Edinburgh's Napier University. He chose the programme for its "sheer ubiquity. I wanted to stress to students the need to be active consumers of culture, and to show that even the most seemingly superficial popular culture would repay analysis through greater understanding of what made it tick. I also find it very funny."

"I get lots of letters from teachers and college professors who have used The Simpsons to illustrate some point in class," says Groening. One, for instance, used an episode spoofing the Prohibition era to explain the subject to her students. The Simpsons continually makes reference to history, film, television and literature - from Citizen Kane to Edgar Allan Poe - regurgitating it to an audience for whom Rosebud might once have meant nothing.

Testament shows that families watch The Simpsons together, in the same living room. In an age of meals-on-the-move, three-television households, computer games and the Internet, it is a fact of which Groening and Scully are justifiably proud. And it applies across the generation, equally popular with each major demographic group, aside from pensioners. "People over 60 just fail to see the humour in cartoon characters," says Groening.

"Although, I must say, my mother, who's 80, love the show, and so do all the friends in her reading group."

Should people miss the references, ignore the messages or remain blinkered by the cartoonish aspect, the series still has the potential to bond together disparate family members. Just as, at the beginning of each episode, Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie all gather to watch the television, so we gather to watch them. We are all, unwittingly, Simpsons.

Transcribed by Bruce Gomes

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