Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Single Most Important Piece of American Culture, Ever

That's right. I said it. Suck on that Jackson Pollock.

Alright. This title is a little hyperbolic. By the way, I learned that word from the episode where Bart takes over Kamp Krusty Lord of the Flies style and Kent Brockman offers this line as he broadcasts from the chaos, "I've been to Vietnam, Cambodia and Bosnia and this reporter can firmly say without hyperbole that this is a million times worse than all of them put together." Comedy gold! But I don't think I'm exagerating to say that The Simpsons is the best TV show ever produced.

Yes, readers who are over 50. It's better than MASH. Unlike MASH, it's actually funny. And hell of a lot less preachy.

Right now as we speak, (well, I guess as I write and as you read) there is a box of worn out VHS tapes in my parent's basement filled with Simpson episodes recorded off their original broadcast. These tapes have been watched and rewatched and studied and cherished over the years. They have allowed me and my brothers to incorporate an entire lexicon of Simpson quotes, ready to be recited for any occasion. A hundred years ago, my little brother composed his talk for my mission farewell almost entirely out of Simpson quotes. It was seamless. Of course, I now own the DVDs of all the seasons that really matter (2-8). And even though I have seen them all countless times and they are on syndication 4 times a day, I rewatch them regularly to bask in their familiar brilliance.

Let me, for a moment, take you all back to my 13th birthday. It was a Thursday. I know because The Simpsons were on at 7:00 Thursdays back then beating the hell out of the Cosby Show, sending it to an early grave. My family went out to eat at Benihana to celebrate my awesome life. Now, I'm sure it was an excellent meal and that I received many wonderful presents. But the only thing I remember from it, nearly twenty years later, was going home and watching the last five minutes of the episode where Bart becomes a dare devil.

We went into my parent's room (that was where the VCR was and you better believe we were taping it) and saw what could be the funniest moment of entertainment I have ever witnessed in my life. I don't know if I have ever laughed that hard since. I actually gave myself a nosebleed. Seriously. In the finale of that episode, Homer accidentally jumps the Springfield Gorge on Bart's skateboard. Well, he almost jumps it.

Now, you have all seen that scene a thousand times. Homer accidentally rolls down the gorge, hits the jump and briefly thinks he's going to make it. He falls way short. He then plummets down the side of a cliff and is hit in the head with the skateboard when he lands. A helicopter then lifts him out of the gorge on a stretcher and into an ambulance that drives directly into a tree. The back of the ambulance opens and Homer then falls down the same cliff in the same way only to be hit in the head with the stretcher when he lands. There is beauty in symmetry.

Now there is nothing new about cartoon violence. It's as old as animation. But what made this so damn funny, was the fact that the result of the violence was not exaggerated to a cartoonish degree. Homer didn't turn into an accordion when he hit the ground. The effect of the fall was pretty realistic. You saw him get cut up by the rocks, you heard his bones break in the fall. Now, of course there was a clear suspension of reality. Homer's life was never in danger and the audience knows that, which makes it okay to laugh yourself into a nosebleed. This is one example of The Simpsons taking a tried a true formula (a cartoon falling off cliff) tweaking it just a little bit and in the process completely reinventing it.

Let me point out another example of why this show is so good. Ned Flanders. Now the cheap and easy route to take with a squeaky clean, ultra friendly, Christian neighbor would be to tear him down. Present him as a judgmental hypocrite. But The Simpsons never did that. Ned really is that good of a guy. He really is that kind, generous, patient and thoughtful. It's Homer who is the judgmental bastard. But we the audience find ourselves laughing at Ned. We mock his righteousness. And by doing so we reveal that we all have a lot more in common with loud, inconsiderate, stupid Homer than sincere, giving Ned. And as shameful and unavoidable as that revelation may be, we just keep laughing. That is satire that would put Oscar Wilde to shame.

(I would now like to point out that I have never actually read anything written by Oscar Wilde, nor could I even name one of his works. Just another unsubstantiated statement. All blogs are required to have at least one per entry. As well as several sentence fragments.)

Okay, I'm going to ease up on the gushing compliments. It would be difficult to write a blog entry that would effectively articulate just how ground breaking, original, and endlessly funny the pitch perfect satire of this show is. If you have been a faithful follower since the Christmas Special in 1989 up to the present, anything I say will be redundant. And I will end up using the word "awesome" like a thousand times and that just gets nauseating.

Instead, I want to focus on the fact that despite a common misconception, the show continues to be incredibly good. Yesterday, I read this article that highlighted ten episodes of The Simpsons from the last five seasons that stand among the series' best. Although I disagree with some of their selections, this article does a good job of illustrating that the last five seasons of The Simpsons have been back to their old genius ways.

Some would have you believe that The Simpsons lost their way about ten years ago. I will certainly agree that their prime was seasons 4 through 7. During that golden stretch, every single episode was saturated with layered, intelligent humor that I never tire of. But, about 1998 or so, they started getting stale. Every episode had a funny line or two, but they would slap together three or four weak storylines into the same episode to stretch it to 22 minutes. The writers of the show were fully aware of this and would often include self mocking lines ridiculing their own mediocrity. "Worst. Episode. Ever!" But that didn't compensate for the average shows. The quality definitely dropped. The popular consensus was that the show had lost its status and it was a matter of time before it faded away.

But about five years ago, the show quietly regained its edge. It's still not on par with those golden years of in the early to mid 90's, but it's been damn good the last few years. Observe the following graph that scientifically charts the show's excellence over its 20 season history.

It starts off solid, 6 out of 10. This is the T Shirt era. The "Do the Bartman" era. Back when they thought the show was about Bart. But they soon discovered that Homer is the real source of comedy. It steadily improves to those golden years of its prime. Homer Goes To College, Marge On the Lam, Homer the Vigilante, The Stone Cutters, The PTA Disbands. TV cannot get any better than this.

It then drops way down and kind of settles into mediocrity at about a 4 or a 5. This where Lisa turned from being a quizzical little girl who doesn't get the attention she needs to being an obnoxious, pseudo intellectual skeptic. Remember the episode where they discover the angel fossil? I don't want to write that one off completely because it has several hilarious moments, but didn't you just want to smack Lisa in that one? Remember, she was the one who refused to watch stolen cable in the second season. She used to be the moral center of the show. But here she is the equivalent of some snotty college freshman who just took her first Sociology class and proceeds to crap on the beliefs of every one else. That's just an example of how the show went astray.

But by season 15 or so, it rebounds to a respectable 7 or 8. That article I link earlier highlighted 10 episodes that are up the Simpson Standard. A few other moments include Lisa pretends to go to college and gets dropped off at her house. Her college buddies assume she lives in a party house because Homer is drinking a keg and singing Chumba Wumba. The one where Bart writes a comic about Homer and Angry Dad. And just a few weeks ago where Homer doesn't renew his insurance. "Inusrance is the greatest thing ever. I get hurt, I get paid! And man, do I get hurt."

You'll note that crash in season 9. Now, season 9 has some damn fine episodes including the one where Homer buys a gun and the one where Bart is forced to be friends with Ralph. "That's where I saw a Leprechaun. He tells me to burn things." However the whole season needs to take a dive because it also has the Armen Tamzarrian episode. Wow, does that one suck. Holy crap, it is awful. Not one funny line and an idiotic, nonsensical plot.

Within the last few weeks The Simpsons have added a new wrinkle. It is now in HD. Now the idea of a cartoon in HD seemed kind of stupid to me. But it really does add a new level depth. Here is the new and improved intro in HD that includes a million winks and nods to us life long fans as well as the most over the top couch gag ever.

So I want to thank the creators of The Simpsons. You really have enriched my life and I don't feel the least bit pathetic in saying that. You know, with the HD thing there is no reason this show can't keep going for another 20 years. I'm serious, guys. Run this thing into the ground.


Earth Sign Mama said...

As an "over 50" whiner, I must say that I was opposed to the Simpsons being watched at my home---it was definitely adult humor, in my opinion. I never sat down and watched it on purpose. Sometimes I happened to still be sitting there when it was on. And, every single time, I'd end up laughing in a loud, guffawing, choking, soda-through-my-nose fashion. And then I'd hate myself for it. It is definitely a cultural phenomenon.

gilesmatt said...

I have started a blog today so I correct you on the season 9. Seriously, Season nine is a great season.

The Best episode of season 9 is one of the top 25 episode of all time:
Simpson Tide - Homer and friends join the Navy. The difference between a good Simpson episode and a classic Simpson episode not only are they funny from start to finish (Homer, "Damn you, "Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots"! Can't we all just get along?"
Village people, Hunt for Red October, Barny's Mother, The Deer Hunter gag and Homer, "No way, man! My hair is who I am!"
), the story is complete with a very strong beginning and end. It wraps itself nicely. Simpson Tide does this - at the beginning of the episode, Homer says, It's my first day to Mr. Burns so he won't get fired for putting a doughnut in the reactor core.

When Homer has Mr. Moe take the sub to the surface:
American: Attention Homer Simpson: you have ten seconds to explain your actions before we open fire.
Homer:'s my first day!

Homer: You can't spell 'dishonorable' without 'honorable'!

It also wraps Bart's earring subplot with Homer storyline (yes that is very similar to deep space homer, but still very funny)

Simpson Tide - is a classic Simpson Episode

Other Classic Season 9 Episodes

The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson
The Cartridge Family - Homer gets a gun
The Little Wiggly

Season 9 also has a lot of great episodes, that may not be classic

Girly Edition:
Marge: I want you to take that monkey back, so he can be rehabilitated and get a second chance.
Homer: No, no, he's fine! Go on, Mojo! Show Marge your happy dance!

The Joy of Sects
Homer: "Marge, when I join an underground cult I expect a little support from my family!"

Das Bus
Ralph: I ated the purple berries!
[Within moments, he collapses to the ground, groaning in pain.]
Bart: How are they, Ralph? Good?
Ralph: They taste like.. burning!

I guess I should blog about this more

Gregg said...

Don't forget Monorail as one of the funniest ever grom the "Golden Era"

Chris M. G said...

Earth Sigma Mama,

Your comment reminds me of my parents. When the Simpsons first began, they tried to stop us from watching it, making that same "adult show" argument. However, the show was too fabulous for us to obey their orders. Without fail, every time we were busted watching it, mom or dad would end up vainly trying to stifle a laugh as they told us that Bart was a horrible role model.

BusterBluth52 said...

I always thought the whole "Simpsons is evil" argument was a little strange. I understand that the first season featured Homer dancing with a stripper and Marge almost committing adultery. And granted those are adult themes. But the character always did the right thing and I think most kids are smart enough to get that.

I realize that even though it hasn't been that long, TV has changed a lot since those early days. Just look at Family Guy or the abysmal American Dad. Those both make The Simpsons look pretty tame. But the difference is that The Simpsons were never used shock for the sake of shock. Shock value is the only thing that keeps Family Guy alive (although I do like it).

The funny thing about that is that during this whole debate my family would gather around the TV Norman Rockwell style and watch those worn out tapes together and laugh our collective butts off. Seriously, that was the closest thing we ever had to a Family Home Evening. But that being said, the second my mom heard the opening to Married With Children come out of the TV, we would hear her yell from upstairs, "Shut that damn thing off!"

She was probably right about that one.

And Matt, holy hell. I will never cross you again for fear of a comment filibuster. However, I totally agree with you and you have perfectly illustrated my point. Thank you.

With all of the truly great moments from that season, it still is not enough to compensate for Armen Tamzerian. That episode was that toxic. It still drags the whole season, with all its brilliance, down to its low rating. Again, that graph was scientifically determined. The results are not up for debate.

By the way, you forgot my favorite moment from Simpson Tide. They are in the sub and get hit with a torpedo. Moe then says: We've lost main power! We're down to "mood lighting".

The lights dim and "Girl From Ipa Nema" plays softly as Homer does a funny dance. I love that one.

gilesmatt said...

Armen Tamzerian does suck, but Season 9 is just a part of the decline Simpsons peaked at Season 3 thru Season 6 Season 7 thru Season 14 was the decline with season 14 being the worst season made, but still funny. Season 15 was the rebound season.

By the way, How do you reference an article about the last 5 years of the Simpsons that does include Simple Simpson (AKA Pieman) as one of the 20 best episodes. Pieman is golden and he has no credibility.

I will write an angry blog about your graph.

Jim said...

Am I weird for liking that Armen Tamzarian one?

Also, Family Guy rules! Maybe not as good as the simspsons but still real funny.