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There’s nothing like a moment of historical significance to get an old timer excited and that’s why UNILAD has wheeled out the decrepit opinion of its eldest member of editorial staff because The Simpsons hit our screens 29 years ago today.
You see, the year was 19-dickety-nine and back then we didn’t have endless streams of quality TV shows, in fact a stream was where we got our water from and a TV was a box that kept one of the corners of your living room warm. It was a different place. One that didn’t make me so scared. A time when being tasked with writing a story about funny yellow people could have had a totally different meaning.
If imitation is the highest form of flattery then writing in the style of your favourite writers must also be some kind of form. I grew up on The Simpsons. I lived, breathed and devoured The Simpsons like a box of doughnuts and a six-pack of Duff. Before The Simpsons there wasn’t a TV show you could watch for hours on end. We didn’t even have a VCR, so watching TV shows for hours on end wasn’t possible. You wouldn’t have wanted to watch TV shows back then for hours on end. Plus in my day men were men and a couch potato was a form of snacks not a lifestyle. I’ll put down the Abe Simpson mask now. It’s tiring being old.
I was five when The Simpsons first launched and it genuinely feels like it’s been a part of my life ever since. Like most people I don’t remember much from when I was five years old, which is fine, because it wasn’t until the mid 90s that the show was broadcast on terrestrial TV in the UK hitting audiences in the face like a left-hand from champion boxer Drederick Tatum. It’s hard to explain quite how big an impact The Simpsons had at the time but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say it was as ubiquitous as Marvel movies are now. Whereas our superheroes have decades of comicbook canon, nine figure budgets and Hollywood names to draw audiences, Matt Groening sketched The Simpsons on the drive to meet Fox network execs.
Although that’s not to say The Simpsons hasn’t had its fair share of Hollywood cameos over the years. One episode seen to be a turning point towards ever-reaching success was Krusty Gets Kancelled from season four, which boasted appearances from Johnny Carson, Hugh Heffner, Bette Midler, Elizabeth Taylor, Barry White and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. As the years have rolled by guests have come in from all walks of life, from comedians like Ricky Gervais and Flight of the Conchords, to the intro sequences being directed by Oscar-winner Guillermo Del Toro and the acclaimed animator Bill Plympton and the score is produced by Hans Zimmer just to scratch the surface. That’s just the dusting on the cake.
The true stars Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer have been breaking funnies and unleashing feels now for 30 seasons. The Simpsons is unsurpassed. It’s the GOAT. But Springfield’s superheroes come at a cost like any other. The cast have been taking home $300,000 per episode since 2011. There’s 22 in a season if you want to get a calculator out. Not that you should begrudge astronomical sums while the world continues to stagnate financially since approximately when the movie came out. That’s a correlation that needs to be looked into.
While the pop culture cycle moves on, like any great comedy, The Simpsons’ approach to the zeitgeist is what’s caused most criticism. There’s dated comedy and there’s dated comedy. And because basing an entire feature on a show the scale of The Simpsons around the opinion of one admittedly lapsed fanboy’s increasingly diminishing memory would be absurd, UNILAD spoke to Mitch Grinter, author of Homer’s Odyssey: An Embiggened Simpsons Guide about how they changed TV.
On keeping up with the change in times, Mitch said:
While there are some obvious changes that have helped keep the show modern, for example the switch to digital or bringing in new writers and show-runners over the years, I’m not sure any of them were necessarily to try and deliberately keep up with the zeitgeist.
If anything, the show is a reaction to our ideas and beliefs. If a show can do that, and do it well, it can satirise so well that the version of reality it depicts starts to become the reality we live in, so it starts to feel like it’s driving change whereas really it was only ever holding a mirror up to us and showing us for who we were.
One change in the times is how we consume TV. While Homer may have inspired me to think nothing of watching endless hours of my favourite shows in the 90s, the number of entertainment shows provided by streaming services now dwarves the simple life we knew before. Too much choice. Too much TV. Is that possible?
Does the show still play the role it did in the 90s? Mitch said:
It would be hard to argue that it does, but there are many reasons for that. For one thing, market share is way more diluted now than it was at the show’s zenith. It simply can’t be an influence on as many people when there is so much competition for our time.
The other is that creatively any show is going to wane after the number of years and episodes they’ve been on the air. It’s unprecedented what they’ve done, but that results in drawbacks in being constantly compared to your own greatest. It’s like a boxer in his 40s fighting himself in his prime.
That said, they are still a huge drawcard for syndication, theme parks, trivia nights, video games and just about anything else you can think of, so they are still big in people’s minds.
There was a decade of my life where there wasn’t a day I wouldn’t sit down to see what was going on in Springfield. I’m sure I’m not alone. A huge hungry audience will want to be fed. South Park and Family Guy were the first to ‘get it’. The magic formula that’s now been hit on by shows like Bob’s Burgers, Archer, Big Mouth (I’m not going to bother listing them all). We’re now spoilt for choice.
I asked Mitch how much the new generation owes The Simpsons, he said:
They owe a lot, but I think streaming services need to take a lot of the credit, too. The Simpsons’ success in the 90s led to a number of adult-oriented animated shows, but none of them really took off. Shows like The Critic, Duckman, Dilbert, The Oblongs, they were all shows that in today’s age would have been allowed to find a niche audience on Netflix, but a show like Bojack would have been unlikely to survive network TV back then, and probably unlikely to survive it, now.
What The Simpsons probably did do was push a lot of people into animation as a career, so it’s helped drive a lot of talent into the field and that does show in the calibre of shows available now.
And my early-onset approach to bingewatching shows decades before Netflix came around:
For a lot of people in their early 30s it would have been the first ritual show to binge on, for sure. It was definitely a reaction from TV programmers to what the viewing audience had demanded, and it took some time before binge-watching became ubiquitous, but long before DVDs were available it was there every weekend as a way to slam through 5-6 episodes in a row. There’s a case to argue that it helped whet that generation’s appetite for mass-consumption.
So if I wasn’t alone in my binging, I’ll assume everyone else’s definition of a good binge has slowly increased over the years from several episodes to several hours and then some.
And as Homer and Marge teach us to be tolerate with the flaws in your loved ones then this is the bitter pill to swallow. In recent years, the show has been criticised for its continuation of including Kwik-E-Mart proprietor Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, who is voiced by white actor Hank Azaria. Comedian Hari Kondabolu released the documentary The Problem With Apu which looked the negative stereotypes he represents. At first show creator Matt Groening dismissed the claims.
Asked whether he had any thoughts on the topic, Groening told USA Today:
Not really. I’m proud of what we do on the show. And I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.
To make things worse the show followed up with an awkward on-screen reference, received negatively by viewers and fellow animators alike. South Park dedicated an episode entitled The Problem With A Poo and ran the statement ‘#cancelthesimpsons’ in its title credits. However before your jimmies get rustled it was in fact a show of support. Season 22 of the Colardo based comedy ran on the campaign of ‘#cancelsouthpark.
Asked about The Problem With Apu controversy, Grinter said:
Honestly, I think Hank Azaria has been the only person to have handled himself with any grace from the side of the show. Firstly, it appears that they badly misjudged how long the issue would stick around for. You can’t necessarily blame them for that because complaints have come and gone over the years and they’ve outlasted all of them. But when it became clear it wouldn’t go away, they appeared to get overly defensive and not want to hear out any contrary point. They took it personally and came out swinging and ended up seeming a bit tone-deaf.
It’s frustrating seeing your favourite shows acting so awkwardly when they’ve ridden the waves of success for so long. Standards change over time and you’d hope something as much of a cultural touchstone could see how things may play out from a different perspective.
But like an aged family member who grumbles things under their breath about the state of the world or Brexit, it’s not right. I’m not condoning The Simpsons troubling approach. It’s predicted the Trump presidency, Canada legalising marijuana and every TV show and movie ever. How can we not forgive those that bring us the most joy.
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Tim Horner is a sub-editor at UNILAD. He graduated with a BA Journalism from University College Falmouth before most his colleagues were born. A previous editor of adult mags, he now enjoys bringing the tone down in the viral news sector.