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Is there anyone in the Western hemisphere who doesn't know the Simpsons theme song from the first note? What makes this satirical cartoon so popular?

When I was a child, no matter where we were, or what we were doing on a Sunday evening, my family and I would drop what we were doing, jump in the car, and dive home to throw ourselves on the sofa to indulge in an hour of our favourite TV show. I only realise now in hindsight that the opening titles of The Simpsons are exactly this scenario: Everyone in the family simultaneously rushes home and converges on the living room sofa to bask in the glow of the television. This perfectly summarizes The Simpsons: life, imitating art, imitating life.

The Simpsons has made itself a runaway hit by cleverly satirizing these mundane habits and idiosyncrasies of family life. From the show’s humble beginnings as a 15-minute slot on The Tracy Ullman Show, it soon became the most watched animated sitcom of all time. Everything about this show is intended to portray the “average” American family: Homer is a blue-collared worker, Marge, a home-maker.  Bart is a trouble-maker, but Lisa is the odd one out insofar as she is extremely intelligent and often caught in left-wing activism. Maggie, the baby, sucks a pacifier and does not speak. The family lives in a basic house in an average suburban town called Springfield, so-named because, with Springfields in over thirty US states, it is the most common name for American towns.  Homer is the safety inspector in a nuclear power plant; he neither enjoys nor understands his job. His boss, the delectably wicked Mr. Burns (who never remembers his name –“Simpson, eh?”) is the face of the soulless greed of Corporate America. His desire to increase his already vast wealth is insatiable, and propelled solely by greed for greed’s sake. It smacks of the Reagonomics of the 80s which popularised the Wall Street phrase “Greed is Good.”

The show satirizes almost every aspect of modern life and American popular culture. This is largely driven by the wide and diverse selection of ancillary characters. Neighbour Ned Flanders is a classic example of how the show satirizes Christianity. His goody-goody pious family members are the opposite of the dysfunctional Simpsons and demonstrate the fundamentalism within the Bible Belt of the US. Everything this family does is within a Christian context to the point of ridiculousness: even the children’s names, Rod and Todd, rhyme with God.

Reverend Lovejoy, the devout pastor of the First Church of Springfield, is often used to depict the hypocrisy of the Christian church. While he preaches against “Gambling: the Eighth Deadly Sin,” the church holds Bingo, Reno, and Monte Carlo nights. Not unexpectedly, the show has received criticism from Christian groups, but it must be noted that the show never ridicules the idea of God; Homer never questions the idea of God, although he does distort interpretations of the Bible to suit himself (“Thou shalt not take…moochers into thy…hut”), which all the various strands of Christianity could easily accuse each other of.

Politics is another area which the writers of The Simpsons regularly lampoon. The Mayor of Springfield, “Diamond Joe Quimby” is portrayed as a corrupt, inept womaniser and his character and Boston accent suggests he is based on John F. Kennedy.  But in the fantastical world of Springfield, his post has been challenged by many other characters, giving license for the writers to send up the US election process; the episode “Mr. Spritz Goes to Washington” sees the Republican Krusty winning an election partly through conservative bias in FOX broadcasting, specifically Fox News Channel, with the presenter referring to the Democratic candidate as ‘our red friend,’ with devil horns, while anti-Democratic slurs such as “Do Democrats cause cancer?,” “Dan Quayle: Awesome,” and “Hilary Clinton Embarrasses Self, Nation” roll across the bottom of the screen. No one is safe from the writers, not even the network that hosts the show; why? The show started in half hour format with FOX in 1989. Due to the fledgling position of the Fox network, producer Jim Brooks obtained an unusual contractual provision that ensured the network could not interfere with the creative process by providing show notes.

This “no-holds-barred” policy has attracted some high profile criticism. Former first lady Barbara Bush said in an interview appearing in People magazine in September 1990 that The Simpsons was “the dumbest thing she's ever seen.”  This was followed through by her husband George Bush, Sr. when he said that he wished the American family would be “more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons,” which the writers cleverly put into an episode when Bart retorted “But we ARE like the Waltons; we're praying for an end to the Depression too!”

The show does not limit itself to television satire, though an argument could be made that the show is, of itself, a satire of the medium in general. Throughout its many seasons, the show has parodied nearly every aspect of suburban and family life, from politics, to sports, to school, to work, etc. But the popularity of The Simpsons lies in its ability to appeal to a diverse audience; as such it truly is family entertainment. The cartoon format and slapstick elements amuse children; the popular culture references, satirical gags and character jokes appeal to adults.

But satire is only one mode of humour in the show. The Simpsons employs numerous types of humour, one of which is the parody. The show is well-known for its parodies of television and drama, which it does frequently and unabashedly. When Bart breaks his leg and is confined to his room, several references are made to “Rear Window.” When Homer buys Lisa a pony she wakes up to the horse lying beside her in the bed, a clear send up of that famous scene from The Godfather. Sometimes they make parodies with the very actors of the original shows, owing to their long list of celebrity cameos including Michael Jackson, Dustin Hoffman, and even Tony Blair.

It seems that the proliferation of stereotypes is also key to the show’s success and everyone has their favourite. Police Wiggam is hilarious as the inept lazy cop (“Why can’t some of these people take the law into their own hands?”) and Troy McClure plays the washed up, desperate actor reduced to info-mercials (an all-too-familiar scenario in the states). Even the main characters themselves have a warm familiarity; how many dads have been accused by their kids of being a Homer?

It is this uncanny ability to connect with the average family and this rare uniqueness that has driven the show's success. Other popular shows in the US are filled with beautiful, successful, rich, smart people, all living “the American dream.” The Simpson family is not attractive, smart, or rich, but they are intrinsically likeable. But it is the show's rash ability to “tell it like it is” which makes The Simpsons the most popular, funny and culturally defining programme the US has ever produced.

1st February 2007
The Simpsons - Art Imitating Life?
By Gabrielle Tierney