“The Simpson’s” is the world’s longest-running cartoon, the world’s longest-running sitcom, Tony Blair, Mel Gibson, Tom Jones, The Who, U2, Britney Spears and many more have contributed to it. The president of the U.S.A has criticised it, held it up as an example to fathers in western society by experts in their field, and its appeal transcends culture, class, age, gender and race. “The Simpson’s” was created by Matt Groening, who has become a household name. Based on his own family, the characters were created in a rush of genius when he realised he would have to sell the publishing rights to his cartoon rabbit if he wanted to use it on the Tracey Ulman show. They were originally shown on The Tracey Ullman Show in a thirty-second slot. Then, by popular demand, they went on to have a prime time show of their own. The only other cartoon that had managed this is “The Flintstones” in the 1960s when there were fewer channels and less audience sophistication. It is undeniably popular, regularly drawing huge crowds of 24 million people from over 100 countries. But why has it achieved such huge popularity?
The codes and conventions of a cartoon are different to any other medium. The cartoon medium allows “The Simpsons” to use both slapstick humour and biting satire; this gives it a “kidult” appeal. Human actors would lose the dignity needed to perform satire when they performed slapstick. Also, it would be difficult to get a large bald actor’s head stuck between two halves of a drawbridge like Homer’s head is in one episode. The program’s longevity also depends on its medium; if “The Simpson’s” had used human actors, Bart would now be 25. The program’s characters never change; this lets the viewer become familiar with the show, and when the show breaks that familiarity, it can create humour. For example, Homer always wears a white shirt and blue jeans; however, in one episode, he changes into a swimming costume. The sudden revelation of his enormous bulk is extremely amusing.
“The Simpsons” is a cartoon but is also generically a situation comedy or sit-com. Situation comedies are generally about a family or a group acting as a family, the theme of family is familiar to everyone, so sit-coms have mass appeal. Sit-coms avoid the presence of unique family routines by returning to the status quo at the end of each episode; in one episode of “Friends”, Joey can become incredibly rich, but by the end of the episode, he will have lost it all, joeys wealth will be used as a plot device and then discarded. By using the status, quo sitcoms can create self-contained episodes which can be targeted at different types of families without disturbance from other episodes. Sitcoms used to have small live audiences to respond to the humour; this and the limited technology available made it impossible to make an animated sitcom. Cartoon sitcoms were made possible with the advent of the “limited animation” technique and canned laughter. “The Simpsons” challenges the sitcom genre as it has an absence of canned laughter; it even uses canned laughter to attack the falseness of the sit-com genre.
“The Simpsons” often “bites the hand that feeds it” like this and, because it does so, has developed its own roughish character. Rouges are always popular. It is impossible to imagine “The Simpsons” without humour. Although, while watching “The Simpsons”, it is impossible not to notice it is built on the foundations of short sketches, there are quick jokes unrelated to the main narrative running through the text, such as Marge trying to eat a piece of celery at a candy convention and being told she needs to put sugar on it. “The Simpsons” blends this fast humour with the main plot seamlessly; the action never stops. “The Simpsons” humour appeals to both my seven-year-old cousin, who enjoys Homer saying “Doh”, to my seventy-four-year-old grandfather, who enjoys the way the programme satirises the church culture he is part of.
By analysing the title sequence in “The Simpson’s, many of its popular features can be observed. “The Simpson’s” title sequence begins with the title appearing in the clouds with angelic music playing. This heavenly scene contrasts with the Simpsons’ life. Bart often misbehaves and gets detention, and Homer is always drinking “Duff”. Straight after this, we are given an overall view of Springfield, which, to the casual observer, appears to be a normal town. However, if we look at the town carefully, we soon see this is not the case; there is a small fire burning which seems to be made entirely of car tires. We then zoom in on the elementary school, and the title sequence begins properly. During the title sequence, we are introduced to the family and are given clues to the type of people they may be. For example, at one point, we see a band in which Lisa is a member of the band are playing “The Simpsons'” theme music, but Lisa decides to play her own music on her saxophone instead. This tells us she is an individual and has a strong force of will.
We are introduced to several minor characters in the show; these are mostly stereotypes common to American life. For example, one of the stereotypes shown is Apu, a hardworking Indian corner shop owner; this is a common stereotype all over the western world. Several sequences change from episode to episode, for instance, the “couch gag”. These exist to give loyal viewers a reason to return to the title sequence. The shot will usually track a moving image such as Bart’s skateboard or the family cars. This keeps the sequence energetic and fluid; the sequence never feels like it is too long as it constantly gives us new information before we have time to work out what is going on. For example, in one scene, we see thirty-plus characters on a field; the shot pans across this scene so quickly we can never focus on a single character face.
At the end of the sequence, the show satirizes the typical American end of show sequence seen on sitcoms such as “the Flintstones” when the family gathers on the couch, with jetpacks! This is a subtle reference to “The Jetsons”; a futuristic clone of “The Flintstones” made in the 1960s. In fact, the Simpsons title sequence seems to be Satirizing “The Flintstones” title sequence; the music, the theme of going home and the general motion of the camera all feel very familiar. This subtle intertextuality makes people who have never seen “The Simpsons” comfortable despite all the new information presenting itself and gives die-hard fans a reward.
Some people see “The Simpsons” as a harmful influence Anne Mcelvoy from the Daily Telegraph even considers that when it is “shown in an early slot to children”, there is “manipulation” afoot. Newsweek believes it “shamelessly panders to a kids eye view of the world,” Homer himself says that cartoons are “just stupid drawings designed to give you a cheap laugh” before standing up to reveal his rear. I would argue that “The Simpsons” is an extremely accurate reflection of western society and, in being so, teaches us “all life’s lessons”, as Mel Gibson says. By exaggerating our faults and strengths, the show shows us what we need to do to become better people or what is wrong that we do not know about. For example, in one episode, Bart tries to learn the electric guitar, and as he can’t “get real good real fast”, he gives up; this taught me the virtues of patience better than any ancient myth. “The Simpsons” is, as the Archbishop of Wales said, “one of the most subtle pieces of propaganda around in the cause of sense, humility and virtue.
I think “The Simpsons” will not keep its popularity as a running series, although it will always keep it in repeats. This is because there are not simply enough situations to make comedy out. This is a problem inherent in all sitcoms, and it is astonishing that “The Simpsons” has been going for this long without repeating itself. I have been watching some of the more recent episodes, and I believe “The Simpsons” has peaked; some of the plots are bizarre, others are stretched over a whole episode when they have only ten minutes of value and worst of all, the characters in the family are beginning to appear in situations which do not make sense. The increasing number of characters in “The Simpsons” signals all three of these things. Despite all this, I imagine many years from now; historians will not use newspapers and government reports to find out about the twenty-first-century culture. Still, they will use episodes of “The Simpsons”.