Deconstructing the Simpsons: millions of teen viewers know the cartoon is about more than just typical sitcom laughs, but is it art on the level of Aristotle and Shakespeare?
BEN SERVISS, 16, IS A STUDENT AT JOHN H. GLENN High School in East Northport, N.Y. He’s interested in schoolwork, jujitsu, and the mandolin. But one of his strongest passions is The Simpsons, which he started watching midway through its 13-season run. “The show is so great because of the fact that nothing seems stale about it,” he says. “You never know what is coming, and it’s funny.”
Given those reasons, it’s little surprise that no show, except Malcolm in the Middle, attracts more teen viewers–about 2.2 million a week. But The Simpsons is now attracting another sort of audience: scholars. With a surprising number of research projects focusing on the longest-running sitcom on TV, is The Simpsons actually worthy of academic study?
It appears so. When the Fox network first introduced the show on December 17, 1989, few could have imagined the impact that this lovably dysfunctional family would have on American culture. The Simpsons is much more than a cartoon. Beyond the laughs, scholars are digging into the clever writing and satirical commentary.
This year, the series has spawned The Simpsons and Philosophy, an essay collection from college professors and philosophers; The Gospel According to The Simpsons, a book by a religion journalist; and a speech at a Mathematical Association of America convention called “Engaging Students With Significant Mathematical Content From The Simpsons.”
The works are high-minded, if often tongue-in-cheek. In The Simpsons and Philosophy, authors Gerald J. Erion and Joseph A. Zeccardi write, “In Marge, we see that Aristotle’s moral virtues can be successfully applied not just in the abstract, ivory towers of academia, but in the real, workaday cartoon world.” Contributor Mark T. Conrad adds, “Could Bart Simpson be, in the end, the Nietzschean ideal?”
Luckily, viewers who couldn’t tell Aristotle and Nietzsche from Krusty the Clown, Mr. Burns, or Apu can make sense of the show. “The Simpsons tries to have two levels of comedy, always,” says Paul A. Cantor, a University of Virginia professor who won a political science award for his essay “The Simpsons: Atomistic Politics and the Nuclear Family.” “On one level it can be completely slapstick and have garage humor, and on the other hand it can have very sophisticated cultural references about obscure French literature and [architect] Frank Lloyd Wright.”
Straddling those two levels is key to the show. In one episode, Marge dumps Homer as a tennis partner in favor of son Bart. Their daughter Lisa talks it over with Homer. “You know the story of Oedipus Rex, Dad,” Lisa says, referring to the Greek tragedy. “He killed his father and married his mother.” After pausing and scratching his head, attempting to understand, Homer asks, “Who pays for that wedding?”
Multilayered scripts by a staff of highly educated writers have been credited with allowing The Simpsons to transcend television. The show may even verge on art. “I don’t want to compare it quite to Shakespeare, but it is a similar phenomenon,” Cantor says. “There have been many times in history where an artist has been very thoughtful and also been very popular by appealing to two levels at once.”
The Shakespeare comparison holds true at least to the degree that the Bard’s plays also inspired a range of academic examinations. Likewise, Shakespeare’s characters coined thousands of words and catchphrases still used today, just as Homer’s “Doh” made it into the Oxford English Dictionary this year.
The Simpsons’ influence may continue to grow. TV consultant Ted Farone says the show is strong enough to run for a long time to come. He compares it to The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, a 1960s cartoon that served as a satire on the Cold War. That show is still discussed 40 years later. “The Simpsons is one of the all-time great shows,” he says.
Of course, whether high school students will be studying the episode “Much Apu About Nothing” in 400 years remains to be seen.
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