“Could Jesus microwave a burrito so hot that he himself could not eat it?” – Homer Simpson
Sadly, the promise of the end in “Behind the Laughter” was just a tease, though Season 12 really did have an episode setup by Lisa declaring “The Simpsons are going to Delaware!”. The quote above comes from a Season 13 episode called “Weekend at Burnsies”. For the most part it’s sclerotic and dumb, and the entire third act is a weak imitation of the notoriously bad 1989 comedy “Weekend at Bernie’s”. (Homer and Smithers think Burns is dead and use his supposed corpse as a marionette.) The episode does contain some decent medical marijuana jokes, but for the most part it’s a meandering, nonsensical mess. The same is true of everything since around that time.
An occasional episode will still stumble into an insightful quip or an interesting story, but by Season 12 the verve and heart and brains of The Simpsons had gone. Across all the seasons since, Zombie Simpsons has done many different stories, trips, and takeoffs, but they universally suffer from the same problems that began as the show declined: ham handed emotional treacle, wild plot twists, poor storytelling, Homer acting insane, and lots of self voiced celebrities. And while Zombie Simpsons has retained the standard sitcom ability to sometimes produce one or two decent jokes per half hour, it is no longer anything special. If it were launched as a new show (“The Thompsons”, perhaps), it would be indistinguishable from the other animated sitcoms on FOX.
The only thing that makes Zombie Simpsons different is its predecessor, which it now dwarfs in terms of episodes produced. Even if you count every episode through Season 9 as excellent (and most fans wouldn’t do that just for “The Principal and the Pauper” alone), that leaves Zombie Simpsons episodes outnumbering those of The Simpsons by nearly two-to-one.
That sad ratio will continue to grow as long as new episodes of Zombie Simpsons are produced. The current contract runs through 2014, and there is no reason to believe that it won’t be renewed beyond that. The only creative-side people who have the power to shut down the show are the six principal voice actors,36 and they have one of the sweetest gigs in show business. They only have to work a few hours a week and they aren’t even required to be in Los Angeles with the rest of the (non-animation) staff. They can record from anywhere. Unsurprisingly, they reportedly agreed to a serious pay cut to keep the series going in October of 2011.
And why shouldn’t they? The voice actors were paid peanuts for much of the early run of the show, and the six of them have done as much as anyone to make it the boundless money fountain it is today. They deserve to cash in. More importantly, the overwhelming majority of the animators, staff and hangers-on aren’t rich. It wouldn’t do them any good to end the show.
Of course, Zombie Simpsons will go off the air some day. At this point it looks as if there are only two things that can stop it, and neither of them can be avoided forever: money and death. On the money side, in 1996 The Simpsons predicted of itself that it would continue until “the time the show becomes unprofitable”. That’s probably true, but there are several ways to define “unprofitable”. At present, the income generated by The Simpsons comes in two categories, the show itself and the merchandise.
By all accounts, and despite the ever declining ratings, the production of new episodes of Zombie Simpsons remains profitable. It has persistently strong numbers with younger and supposedly more impressionable advertising targets, which certainly helps. For the 2009-10 season, Zombie Simpsons was the #61 rated network show in terms of total viewers, but it was #33 among the nuts and gum demographic.xvi Moreover, the show is the anchor of FOX’s long running animation bloc on Sunday night, and cancelling it would risk disrupting that valuable niche. Animation on Sundays has done very well for them, and networks never easily discard profitable timeslots. So while Zombie Simpsons may only score mediocre ratings these days, it’s still better than the potential catastrophe of a new program that could flop and spoil the whole lineup.
Far more important than the show is the merchandise.37 The Simpsons franchise reportedly generates News Corp $750 million ($750,000,000) per year for doing little more than cashing checks. That’s roughly twice the amount that comes from broadcasting and syndicating the actual show.xvii That number covers everything, from million-dollar amusement park rides to overpriced “collector’s” dolls, and it is not set to end when the show does. In other words, the money is unlikely to dry up any time soon.
If the show remains profitable, and FOX doesn’t believe its low ratings and widely acknowledge quality slide are damaging the far more important merchandising brand, then the only other things that can catch up to it are the same ones that crippled it: death and retirements. It’s a bit morbid to speculate about the former, but it’s also necessary. Phil Hartman, the man who voiced that prediction of unprofitability, died just two years after those words were first broadcast.
The list of people whose death or retirement would end the show is short. It’s just those same six people who do all of the irreplaceable voices. They are the only ones who’ve been in every episode,38 whom the audience can identify from the next room through more than two decades of familiarity. As long as they are willing and able to do the show, and as long as FOX will pony up the dough, Zombie Simpsons can go on.
It is a remarkable accomplishment. The only two forces on Earth powerful enough to take it off the air are the Grim Reaper and Rupert Murdoch’s accountant.39 That’s as good a compliment as any show in the history of television has ever gotten.
Even the inevitable end of new Zombie Simpsons episodes won’t spell the end of the Simpsons as a franchise. The show has been producing video games for two decades; it’s had characters slapped on every imaginable piece of merchandise; it’s a major ride at bi-coastal theme parks; and the movie adaptation was a blockbuster, raking in more than half a billion dollars. None of those things would’ve happened without the show’s success, but neither do they require its continuation.
For a decent approximation of what might happen to Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Maggie and the rest of Springfield once the show finally does go off the air, just look at Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and their various supporting casts. Mickey and Bugs are still with us long after their original creators and voice actors died. The copyright on their likenesses have been repeatedly extended40 and, since they are cartoon characters, the actual people needed to bring them to life, the animators and voice actors, can always be replaced should any of them be so selfish as to get old or die. There’s nothing stopping the Simpsons characters from following the footsteps of the mouse and the hare into indefinite cartoon Valhalla.
As any serious Disney fan can tell you, Mickey Mouse has gone through a number of iterations reflective of the times. He’s been kinda racist, he’s fought Nazis, he’s been an icon of wholesomeness. Mickey has almost no defined character, he is merely a recognizable symbol who can be made to do anything. Bugs Bunny is traditionally a bit more of a scamp but, like Mickey, he’s changed with the times. Bugs has appeared as everything from a baby to an elder statesman and shown up in any imaginable medium from movies and video games to lunch boxes and theme parks.
Under existing copyright law, The Simpsons are the protected property of FOX until 2082, ninety-five years after they were created. (Mickey’s first movie is set to go free in 2023, but don’t be surprised if it gets another reprieve from public domain, which would likely push the Simpsons even further into the future.) So unless FOX has a means of keeping Dan Castellaneta alive and working until he’s 125 years old, someone or something (never underestimate the power of computers)41 is eventually going to take over the voice of Homer. Just as Mickey outlived Walt Disney and Bugs outlived Mel Blanc, Homer will eventually outlive Dan Castellaneta, Matt Groening, and everyone else who made him the huge star he is.
Like the creators of The Simpsons, Disney and Blanc were giants and geniuses, and we rightly revere them, but audiences have accepted the need to replace them. The characters they played have gone on capering and will continue as long as there is popular interest. And if the sustained decades of popularity for Bugs and Mickey are any predictor, there will continue to be interest for new cartoons, new movies, and new stories about the Simpsons and the rest of Springfield. There’s no telling what will happen and what they will do, and whatever it is may have nothing to do with what we think of today as The Simpsons.
Before all that though, before the video games, t-shirts, movies, and poorly built alarm clocks, before even there was Zombie Simpsons, there was The Simpsons. That brief run of television, less than ten years, spawned all those other things. It remains unparalleled, having launched careers, paved the way for numerous other programs, reached every corner of the globe, inspired countless memes, and made household terms out of made up words like “yoink”, “cromulent”, and “d’oh!”.
Befitting its lordly status, it has also aged extraordinarily well. Kids who weren’t born until after the show began its decline will sit mesmerized by the antics of the Simpson family. Parents who grew up on the old episodes show them to their children. Innumerable individuals quote the show incessantly and repeat their favorite parts to one another.
That enormous attraction doesn’t endure because of amusement park rides or plastic lunch boxes, nor because of video games or all the mediocre seasons of Zombie Simpsons. Homer and Marge, their kids, and the rest of Springfield are still popular and relevant all these years later because The Simpsons was an unprecedented feat of modern culture. Reviewing the overlong episode of Zombie Simpsons FOX released as a movie in 2007, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote:xviii
I have long been of the opinion that the entire history of American popular culture – maybe even of Western civilization – amounts to little more than a long prelude to “The Simpsons.”
Like the crappy merchandise, Zombie Simpsons is an outgrowth of that brilliance, and like them it will be quickly forgotten. The Simpsons, already twenty years old and still beloved, will be watched and enjoyed for as long as there are people who care about us, our culture, and our time.
Continue to Appendix A – A Note on the Term Zombie Simpsons
Notes and Sources
xvi. “Full Series Rankings for the 2009-10 Broadcast Season”, Nellie Andreeva, 27 May 2010, http://www.deadline.com/2010/05/full-series-rankings-for-the-2009-10-broadcast-season/
xviii. “We’ll Always Have Springfield”. The New York Times, 27 July 2007, http://movies.nytimes.com/2007/07/27/movies/27simp.html