The Simpsons Folder
Mmmm… The Simpsons: Comic strip gives fans a new way to enjoy America’s favorite TV family
January 17, 2002, By Roscar Abeyta, Tucson Citizen
The Simpsons, those four-fingered, yellow-skinned denizens of Springfield who seemingly dominate every time slot on television, have set their sights on conquering another branch of the media: newspapers. More specifically, this newspaper.
Beginning today, Calendar will run the new Simpsons color cartoon, bringing Homer, Marge, their boy Bart and daughters Lisa and Maggie to your doorstep every Thursday.What a long, strange trip it has been for America’s most loved, and reviled, TV family and creator Matt Groening. The cartoonist, at the time known only for his indie cartoon “Life in Hell,” created the Simpsons as an occasional 30-second bit for “The Tracey Ullman Show” on the Fox network in 1987. “The Simpsons” premiered as a half-hour series with a Christmas show in December 1989 and took up regular weekly residence in the nation’s living rooms the following month. The rest is broadcasting and licensing history. Through smart merchandising decisions and smarter script writing, the Simpsons have become icons of American family dysfunction. By the mid-1990s, it became almost impossible to avoid images of the family on T-shirts, toys and even toothbrushes. Merchandising and licensing agreements have netted Groening and Fox a reputed $1 billion. But what ultimately sustained the family’s popularity was the show itself, which points its satirical guns at modern life with greater precision than any show before or since. The sharp wit and smart-alecky attitude have satirized institutions across the spectrum. Its multilayered writing has bridged the gap between popular culture and the esoteric. Guest appearances by bands from *N Sync to Sonic Youth share screen time with high-falutin’ literary and historical references. Sideshow Bob, jailed for trying to kill Bart, wears the same prisoner number as Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables.” See, and you thought it was all “Woo hoo” and “Cowabunga.”
Long a popular show at universities, the Simpsons are now making the move from late-night discussion sessions in dorm rooms to serious discussions in the classroom. Two books published last year examined the religious and philosophical underpinnings of the show and have been adopted by Siena Heights University in Minnesota for serious study. William Irwin, associate professor of philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., co-edited a book of philosophical treatises revolving around the characters in the Simpsons. Essays by his colleagues in “The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! of Homer” plumb the depths of Homer’s Aristotelian ethics, feminist theory based on Simpsonian sexual politics, and a Kantian perspective of the Simpson family morals.
“As educators, we found that to bridge the gap between teacher and student, we needed to find something students could relate to,” Irwin said. Do these studies have anything to do with the price of squishees in Springfield? After all, isn’t it still just a cartoon – on the Fox network, no less? “It can be watched on so many other levels,” Irwin said. “People will be laughing at a number of the same things, but be laughing at them for different reasons.” Precisely because Springfield is a cartoon world, the issues and moral conflicts that family members face tend to be clearly delineated and their actions are open to philosophical discussion, he said. “I don’t recommend that anyone look for philosophical answers in the Simpsons,” Irwin cautioned, but the show provides plenty of fodder for discussion.
Many people might take issue with another book, which asserts the Simpsons are the most religious family on television. “There is more religious practice and more religious discussion in ‘The Simpsons’ than any other show on prime time, with the exception of ‘7th Heaven’ and ‘Touched by and Angel,’ ” said Mark Pinsky, author of “The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World’s Most Animated Family.” Pinsky, longtime religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel, said despite the show’s reputation for subversive humor, God and religious practice are never mocked on the show. Organized religion does take its fair share of hits. “The Simpsons say grace at dinner,” he noted. “The Simpsons go to church every Sunday. When they get in trouble – big trouble – they pray. They pray out loud, and God answers their prayers.”
Pinsky argues that the Simpsons’ religious practices more closely mirror those of the average viewer than any other TV family’s. The show – reviled by then-President George W. Bush as espousing anti-family values – has ended up being more like the typical American family than Bush could have guessed, Pinsky said. Its animated nature makes it easier for the show’s writers to slip religion into prime time, he added. “Because it’s a comedy – a completely animated comedy – people are willing to accept stuff and accept jokes and dialogue that they would never accept if they came out of the mouths of live actors,” Pinsky said. Not that anyone would claim the Simpsons are the model Christian family, but where else on the dial can you get regular discussion on the perils of adultery, blasphemy and stealing? Oh, yeah, then there’s Ned Flanders, the evangelical next-door neighbor. In the chapter titled “The Evangelical Next Door,” Pinsky describes him as “a good-natured doofus,” which he certainly is. And though the show has fun at Ned’s expense, the writers steer clear of ridiculing character and beliefs. “If you look at the character as a whole, he’s not a hypocrite, and he’s always motivated by love,” Pinsky said. Arguably, evangelical Christians get better treatment on “The Simpsons” than they do in other parts of the mainstream media.
So how does all this translate into print? Lee Salem, the editor at Universal Press Syndicate responsible for bringing the strip to American newspapers, said the creative team has handled the challenges well. “I think they’re familiar with the translation problems from something that’s moving to something that’s quiet and still,” Salem said. “They’ve done a good job of mixing up the themes, and they have shown a lot of flexibility of what they’ve done.” The strip at first will appear in 20 papers across the country, but he hopes to sign up 100 or more, he said. In the 12 years of its existence, the Simpson family has invaded our world, held a mirror up to the collective American face, and then pointed and laughed at us. Ay, caramba!