This week’s post is an open letter to Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons.
Dear Mr. Groening (rhymes with “complaining”),
I have wanted to write to you for a very long time, but it’s hard to know what to say. I feel like if I saw you in real life, I would be so star-struck that I would be nearly unable to speak, and I don’t get star-struck very easily (I’ve handled encounters with Scott Ian from Anthrax, Scott Bakula, and Kurt Fuller (Russell from Wayne’s World) with minimal heart palpitations). But with you, things are different. I fear that my words cannot effectively convey the powerful and profound impact you’ve had on my life.
As you may expect, I am a huge fan of The Simpsons. Now don’t get me wrong, I also absolutely love Futurama, and Life in Hell is one of my favorite comics (and really, I could probably write an entire other letter about that comic—in fact, I think everything I know about love I learned from Binky and Sheba (and, to some extent, Akbar and Jeff)). But even without those sources of entertainment, I would likely still be the same or a similar person as I am today. I cannot say the same for The Simpsons. So much of my wit, my sense of humor, my appreciation for culture, and my overall worldview is derived from the hours upon hours I’ve spent in my lifetime watching that show.
I cannot but help to smile when I reminisce about my earliest encounters with Bart, Lisa, Marge, Homer and Maggie. The very first episode I saw was “Homer’s Odyssey,” and as I was 8 years old at the time, most of the excitement came from getting to watch a cartoon during prime time. Early on, my favorite character, of course, was Bart. Although my contemporary, he was much more rebellious than me, and I was secretly jealous of his “underachiever and proud of it” and “aye carumba!” shenanigans. Like every other kid in the early 90s, I took to saying “Don’t have a cow, man,” and I perhaps uttered the occasional “eat my shorts.” I had a Bart Simpson piggie bank. I knew all the words to “Do the Bartman.” Hell, I did the Bartman.
The animation in Season 1 was crude, as were the stories and the character development, but to and 8 year-old, that was just fine. Season 2 came around and the show gained a little more depth. In some ways, it became a real sitcom—dealing with more socially-inclined issues like Christian morality (with Lisa’s opposition to Homer’s illegal cable hook-up), the importance of telling the truth (when Bart gets hit by a car), the environment (with the introduction of “Blinky”), and charity (when Grandpa donates his money to his fellow retirees). The show introduced guest stars, but used timeless celebrities with universal appeal, leveraging their talents mainly for voice purposes only (Harvey Fierstein as Karl, Danny Devito as Uncie Herb, Dustin Hoffman as Mr. Bergstrom, Tracey Ullman as the obedience school trainer, Jon Lovitz as Marge’s art teacher (“and even a rhombus!”), James Earl Jones reading “The Raven”—Ringo Starr was the only celebrity who played himself, I believe). Bart was still the showcased character—with his jumping of Springfield Gorge and mastery of mini-golf—but Homer, or really, Homer’s idiocy, began to play a much more important role, whether it be the cause of ruin for Powell Motors or source of Lisa’s humiliation in front of her substitute teacher. The themes of the episodes became more complex, the animation sharper, the jokes funnier. “Treehouse of Terror”, one of the greatest annual traditions in television history, was introduced.
Season Three was the beginning of what I like to call “the Golden Years” of the Simpsons. This was when each episode became an amalgamation of subtle but witty cultural references, eternally-quotable lines, new lovable characters, and, most importantly, a joke every 8 seconds. A funny joke, at that. Different people will argue about how long the Golden Years lasted, but I would probably say at least through Season Eight (my sophomore year of high school). Starting in 8th grade, The Simpsons was syndicated, and I would watch it every single day, viewing and re-viewing those Golden Years episodes until I had memorized nearly every line.
How often do I find myself quoting a Golden Years episode? Weekly? Daily? Hourly? How often do I have the occasion to open a conversation with “I am called Ham, because I enjoy Ham Radio”? How often have I begged a woman, “take my hand with your glove of love”? During the Occupy Wall Street Protests, did we not all sing, “We’ll march day and night, by the big cooling tower, they have the plant but we have the power,” and then beg the guitar player to break into Classical Gas? When we need a helping hand, do we not say, “hand me my patching trowel, boy?” When we bust through a customs gate at a state border, do we not say in the squeaky voice of the pimply-faced teen, “Boss, it happened again”? In the winter snow, do we not find ourselves humming, “I’m Mr. Plow, that’s my name, that name again is Mr. Plow,” and then do we not get bored with the waiting game and play Hungry Hungry Hippos instead?
It wasn’t just me—the Simpsons became part of our national parlance:
No TV and no beer make Homer something something.
I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords.
Barney forever, Wiggum never.
As of now, Lionel Hutz no longer exists. Say hello to Miguel Sanchez!
Think unsexy thoughts, think unsexy thoughts…
Who controls the British crown, who keeps the metric system down?
I see you’ve played knifey-spooney before.
Disco Stu doesn’t advertise.
Staring at my sandals? That’s a paddlin’.
Do not touch Willie. Good advice!
Oh lord, protect this rocket house and all who dwell within this rocket house.
A big, hot, flat rock for Jub-Jub.
Tastes like burning.
You kissed a girl? That’s so gay.
Don’t you hate pants?
The Kwik-E-Mart is real D’oh!
“D’oh.” Possibly your most important contribution to the American, no, world-wide, lexicon (although some may disagree). I believe it’s now in the OED. I still find myself saying that word (interjection? ejaculation?) constantly when I fuck up, which is an awful lot. We used to say it so much in middle school that I think my history teacher made its utterance grounds for punishment. But honestly, when you mistake the Battle of Fredricksburg for the Battle of Vicksburg, is there a more appropriate way to express your in-class humiliation? I think not.
Then again, with The Simpsons around, was there really any need for formalized education? All of the subjects were covered by the show. I learned U.S. history watching Ralph and Lisa depict George and Marsha Washington, respectively. I learned about the Coriolis effect watching Bart flush the toilet in both hemispheres. I learned about religion when Flanders attempted to baptize Maggie. I learned a number of great SAT words when Homer had his subliminal vocabulary builder. The Simpsons taught me about all sorts of important literary and cinematic masterpieces. Sideshow Bob introduced me to Gilbert and Sullivan. When I finally watched Citizen Kane in high school, I suddenly understood the Bobo episode, and got that reference in the Streetcar Named Desire episode when homer tears up the program into little strips. And then in college, when I finally read A Streetcar Named Desire, I understood the rest of that same Streetcar episode. I was thrilled about the references to It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World in the car burglar episode, as, thanks to my father, that was one of my favorite films growing up.
As I watched more, learned more, and fell more in love, I started to attempt to emulate the kind of humor displayed in the show. That particular brand of wit, humor, irony and impeccable comedic timing inspired me. I worked harder in school, so I could be smart enough to make people laugh like The Simpsons. I watched more old movies so that I could casually drop mildly-obscure-yet-poignant references like The Simpsons. In addition to that, I endlessly researched all of the allusions on the show so that I could better understand The Simpsons. I remember the day I discovered that The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo was actually a spin-off of B.J. and the Bear, a show whose title I still cannot say out loud with a straight face. In school, I was an obnoxious Lisa, but outside of the confines of the classroom, I longed to be a loveably oafish Homer, for it was during the Golden Years that Homer replaced Bart as the face of the show, and this switch was genius. So genius, in fact, that Fox started airing another prime time cartoon that prominently featured a fat, stupid father. Although Family Guy had its moments, I was always, and will always, be fiercely loyal to The Simpsons.
But now comes the hard part of the letter, Mr. Groening. Unfortunately, The Simpsons is not immune to the maxim that “all good things must come to an end.” I will never forget the first episode of The Simpsons that truly disappointed me. It was in Season Eight, the Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie episode. Granted, I certainly liked some episodes more than others up to that point, but I&S&P was the first time that, on Monday morning, when a few friends and I gathered together during first period English to discuss Sunday’s episode (as was the weekly tradition), the general consensus was, “meh”. As you recall, this episode attempted to show the harm that occurs when network execs try to stray away from a timeless formula (in that case, extreme cartoon violence) in favor of something that will appeal to the “new generation” (a skateboarding dog who can talk and is “rastafied”). The message was effectively conveyed, in that it was unpleasant to watch. The point was taken—next week, the show bounced back with the John Waters episode (Zzzaaapp!), and all was forgiven.
And then, slowly, more and more “bad episodes” started cropping up. The one where Lisa went to military camp—it was supposed to be heartwarming, but ended up just being boring. The one where Lisa doubts if the angel skeleton is genuine. The one where Lisa learns to tap dance. I suppose we could say that one of the characters on the show was less funny than the others. Let’s call her “Lisa S.” No, that’s too obvious…let’s say “L. Simpson.” Then came the death of Phil Hartman, and the subsequent losses of Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure—holes in the show that have never, nay, can never be replaced.
Don’t get me wrong—you and the gang continued to make some utterly brilliant, endlessly-quotable episodes. The Tomacco episode remains a classic. Living in Japan, nary a week goes by that I don’t say, “Your game shows reward knowledge. Here, we punish ignorance.” The land of the jockeys episode taught me all sorts of new things about the world of horse racing. “Bring me my ranch dressing hose”—need I say more? The references continued to intrigue me; after seeing the episode where Homer is taken to “The Island,” I had to go and rent the entire run of the original The Prisoner on DVD.
These were my college years. Although the show did not achieve the same level of wit, sophistication and utter hilarity as it did during the Golden Years, I was still happy to tune in every Sunday at 8, in addition to the other three times I would watch the show on syndication every day (the addition of the third daily episode at 11 PM was clutch). I was still in love.
I graduated from college, and the show’s descent southward accelerated. Starting around Season 13, it becomes more and more difficult for me to remember quotes, or even episodes. The good episodes were now just okay, and bad episodes increased in number. By Season 16 or so, it was considered a win if an episode was a touch beyond mediocre. The same jokes that were once hilarious were played out far beyond the point of being funny: So Carl and Lenny might have some homosexual tension—we get it. So Comic Book Guy is the real-life manifestation of an internet troll—we get it. So Marge and Homer’s marriage is constantly on the verge of failure—we get it.
And then, starting just a couple of years ago, the show lost all integrity. Looking to appeal to today’s modern audience, the Simpsons gave up its old tried-and-true formulae for comedic triumph and replaced them with the proverbial stones of comedic shame. Instead of using guest stars for their vocal talents, the show now includes a cameo by a new flavor-of-the-month every week—did we really need David Copperfield in an episode about magic, or Gordon Ramsey in an episode about food, or Mark Cuban in an episode about rich people? Yes, it’s true—the average TV watcher knows who these people are, but that doesn’t mean they make the show any better. The same goes for references—references to Citizen Kane, A Streetcar Named Desire, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and Dallas (my dad made a big point of letting us know that “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” was a spoof) have apparently been deemed too out-dated for today’s “generation this second” viewer, and so all references must be to contemporary sources, such as Harry Potter, Avatar or Breaking Bad. It’s as if the show has become exactly what we were warned about in the Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie episode—pandering to a bland, uncultured, short-attention-spanned audience in the hopes of higher ratings, with the result being a vastly inferior product.
Many of my fellow die-hard Simpsons fans gave up watching—it hurt them too much to see their love so corrupted—but I’ve stayed true. I have watched 500 episodes of the Simpsons—how many people can say they’ve done anything 500 times? The 500th episode, like every episode this season, was a disappointment (fart jokes in the Halloween episode, for Pete’s sake). The only point in the 500th episode that made me chuckle was that moment, right after the opening credits, when Homer, wearing a tux, is strangling Bart, also wearing a tux. How nostalgic this made me, for it was this very act of child abuse (and the accompanying “why you little!”) that was part of what put The Simpsons on the map 23 years ago—when it was considered so edgy and so controversial to show a father abusing his son in an otherwise comedic show.
So now, Mr. Groening, I must make one of the most difficult requests I have ever made in my life. Please, for the sake of my memories, for the sake of the impact that your show had on my life and the lives of millions, if not billions, of others, stop making The Simpsons. Tears are falling on my keyboard as I type this. I never thought I would want my romance with The Simpsons to end, but what can I say—I still love The Simpsons, but I am no longer in love with The Simpsons. None of us are, and I know that I am not the only one who urges you to bow out gracefully. Right now. The show had an amazing run, and now it’s time us to all move on.
Do not worry, Mr. Groening. The Golden Years alone and their impacts on humor, society, and the world are enough to guarantee you a spot in heaven, where you will have more sex and Vietnamese spring rolls you can shake a stick at. I will never forget you or your show. None of us will. You changed our lives. You made the world a better place. And although it is time to say goodbye, you, and Bart, and Lisa, Marge, Homer, Maggie, Ned, Maude, Rod, Todd, Dr. Hibbert, Reverend and Helen Lovejoy, Bumble Bee Guy, Otto, Ms. Kraboppel, Ms. Hoover, Nelson, Jimbo, Dolph, Kearney, Lenny, Carl, Mr. Burns, Smithers, Comic Book Guy, Milhouse, Sherri, Terri, Jamie, Radioactive Man, Fallout Boy, Lionel Hutz, Troy McClure, Patty, Selma, Grandpa, Dr. Nick, Kent Brockman, Mayor Quimby, Moe, Barney, Chief Wiggum, Ralph, Lunchlady Doris, Principal Skinner, Superninteno Chalmers, Groundskeeper Willie, Martin, Uter, Duffman, Disco Stu, Hans Moleman, Jasper, Apu, Agnes Skinner, and countless others, will always be in our hearts, forever and ever and ever.
“There’ll be no accusations, just friendly crustaceans, under the sea.”