“Why do we need new bands? Everyone knows rock attained perfection in 1974. It’s a scientific fact.” – Homer Simpson
Back at the end of December, reader Brian sent in a link to a video at The Escapist modestly titled “The Simpsons Is Still Funny – Pt. 1”. It’s about five minutes long, and you can view it at the link. The second part, “The Simpsons Is Still Funny, Part 2”, came out a week later. These are the kind of internet videos where there’s a fast talking voiceover accompanied by a series of pictures, memes and other low cost imagery.
These particular Zombie Simpsons defenses are narrated by a guy named Bob Chipman, who usually does movie videos. Obviously I don’t agree that what FOX puts out on Sundays is still funny. (I don’t even think it should be called “The Simpsons”.) But Chipman makes some plausible but easily falsified assumptions that come up every once and a while, and they’re worth rebutting in detail.
The tagline of the first video is “The Simpsons isn’t bad, you just grew up”, and that’s a reasonably accurate summary of the video. The Simpsons came out when Chipman was a kid, and he grew into an adult during the single digit seasons which are widely considered to be the best ones. His basic theory is that since he and others like him became more sophisticated fans as the show was at its peak, people have a nostalgic need for those seasons to be remembered as the best ones. Unlike He-Man, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Transformers (all of which he specifically invokes), The Simpsons was a childhood love that could still be loved by adolescents and adults without any of that icky irony.
I’m going to quote his conclusion at some length here (this begins at the 4:05 mark):
We might have moved on from thinking that cherry bombs and graffiti and “Ay Carumba” were the coolest things on Earth. But now we could groove on, you know, incisive showbiz satire, everyday working class annoyances, and the existential ennui of being a smarty-pants trapped in a dumbed down world, all punctuated by a rotating staff of extremely talented comedy writers. That was the real miracle of The Simpsons’ golden age, thanks largely to a parody of the bad-little-boy sitcom archetype briefly becoming an actual phenomenon with kids and winning a massive grade school audience for a show that was originally intended for an older, primetime viewership, it was able to become for those same kids one of the few precious entertainments of their childhood that was still just as awesome, if perhaps in a different way, as they grew up through their teens and into young adulthood. That, my friends, is how something goes from being simply a good TV show to a full blown, unassailable pop culture institution. And since the timeline of that quote-unquote “institutionalization” roughly coincides with the first nine to ten years of the series, guess which seasons tend to be remembered as “the best ones”? So, yeah, from where I sit, that is how The Simpsons earned a legacy of such high standard that even The Simpsons couldn’t live up to it anymore.
The gist of all that is that The Simpsons simply isn’t as good as you remember it being, you just love it because you loved it as a kid and it’s still highly watchable now that you’re an adult. The big, flashing problem with this is that most fans didn’t grow up with the show the same way he did. He’s mistaking a very narrow age bracket of people as everyone.
This is all based on a wildly incorrect and myopically self centered assumption back at the 2:20 mark of the video:
“It seems to me that a certain majority of disappointed, hard core Simpsons fanatics are also, unsurprisingly, ground zero Generation 1 fans roughly in my relative age bracket.”
A “certain majority”? Outside of Chipman’s immediate friends and acquaintances, is there any evidence for that rather narrow age restriction whatsoever? He certainly doesn’t provide any, instead just assuming it to be true. But it isn’t true. In fact, it isn’t even remotely true. Chipman was a kid when the show came out, so he probably knows a lot of other people who were kids when it came out too. But the show, while popular with kids, was never just for kids.
That is all the more remarkable when you remember that there was a complete lack of adult animation at the time (at least in this country). Before it even premiered, people knew kids would watch it. After all, it was a cartoon and it was on at 8:00pm, the long protected “family hour”, when kids were expected to be watching television. But adults latched on to it just as hard and as quickly.
To be sure, most of those adults were probably on the young side, members of that sweet, sweet 18-34 demographic. But “Bartmania” wasn’t a children’s fad the way Pokemon would later be a children’s fad, or the way the Ninja Turtles and Transformers had been children’s fads a few years before. It was a general cultural storm that encompassed not only kids, but millions of adults as well. Two quick quotes from John Ortved’s book should serve to illustrate this. Here’s current show writer Tim Long (p119):
“When the show started, I was a sophomore in university. I remember thinking, This is the fasted, funniest show ever. I cannot believe this show is on the air. It just felt like a miracle.”
This was a common sentiment among people his age bracket, and he was born in 1969. Ask a fan roughly Long’s age sometime and you’ll get stories about The Simpsons being something people watched in college bars or at home in groups. During the early years of the show, new episodes were an event for a lot of people long past puberty.
Here’s Robert Cohen, who was a production assistant during the first couple of seasons (p120):
And for me in particular, the first “holy crap” moment was during the Hollywood Christmas parade, which is this dopey parade that goes down Hollywood Boulevard, and stars of yesteryear wave from convertibles; it’s this very weird parade. It was the second season, and they’d asked the Simpsons to be in the parade, so they hired some dancers to put on costumes and Jay Kogen and I wore our Simpsons crew jackets. We piled into this car called the Gracie-mobile, which was this big old El Dorado convertible painted with the Gracie logo. The plan was that we would drive the Simpsons down the street in the parade. When we pulled out on to the street and it was parade time – I was at the wheel – the people mobbed us to the point that the car could go only about twenty yards. The sheriff’s department had to veer us outta there because it was like a riot. And they weren’t interested in us. They were interested in these actors in Simpsons costumes. Obviously they weren’t even the real Simpsons. That’s when I realized, Holy crap. This thing’s outta control. Because it was just hundreds of people mobbing stinky felt costumes that represented the show. I knew the show was popular, but I didn’t realize how popular until that moment.
Those hundreds of people were not all ten year olds. Moreover, right about the time those anonymous people in costumes were escaping that mob, this was on newsstands all over the country:
This was when the cover of Time was among the most important cultural markers in America, and it’s not about a children’s obsession, it’s “The Best of ’90”, period.
The Simpsons was never a kids show, so when Chipman compares people obsessing over its “golden age” to the way people have kitschy attachments to He-Man or Transformers, he’s conflating two very different things, his personal experience and that of the wider audience. The idea that the show declined noticeably isn’t restricted to people born from roughly 1975 to 1985. It’s a widely held opinion among people of disparate ages, and plenty of people followed the entire arc of the show from Season 1 to Season 9 or so as adults. No pre-pubescent nostalgia is needed to say that the show has gone to hell.
As if to underscore how weak this argument is, the second video drops this concept completely. It doesn’t support this contention and barely even mentions it. Instead, it focuses on the way the culture and the media environment have changed around the show. Chipman gets to his point quickly (1:00):
The Simpsons was an absurdist parody. My contention, then, is that the reason it’s different now is less because the show itself has changed, but that the world around it has changed to the extent that almost everything it first existed to skewer, satirize and parody doesn’t exist anymore.
He continues from there to discuss how many of the situations parodied on The Simpsons were universally recognizable because there were only three networks and everyone was at least aware of the family sitcom tropes the show liked to make fun of. Nowadays, with hundreds of channels and the bottomless pit of the internet fracturing the culture into a bunch of tiny niches, he thinks the show had to become an exaggerated parody of itself to survive.
The problem with this is that while there’s a superficial truth to it, it misses the fundamental aspects of American life The Simpsons got at. The police on The Simpsons are fat, incompetent and often drunk on their own power. Whatever the quality of your local force, that overall perception remains very much with us. Springfield Elementary is perpetually underfunded and doesn’t do many of its kids a whole lot of good. Sound familiar? Corrupt local politicians, annoyingly pious neighbors, gossipy church ladies, and evil plutocrats are still a recognizable part of the American landscape. Self help scams, niche conventions, and painfully dumb awards shows haven’t gone anywhere either.
While some of the concepts the show parodied have faded from memory, the basic take on American life remains amazingly current and relevant. To say, as Chipman does, that the show has become “less vital and certainly less relatable” (4:40) simply because the media landscape has changed is to let Zombie Simpsons off the hook. There have been plenty of vital and relatable shows (pick a critical darling from the last decade) that, while never reaching the level of fame The Simpsons reached, don’t come in for the same kind of routine criticism as Zombie Simpsons. That’s because they aren’t dragging around twenty years of backstory, aren’t constantly repeating things they’ve done better in the past, and aren’t kept alive because FOX doesn’t want to risk a profitable timeslot on a flop.
More than just being a cop out, however, saying a show has to get away from what made it great to stay alive sounds more like a reason to take it off the air than keep it on the air. There are any number of familiar examples of this, silent movie stars who couldn’t make the transition to sound, rim shot comedians in tuxedos who became dinosaurs after Lenny Bruce, hair metal bands embarrassed off the charts by grunge. At some point, people stop caring about what you were doing, and if you can’t change sufficiently, then you’re going to become irrelevant, just as Zombie Simpsons has.
We can still appreciate classics from a bygone era. Truly great books and movies often stay great, genuinely good music has a way of enduring, and those old seasons of The Simpsons have aged incredibly well because they still speak to so much of our lives. But to keep doing what no one cares about anymore is the definition of malingering.
As always, this is somebody’s opinion and they’re perfectly entitled to it. But the specific arguments Chipman is making here simply don’t hold water. They’re riddled with factual inaccuracies, somewhat contradictory (so the show did change?), and generally sloppy. Saying that people’s love of the original seasons is based on nostalgia may be true for a few individuals, but there’s no evidence for that among the general population of fans. Saying that that the world evolved around it is true, but in no way changes the fact that plenty of other shows have found ways to not suck in the era of http. Think Zombie Simpsons is funny all you want, but don’t try to back up your opinion with things that aren’t true and don’t make sense.