- By Django Gold, head curator at mcgarnagle.com
The Simpsons was a special show, and like any other popular creative work that found a large audience, it was only a matter of time before its influence started popping up elsewhere. It’s been over twenty years since the show debuted, and in that time a generation of comedy writers who grew up watching, re-watching, and quoting the show has made their own bones in show business. What follows is a sampling of certain aspects of The Simpsons that have since shown up in countless other comedy bits.
I’m not claiming The Simpsons actually invented any of the following ideas. I’m no historian, and people were of course telling jokes a long ways before Groening & co. got to work. But I will argue that the show’s creators advanced and modernized these joke-telling methods better than anyone else, and in crafting them so well inspired others to adapt them to fit their own ideas (or just flat-out steal them). So, like I was saying…
1. Repetition/Extra Beats (Sideshow Bob and the rake)
Airtime is expensive, and in 1993 it was a risky move to blow 30 seconds of it for the sake of a repeated slapstick joke that might not hold up. Luckily, in “Cape Feare”, it did, mostly because of the enduring funniness of Sideshow Bob’s dry grimaces of pain (“Hey Hal, pie job for Lord Autumnbottom there!”). As literary review Entertainment Weekly put it: “If ever there was a gag genius in its repetitive stupidity (progressing from funny to not so funny to the funniest thing ever), this is it.” Years later, many shows have attempted to replicate this type of extended joke whose humor draws on the audacity of its length, to varying degrees of success. Family Guy, of course, pulls it off constantly (the bruised knee scene, et al), but anytime I see a comedian attempt to stretch a sprint into a marathon, Terwilliger’s scowl comes to mind.
2. Guest Stars Making Fun Of Themselves (“Now I’m gonna grab me something sweet.”)
Though you could argue that Dick Nixon started this trend on Laugh In in ’68, The Simpsons perfected the idea of bringing on guest stars so that they could send themselves up. While celebrity cameos don’t generally go beyond allowing a photogenic guest star to preen for the camera, Leonard Nimoy, George H. W. Bush, Sting, several major leaguers, Ernest Borgnine, Gerry Cooney, Rodney Dangerfield (doesn’t really count), and, of course, Dennis Franz weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Examples of this are too numerous to list, so I guess I’ll go with Neil Patrick Harris (“Where do you want it, Skinner?”) in Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle and move on.
3. Writers Making Fun Of The Network (“We are watching Fox.”)
Similarly, The Simpsons was never afraid to bite the hand that feeds when it came to pointing out how desperately crappy Fox Broadcasting Co. was in the 90s. This is of course easy to do when your show is pretty much the only thing holding the network up. You see this same sort of gentle ribbing on Comedy Central pillars The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and Family Guy also continues the proud tradition now that The Simpsons is off the air.
4. “By X, I Mean Y” (Judge Snyder’s dog/son)
I have not managed to find any concrete examples of the Judge Snyder construct in recent comedy, but if my own personal experience is any judge, it is ubiquitous. The Simpsons generation (that’s us) has taken an excellent Lionel Hutz line and turned it into a device for sarcasm; by substituting whatever zany mad-libs you like into an otherwise straight-forward expression, hilarity results. Though the X becomes Y construct pops up on the Internet constantly, I couldn’t possibly solve the mystery of coming up with any mainstream examples. Can you?
5. Intentional Monotony (Canada Stalls On Trade Pact)
Television is a flashy, fast-paced medium, so its rare moments of silence can do a lot to change things up. The Simpsons creators were masters of using intentionally tedious pacing to get laughs, and the box factory manager’s uproariously uninteresting speech in “Bart Gets Famous” is a perfect example of this. Though he got started in 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ben Stein made a career out of this after being a hack economist didn’t work. Notable post-Simpsons examples include South Park (when Cartman is forced to watch the serial killer’s slide show) and, naturally, Family Guy’s occasional burst into deliberate boredom (Conway Twitty).
6. Old-Timey References (the onion and the belt)
Here, I’m specifically looking at any pre-Great Depression references that the Simpsons writers so enjoyed tossing in, usually through Monty Burns or Abe Simpson. As in the previous example, the use of antiquated, often-misremembered cultural references in The Simpsons succeeds largely because it goes against context. Instead of being entertained with the latest and greatest, the audience is presented with the ridiculous, largely irrelevant relics of a bygone era. Modern-day humorists love poking fun at our country’s creaky past: Conan O’Brien’s beloved “old-timey” baseball game sketch, for example.
7. The Selfish Assumption (“Like people, some of them are just jerks.”)
As The Itchy & Scratchy Show demonstrated in its brief period of docility in “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge”, kindness and camaraderie are all well and good when it comes to lemonade consumption, but it just isn’t funny. No, selfishness and needless cruelty pay the bills when it comes to good comedy, and the Simpsons writers understood this. Now, I want to emphasize that I’m not claiming The Simpsons invented the notion of meanness being funny. But I will make the argument that they did the best job of casually imbuing the Springfield citizenry with the kinds of character flaws that gave rise to laughs. Carl’s answer to how the pastry spinner works, Quimby’s muscle-memory embezzlement, Marge’s cryptic theft of Milhouse’s teeth…these and constant other acts demonstrate how much funnier it is when someone behaves badly. Tons of modern shows pull off this kind of casual meanness, but shows like Strangers With Candy and Children’s Hospital take it to a new level.
8. Freeze-Frame Jokes (“where the buyer is our chum”)
One of the reasons for The Simpsons’ rewatchability is the sheer volume of its jokes makes it impossible to catch and process everything in a single sitting—it takes time to appreciate what the writers are laying down. I remember one of the show’s creators calling The Simpsons the first-ever VHS show (or something like that), as it was the first show that rewarded re-viewings (hence the show’s immense success in syndication). From an artistic standpoint, packing the jokes in like this is just good common sense; but it’s also a valuable commercial tool, as it makes people more likely to watch again, buy the DVDs, etc. Many, many shows have tapped into this joke-a-second type of pacing. Archer, Futurama, Parks and Rec, you name it.
9. Film Homages (Debbie Does Springfield)
Once the show’s artists found their groove, The Simpsons was able to pull off the kind of animation tricks that no other show could dream of at the time. This included the ability to capture scenes much in the same way that filmmakers did with different “camera” angles and framing techniques…which also allowed the writers to throw in homages to their favorite films. Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and various Hitchcock films got their due, and the shot-for-shot remake approach is now a comedic trope, in animated and live-action shows alike.
10. A Cast Of Thousands (“We’ve given the word ‘mob’ a bad name.”)
Large casts are expensive to maintain for a live-action show, but it’s a pretty thrifty option for a cartoon, especially if most of them are voiced by the same six people. The huge ensemble cast that filled Springfield allowed the show’s writers to move beyond the core Simpson family members and flesh out those minor characters that we the viewers would eventually come to know just as well. Apu living with the Simpsons? It happened…and shows like Arrested Development and The Office took advantage of the example.
Agree? Disagree? Got some other examples to give? Sound off in the comments.