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The Simpsons

…because when future archaeologists assume Bart Simpson was a god, they won’t be completely wrong. Before it became the longest running network sitcom and a billion dollar media franchise, “The Simpsons” began as an edgy animated satire of the American family. While Homer’s buffoonery has driven the main storylines and humor throughout the series, the show has taken advantage of its format to create TV’s most dynamic “cast” of supporting characters voiced by just a few talented performers. “The Simpsons” also successfully expanded into licensing and merchandising early on, which, combined with co-creator James L. Brooks’s ability to fight for the show, has given the animators and writers almost complete creative control over the material throughout the run of the show.



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While it’s a myth that every writer graduated from Harvard, “The Simpsons” has almost always had one of the smartest creative staffs in television. While this hasn’t translated to intelligent comedy one hundred percent of the time – let’s be honest, the show has been on for almost 30 years and there are only a handful who would defend every single episode or season – “The Simpsons” did develop a unique referential style of humor that’s been imitated and parodied by later shows such as “South Park” and “Family Guy.” In fact, there are some who have argued that “The Simpsons” tendency to make topical and pop cultural references has hurt the show’s humor, though this feels somewhat hollow when you consider the show’s global appeal (not to mention that Shakespeare made a bunch of timely and erudite references, but he’s still pretty relevant a few hundred years later). For instance, how many contemporary fans know that the show’s nerdy scientist, Professor Frink, is a parody of Jerry Lewis’s schtick in "The Nutty Professor?" Yet he remains among the show’s most popular minor characters. Or is the self-aware skewering of the Fox network any less funny now that the show is syndicated all over the place and even streaming (God bless the developers of the FX app)? The show’s trademark layering of allusions, parodies and “in”-jokes also takes advantage of animation’s built-in strength as a medium: if you can draw it, you can do it. Perhaps in the later seasons, it’s made the jokes seem less organic and more random, but for better or worse, this style of comedy is among the show’s lasting influences.

The success of “The Simpsons” rests largely on the characters. If you don’t believe us, just ask the merchandising department for the numbers, or see how many different versions there are of “Best Simpsons Character Ever” lists on the web (yes, we’re partial to the Comic Book Guy). While the Simpson family itself was always meant to be a biting satire of the American nuclear family (to the point that Homer works at a nuclear plant), each of the Simpsons is defined by a few distinct comedic flaws. Homer is fat, stupid and lazy; Bart, the troublemaker with just enough of a conscience; Lisa, too smart for her own good; and Marge, practical to a fault. Despite their outward simplicity, it’s the interaction of these different traits that makes the show so memorable. On top of that, the show has an essentially unlimited supply of supporting characters to draw on for storylines, jokes or even as “extras” in a scene. Again, this is an example of “The Simpsons” understanding animation’s greatest strength, as well as having an extremely (and also very well-compensated) set of actors. Live-action productions can be limited by factors like budget and availability, but cartoons basically need visual imagination and some funny voices.

If money is power, it’s hard to argue against the might of “The Simpsons.” It’s true that these days, “The Simpsons” can basically do whatever the hell it damn well pleases – if the animators demanded a hard-core orgy scene, the Fox network would at least take a meeting to discuss whether it was worth the FCC fines. Yet even in its early years, the creative staff has had a lot of control over the material. Partly, this is due to the status of James L. Brooks, the series co-creator, who prior to becoming richer than Mr. Burns himself through this show had won an Oscar for directing and served as the supreme overlord for an empire of successful TV shows. Moreover, when “The Simpsons” first aired, the newly founded Fox was closer to the spirit of Comedy Central or Adult Swim than one of the major networks. This creative freedom enabled the irreverent spirit that defined the show. While it may seem tame by “South Park” standards, it was pretty daring to have an animated 10-year old character whose catchphrase was, “I’m Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?” The show also took a pretty no-holds barred approach to making fun of sensitive subjects that hit close to home, like stealing cable TV, censoring cartoon violence or even network suggestions that the series needed a fresh new face. Now, maybe there are some people out there (most likely in TV executive offices right now) who would object to the claim that such creative freedom is responsible for the show’s massive success…but it clearly hasn’t hurt. And “The Simpsons” has also been willing to play the game, using merchandising as a way to build its popularity and wield almost unlimited control over the material.

Resources

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The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! of Homer (Popular Culture and Philosophy)

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