A Thoughtful (But Demonstrably Dumb) Defense of Zombie Simpsons

Lots of Hearsay and Conjecture

“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:

Time Magazine Cover (31 Dec 1990)

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. 

24 Responses to “A Thoughtful (But Demonstrably Dumb) Defense of Zombie Simpsons”

  1. 1 Josh
    25 January 2012 at 6:11 pm

    When I was a lad, they showed an episode of the Simpsons every night, Classics and Zombie Simpsons alike.
    As a kid I couldn’t tell the difference. I’d watch “Cape Feare” one night and “the Computer wore menace shoes” the next.

    Yet now that I’m older I can recognize that the superior episodes are from the earlier seasons despite having grown up watching a wide variety of Classic and Zombie episodes.

    So this argument that people think the show was better back-when because they remember it with nostalgia-goggles is largely incorrect. I like the old ones because they’re funnier and more engaging.

  2. 2 jonathan
    25 January 2012 at 8:05 pm

    Bob is a very smart guy. I’m surprised to find out that he’s a Simpson’s apologist.

  3. 3 mmmfreegoo
    25 January 2012 at 9:04 pm

    The nostalgia argument (in relation to a skewed vision of the show for ZS haters) always intrigues me.

    I have such a fuzzy warm feeling when watching seasons 2-9 that I occasionally wonder how I would react if someone unearthed a lost treasure trove of episodes produced during those years.

    How would I feel if they used the same animation qualities, and humour? Would I find them funny, considering my attachment and familiarity to the classic era?

    I’m not 100% sure, but, I remember you posting the Oprah / Simpsons promo a whiles back, and even though it was a quickly tossed off promo, with probably half the effort put into it than the actual episodes produced around that time (according to you, season 4ish), it was still better than most things seen since season 11+

    So I like to think my hate for ZS isn’t because my vision is skewed by nostalgic feelings for the old days.. ..rather, my disdain for ZS is because it is plain terrible, and said failings and my feelings for them are justified each week in your excellent ‘Compare and Contrast’ series. Damn I wish I could sit Groening down in a room, and force him to read them one by one.

    I always say the show should have ended after Phil Hartman’s death, and I will always stand by that.

  4. 4 Stan
    25 January 2012 at 9:05 pm

    Actually sounds like he’s just a regular Simpsons fan. Oh yes, it does have fans! If it didn’t, it would’ve already been off the air. But the thing is, those fans are sloppy morons. Family Guy doesn’t laugh with them, it laughs in their face when they do parodies of themselves. The Simpsons just laughs with them.

    Honestly, there is no changing The Simpsons today. It doesn’t work anymore, not because of the aforementioned arguments, but because it was made to be a 90s show. That era is kaput nonetheless. So, just put it to death already and start focusing on Bob’s Burgers or something. Or make an Asian show – heck, a black guy’s got one!

  5. 5 monoceros4
    25 January 2012 at 9:52 pm

    Good God, this argument again. “It _always_ sucked!” Usually it’s George Lucas fanboys who whip this one out.

    • 6 D.N.
      25 January 2012 at 10:22 pm

      Reminds me of when most clear-thinking people criticised the infantile nature of the “Star Wars” prequels, and George Lucas trotted out the line that the “Star Wars” films were always meant for kids and if you didn’t like the new films then it meant your “inner child” is dead, and your memories of the original movies are clouded with nostalgia.

      It’s an incredibly patronising argument, to absolve something shitty by claiming it’s the detractors who are at fault. If you don’t like something, it’s YOUR fault! Reminds me of Skinner in “The Boy Who Knew Too Much”: “Am I so out of touch? ,,,No, it’s the children who are wrong!”

      • 7 Duke Ellington
        20 November 2012 at 6:09 pm

        Hahaha! great quote!

        It’s so blantantly obvious that the golden years (3-8, in my opinion, peaking at 5) episodes are far superior. It’s these seasons where Homer is at his dumbest AND most heartful– a balance that hasn’t been at equilibrium since. The writing was SMART and witty, same with the references. The simpsons now is a complete bastardization of everything it once was. There’s no going backwards that’s for sure. And the only reason reason it’s still on the air is because they can and do continue to make money off of it. I’m sure the writers are trying but no one expects them to be as good (or as similar) to what the Simpsons was back in the day. But still, you’d expect any self respecting writer to not sink to the lowest common dominator and accept their own mediocrity so much

  6. 26 January 2012 at 12:12 am

    So nostalgia glasses? For me, I grew up watching season 11-on and the rest in syndication. I remember liking most of those episodes as a kid, I suppose. Cut to me watching season 12 on DVD years later and not laughing once for the first two discs, then barely much at all for the second two. There is a decided difference if you watch a season 5 show followed by a season 15, and of course after so many years the series will evolve, but the problem is that it de-evolved, for reasons covered ad nauseum on this blog.
    And “24 Minutes” is in his top 5? Really?

    • 26 January 2012 at 8:19 am

      Yeah, “24 Minutes” has gotta be the worst episode of the show (well, that and “That 90’s Show”).

      Speaking of season 12… isn’t HOMR a pretty good episode? I mean, conceptually it’s a bit flawed, but it has more funny moments and lines than anything else that season or since. I NEVER hear anyone talk about that episode but it’s a diamond in the rough. And, yeah, written by Al Jean.

      • 10 Thrillho
        26 January 2012 at 10:50 am

        Once you get past the stupidity of the premise, there are a few funny and even heartwarming scenes in that one. That and Trilogy of Error are definitely some of the better episodes of Season 12.

  7. 26 January 2012 at 1:59 am

    I was 14 when Season 1 ended and I liked the Simpsons because it WAS NOT a kid’s cartoon.

    These so called apologists really downing the kool-aid more than the people they’re trying to debunk.

  8. 26 January 2012 at 1:49 pm

    Ah this old argument, up there with ‘you’re only a true fan if you like everything’.

  9. 13 Chris
    26 January 2012 at 2:12 pm

    I don’t know if there’s a term coined for this argumentative style, so if there isn’t I should come up with one. It’s where you don’t so much defend one thing, as you do just try to tear down the other. So if “A” is up here — and “B” is down here ___, I don’t defend “B” as much I try to lower “A.” Because if you’re going to defend the current state of the show, I don’t want to hear how the single-digit seasons weren’t as good as I think, I want to hear why seasons 10+ are better than I think.

    As someone who enjoys things both ironically (Ninja Turtles, Saved by the Bell) and geniunely (The Simpsons), I can tell you unequivocally that nostalgia has nothing to do with my love for The Simpsons. In fact, what I really enjoy nowadays are the things I DIDN’T understand as a kid. One of my favorite lines in the entire series is when grandpa is explaining how kids got spanked til the cows came home when he was growing up. “Grover Cleveland spanked me on two non-consecutive occasions.” That’s freaking brilliant. Do you think I understood that at all when I was 9 or 10? Of course not. This show was so great it can be enjoyed when you’re a kid, and then even moreso as an adult.

    The Simpsons are timeless. “One Car in every Garage” will be a relevant episode from here to eternity. Shows like Family Guy and South Park, those are the ones that are only funny in the moment, but will be incredibly dated come 2020.

    • 14 kokairu
      26 January 2012 at 4:51 pm

      Have to agree. It’s so rewarding to watch old episodes now and understand things that were lost on me before.

  10. 26 January 2012 at 2:22 pm

    Funny, for a video titled “The Simpsons is Still Funny” it never goes into a single reason why the show is still funny. You know…the premise of the whole thing. What is so funny about it, specifically? Are there any funny jokes or premises in recent episodes that stand out? Does it parody anything in a unique and clever way? Nope. Nothing. (Spoilers: that’s because the show fucking is awful and he’s totally in denial.)

    Also I love how the whole video takes a shit on how people are simply nostalgic for the older episodes, but then proceeds to give a list of his top 5 favorites, 4 of which are from the exact era he said people were only looking at through rose-tinted glasses.

    I don’t know who this guy is, but he has to be a troll or just a complete idiot. Or both.

    • 16 Charlie Sweatpants
      27 January 2012 at 12:41 pm

      “Funny, for a video titled “The Simpsons is Still Funny” it never goes into a single reason why the show is still funny. You know…the premise of the whole thing.”

      I noticed the same thing. The video was more about him than it was about the show.

  11. 17 swarmingwithmagicrobots
    26 January 2012 at 8:19 pm

    Is The Simpsons still funny?


    Also, Elvis is still alive.

  12. 19 ecco6t9
    27 January 2012 at 5:40 pm

    Didn’t you wonder why you were getting checks for doing nothing?

  13. 20 baconkong
    30 January 2012 at 11:37 pm

    I was a teen around the time of seasons 14 and so on. That was the time I actually watched the show regularly and would go to school spouting quote after quote with all my friends. These should be the episodes most nostalgic for me, but when I watch them now I just feel embarrassed at how I used to love that crap. Meanwhile, the first 10 season never cease to entertain me even though I wasn’t exposed to them until the DVDs came out (so no childhood nostalgia here).
    I guess I’m proof that it isn’t about growing up.

  14. 21 Jack
    21 September 2012 at 6:19 pm

    Stopped reading at: “To be sure, most of those adults were probably on the young side, members of that sweet, sweet 18-34 demographic….”

    You just blasted the guy for speaking for a demographic he couldn’t have researched and came to viable conclusions on then turned around and did the same thing almost immediately.

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