The Success Of The Simpsons The Improbable Long-Term Success of The Simpsons When examining the history of modern prime-time television, there is a certain pattern that virtually every successful show inevitably falls into. After a period of initial success, perhaps lasting three or four years, the writing on the show becomes stale by using the same format and same jokes over and over. The viewing audience becomes bored, and eventually, the show fades into television oblivion. Or, as Jeff MacGregor states in The New York Times, “Historically .. (successful shows) collapse under the weight of their own complacency, hanging on for a few lifeless seasons while the producers wait to cash out their millions and move to Maui.” Based on this premise, it would seem that “The Simpsons,” an animated series that debuted in 1987 as thirty second segments on “The Tracey Ullman Show,” should have worn out its welcome long ago.
However, “The Simpsons” is still going strong today. The secret to the show’s success lies in its producers’ ability to understand the expectations of the television audience and the culture that surrounds them. This understanding, combined with “wry sarcasm, topical themes, and superb scripting that puts most other comedies to shame,” as well as some old-fashioned slapstick comedy, makes “The Simpsons” one of the most popular programs in television history. The show is often complex and highly intellectual, while remaining funny at the most basic levels. As Jim Gleeson states in The College Tribune, “The show is rare in rewarding attention to detail, with especially obscure references that ..
even if you had never heard of .. you would still laugh, giddy with the crafted sleight of it all.” This fact that the show works on several levels at once draws a generationally diverse fan base. The adults are attracted by the surprisingly sophisticated dialogue, while the children enjoy the clumsy antics of Homer and the traditionally “cartoonish” aspects of the program. An example of a multidimensional scene occurs in the episode where Marge, the mother of the Simpson family, starts a crusade against campaign violence. Maggie, the baby, is mesmerized by an “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoon show in which the mouse pummels the cat over the head with a sledgehammer. Later in the episode, Maggie imitates the actions of the mouse by hitting her father, Homer, on the head with a sledgehammer, with the music from “Psycho” playing the background.
For the younger audience, the sight of Homer getting hit on the head is funny, much in the same way that the Simpson children laugh as the mouse batters the cartoon cat. The older portion of the viewers takes additional pleasure in recognizing the allusion to the famous horror film. Another simple example of multilevel humor features Homer sitting on the couch, while another Homer walks past the outside window. Although it takes place in a matter of seconds, this scene is one of countless silly but curiously sensational quirks that makes the show “a masterpiece of tiny, throw-away details that accumulate into a worldview.” Because the producers of The Simpsons understand the current industry guidelines for humor and political correctness, they are able to create humor by bluntly crossing these presumed socially acceptable boundaries, while still sending a positive message. One frequently addressed subject on the show is religion, which is a normally sensitive issue on television.
The Simpsons, however tackles religious thought head-on. In one episode, Homer skips church on a particularly cold, snowy Sunday and has the best day of his life. After making his “patented, space-age, out-of-this world Moon Waffles” (melted caramel and waffle batter wrapped around a stick of butter), he watches football on T.V. and, upon finding a penny on the ground, asks aloud, “Could this be the best day of my life?” After visualizing, among other things, his wedding day, he proclaims, “We have a winner!” This sequence would seem to present the idea that going church is a bad thing, but by the end of the episode, the message is reversed. Homer falls asleep amid a pile of “Playdudes” with a lit cigar in his mouth, which falls onto the magazines and sets the house on fire.
After a miraculous rescue, Marge asks Homer whether the catastrophe has changed his mind about going to church. Homer then notices that the Flanders’ (the Simpsons’ intensely religious neighbors) house has caught fire, and asks why God isn’t saving “Charlie Church’s” house. At that moment, a small rain cloud appears above the Flanders’ house and puts out the fire. Homer reevaluates the situation and announces that he will be at church seated “front and center” (albeit fast asleep) next Sunday. This episode is an example of the show’s ability to be “hilarious and subversive but also, somehow, uplifting.” “The Simpsons'” unabated social and political commentary has been illustrated numerous times during the series’ history.
This fearless discussion about controversial topics is extremely rare on television, and is part of what has made the show so successful. Gleeson observes that, “The show does not try to score political points. It targets hypocrisy, corruption and institutionalized laziness wherever it finds them, being cheerfully vicious to whoever the writers think deserves it.” One memorable episode, in which an election is taking place in Springfield, provides an example of this “cheerful viciousness.” An unleashed elephant charges first through a Democratic party convention, which features banners that read “We’re not fit to govern,” and then into a Republican convention, which displays “We’re just plain evil” banners. Because of uncensored social commentary similar to this example, people have accused “The Simpsons” of being “nothing but a mouthpiece for the dangerously liberal viewpoints of its creators, and a shameless celebration of dysfunction.” Nevertheless, the show remains as unrestricted as ever. “The Simpsons” has even created a stir among some of the nation’s most influential political figures. In a 1990 interview with People magazine, former First Lady Barbara Bush called the show “the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.” Soon after, Bush received a letter from “Marge Simpson” demanding an apology. Within two weeks’ time, Bush responded and asked for Marge’s forgiveness for “a loose tongue.” Also, in a 1992 speech to the National Religious Broadcasters convention, then-President George Bush said “The nation needs to be closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons.” While these are certainly not endorsements for the program, it reveals at least that the Simpsons are having somewhat of a political impact on the country.
Despite the large amount of crude, violent content on the show, “The Simpsons” provides an attraction to the viewers on a sentimental level as well. One of the main reasons for this emotional attachment is the thorough development of characters on the program. Occasionally, the producers will devote an entire episode to supporting characters, adding depth and personality to an area that is usually underdeveloped by sitcoms. These characters often st …