The American animation The Simpsons is now in its 10th season as a show in its own right. It was created by Matt Groening as shorts for the Tracy Ullman Show and was bought by the Fox Network, which began screening it as half-hour shows in 1989. Initially its success was restricted to the 9-16 year old age group, and for animation there is nothing remarkable about this. Its success grew quickly and it is now popular in many countries with many different audiences. “In the 1990s we are seeing dramatic transformations in media industries and media cultures.
In geographical terms, these transformations may be seen in he shift from national to global media. ” The Simpsons can be seen as both a remarkable piece of global culture and as a hugely successful piece of global television. (One need only look on an Internet search engine to discover that there are literally millions of Simpsons fan-sites around the world. ). The Simpsons themselves are a simple family in a small town in Middle America called Springfield. They are: Homer (loyal but stupid father), Marge (dissatisfied, trapped housewife/mother), Bart (rebellious son), Lisa (unappreciated genius daughter), and Maggie (silent baby).
The show also revolves around a umber of other of the townsfolk, such as Mr Burns (Homer’s miserly boss), Smithers (Burns’s loving assistant), Apu (Indian shop owner), Principal Skinner and Moe (owner of the local bar). There are a number of reasons why we cannot simply view The Simpsons as a cartoon like any other. The rules and conventions that it follows are far more those of television or cinema than those of animation. The humour within The Simpsons exists on many different levels ranging from the obvious to the subtle, from the literary to the movie reference, and beyond.
But most importantly we must consider the show’s ability to make significant ocial comment, on general issues of culture and society, but more specifically on television, film and media, and on audience viewing and acceptance of these media. Traditionally, cartoons have been action driven and animation. Aside from the use of cameras to create the visual illusion of depth (Walt Disney famously explained the ‘complicated’ technique used to allow Mickey Mouse to walk along a street without distorting depth or perspective), cartoons had a language of their own, unique and separate from that of cinema or television.
They were simple and without layered meanings. They had their own conventions that were egularly used and easily understood by children. These included falling anvils, cannon balls, dynamite and gunpowder. Generally most situations in traditional cartoons are very simple and similar. They are based on a basic relationship between the chaser and chased. For examples look no further than children’s television and you will see Tom chase Jerry, Wylie Coyote chase Roadrunner and Yosemite Sam chase Bugs Bunny. So what makes The Simpsons different from these more traditional cartoon forms?
Both the characters in The Simpsons their roles and situations are far more complex than in traditional animation. Indeed, what are seen as ub-characters are often the bases of stories, as executive producer Bill Oakley explains: “Over eight years we’ve developed a town full of charactersMoe, Mr Burns or Principal Skinner can all provide the engines for stories. ” Producers of The Simpsons say they concentrate more on scripts than on animation, making the show more humour and script based than action based.
But despite The Simpsons being seen by many as a sitcom, Oakley likes to keep the show fresh, and generally avoids sitcom writers: “We want people who are not ruined by the standard sitcom form. ” One of the most important factors in explaining The Simpsons’s cross-generational and broad demographic appeal is the sophistication of its writing. It is constructed to exist at many different levels. In terms of its humour, creator Groening says: “There are the obvious jokes, the visual sight gags, the subtle literary allusions and at the most subtle, what we call the freeze frame gags. While I agree with Groening, I would categorise the humour slightly differently.
The first level is ‘blatant comedy’. This includes “obvious jokes”. The appeal to children that originally heralded The Simpsons is based on blatant comedy and the antics of Bart, such as his famous phone ranks: Bart phones Moe’s tavern. Moe: Moe’s Tavern. Bart: Hello, is Al there? Moe: Al? Bart: Yeah, Al. Last name: Coholic. Moe: Lemme check… [calls] Phone call for Al. Al Coholic. Is there an Al Coholic here? [bar denizens laugh] Wait a minute… [to phone] Listen, you little yellow-bellied rat jackass, if I ever find out who you are, I’m gonna kill you!
This level also includes other forms of blatant humour, such as juxtaposition, and many of the visual sight gags. It can also include the simplistic use of repetition, such as catch-phrase comedy. Many of the characters have catch-phrases which are repeated wherever possible. The most famous of these are Homer’s “D’oh! ” and Bart’s “Eat my shorts! ” Other repetitive jokes are in the form of the opening sequence, of which there are many variations. They are the lines that Bart writes during his detention and the way the family sits down in front of the TV together.
The second level refers to more subtle humour. This type of humour has accounted for the expansion of appeal to a more adult audience and includes a more sophisticated repetition type joke. For example: Homer tells Marge about a work night out: Marge: So how was the office birthday party? Homer: Oh, it was de-lightful! The frosting on he cake was this thick! [about an inch] And Eugene Fisk (my poor sucker of an assistant) didn’t know the fruit punch was spiked, and he really made an ass of himself putting the moves on a new girl in valve maintenance. Ha ha Marge: Does this girl like him?
Homer: Pffft. I have to warn you Marge, I think the poor young thing has the hots for Yours Truly! The same episode jumps to six months later, when Homer is explaining about “a little get-together with the boys at work. Eugene Fisk is marrying some girl in valve maintenance. ” Marge: Mmmhmmm. Eugene Fisk, isn’t he your assistant? Homer: No! My… supervisor. Marge: Didn’t he used to be your assistant? Homer: Hey, what is this! The Spanish Exposition? Marge: Sorry, Homer… It is unlikely that younger viewers will notice or understand this sort of humour.
Other more subtle jokes include some of the signs on streets and buildings, like the one on the Springfield Hall of Records that says “Not The Good Kind Of Records – Historical Ones”. There is a form of highbrow humour in The Simpsons that will account for its appeal to the educated and academics. This is a level that I call educated reference humour. It is made up mostly of literary and academic references. They are usually references o art, politics, philosophy or literature. (Sometimes they are cultural and as such will be dealt with in more detail later on.
Some examples of this higher level of humour are when Sideshow Bob refers to the documentation of his political corruption as Machiavellian art. A particularly good example is the Ayn Rand School for Tots. Ayn Rand was a founder of the strict philosophy of objectivism. There is much irony and humour in having a kindergarten based of Rand’s philosophies, and Ms. Sinclair, who runs it, explains “`Our aim here is to develop the bottle within. ” Hence the humour in the posters inside the indergarten: “A is A” and “Helping is Futile”.
Other highbrow references include the TV show Rock Bottom’s correction that “Women aren’t from Venus, men aren’t from Mars” and a boy’s references to the work of photographers Helmut Newton and Diane Arbus when the children look at a photograph of Homer and a belly dancer. The subtlest humour of all the is the freeze frame humour. Groening explains: “Jokes you can only get if you videotape the show and play it back in freeze frame. What we try to do is reward people for paying attention. ” There are a number of freeze frame jokes in the corrections in Rock Bottom (a parody f TV show Hard Copy.
For example: “Cats do not eventually turn into dogs” “The Beatles haven’t reunited to enter kickboxing competitions” “Bart is bad to the bone” “Everyone on TV is better than you” “If you’re reading this you have no life” These were corrections to stories that the show must have previously run. In this context they are quite amusing, but most viewers will miss them. This gives the show greater appeal as people know they are there and will want to find them. They will watch the shows over and over and form a cult following. If you’re reading this you have no life” is a reference to this cult following, elling people that they are wasting their time (just as William Shatner told Star Trek fanatics in an edition of Saturday Night Live). However, in doing this, the writers are continuing to put in place the mechanisms that first created the cult following. There are of course many grey areas here. Many jokes fit into two or more categories, and many jokes will also fit into issues of satire, culture, intertextuality and self-reference, which will be dealt with later.
As previously mentioned, what makes The Simpsons visually different from other animations is its televisual rather than cartoon style. While other animations tend to be direct descendants of the comic strip, as a full show The Simpsons’s closest ancestor is The Simpsons shorts which appeared on the Tracy Ullman. “The basic signifying unit of film – the basic unit of cinematic meaning – was not the sceneand not the unedited film stripbut rather the shot, of whichthere may be virtually limitless number within any given scene. The Simpsons’s realisation of this is the key to its style. The use of televisual and filmic grammar has allowed The Simpsons to do so much that has given it a real TV style, to the point where it may not really be considered a cartoon. The show shares some convention with much sitcom. Just as in Friends you will see an establishing shot of the outside of a location before you see an internal shot, if we move around the regular locations of Springfield we will often see the same sort of establishing shot (e. g. outside the Simpson house, or outside Moe’s Tavern).
However, the fact that it is a cartoon also allows it to move around without budgetary problems. Episodes have been set in India, England and even in space. The use of the shot has allowed for juxtaposition comedy (such as when Marge wants to get a job and Homer ells her that they really don’t need the money – in the next shot we see the house begin to subside into the ground). It has allowed for the development of editing style that allows simultaneous actions in two separate locations to be followed such as in Bart’s telephone pranks.
The use of shots and editing like animation allows for a non-linear style. This is seen in the various ‘recap’ and flashback episodes, but is also parodied well. In classical film a scene would cut to a clock face which would then dissolve to the same shot at a later time and then fade down and up into a new scene. This trick has become a cliche and it s a tribute to the audience’s understanding of it that The Simpsons can parody it. In one case the shot moves up to a clock and fades into a new shot of the clock, and down to the scene some time later.
But time has only moved on by one minute, and this parody is used to emphasise that much time has not actually gone by at all. Camera angles in the programme are generally at eye level. This is perhaps because soap operas use a similar technique to try to represent reality. By doing this, when more complex shots are used the effect is stronger and can allow for comedy or emotional responses. An example of this is when the Simpsons go to Itchy and Scratchy Land. In order that they will be able to find their car again they make a point of parking in the ‘Itchy Lot’.
The camera then zooms out to reveal what must be millions of cars parked in the huge ‘Itchy Lot’. Were it not for this filmic technique the comedy would have been lost as we would have seen them park among a million other cars from the start . These film and televisual techniques lead us on to the intertextual and self references in The Simpsons. The show often makes references to other media in a number of ways. It can parody television programmes or more commonly films by actually taking a iece of a film and turning it into a part of an episode, or by having a show shown on the Simpson’s television.
To fully understand the cultural relevance of these references we must understand a little about the post-modern concept of intertextuality. Post-modernists take the view of Roland Barthes and reject the concept of a self-contained text. The text cannot be self-regulating and the power lies in the interpreting of the text. Hence the post-modern viewer and the viewer of the post-modern is the most empowered viewer. Post-modernists feel that if we cannot treat a text in isolation we risk missing much of what is being said.
Intertextual references are as important as the text itself and are an integral part of the text. Intertextual effects “radiate out from a text and have an impact on all other texts” . Indeed, post-modernists believe that everything in the universe is related and to understand anything one must bear in mind all its references. To illustrate this point they refer to chaos theory: “A butterfly stirring the air today in Peking can transform storm systems next month in New York” . The point is that to fully understand all the cultural messages of The Simpsons we must understand it’s intertextual references.
The first level of intertextual reference is the way in which the programme often lifts sequences from movies and animates them into the show. One of the most famous of these is the send-up of the Hitchcock’s classic Psycho. In the episode Itchy & Scratchy & Marge , Homer is in the garage. The same musical sound effect as that of the famous ‘shower scene’ is used as Maggie hits him over the head with a mallet. Homer grabs the tablecloth (shower curtain) as he falls. Red paint (blood) pours down the drain, there is a close-up of his eye. At the end of the scene we see him lying the floor just as Janet Leigh lay on in the bathtub.
This is a clear, obvious and effective intertextual reference. There have been plenty of less relevant ones, such as when a moose is eating Homer’s rubbish (Northern Exposure). An interesting aspect is that intertextual interpreters of The Simpsons must come under the same scrutiny as iconographic interpreters of traditional art (such as Roger Fry). They often read too much into an episode and see references that are not there. In a TV interview for BBC1 James L. Brooks, a producer of The Simpsons said that if the movie is not a big film then the reference is probably false.
Yet e see in every Internet listing for every episode of The Simpsons huge numbers of unconfirmed references. These include in the “Dancin’ Homer” episode a reference to “nearly any other movie about baseball” . Another way the show uses intertextual references is in the Simpson family’s actual viewing. Often certain types of shows are shown, generally as being poor quality programming. These commonly include self-help programmes and info-mercials. (Homer is usually seen to fall for the dreadful item on sale and this seems to reflect the apparent view of the writers that most of the TV viewing public is both fickle and stupid.
A articularly interesting case however, is the regular cartoon show, Itchy and Scratchy. This is a bloody, violent, gruesome version of Tom and Jerry, where the two characters find new and more disgusting ways to kill each other every episode. This is a very significant reference point because it is dealing with cartoon violence. Some believe that by putting the violence in this context the animators can get away with it. This is not the point. The point is to continually raise questions about censorship, violence and effect, and to satirise the gravity that the whole matter is dealt with.
The Simpsons in itself is a violent cartoon, nd so when Marge takes on cartoon violence in Itchy and Scratchy, she is actually taking on the existence of The Simpsons . This form of self-reference is not unusual in The Simpsons, and it is one of the most post-modern aspects of the show. Self-reference exists at many levels. A subtle reference occurs when Maggie is not allowed a dummy . She tries to suck on some toys, and the toy that she is most happy sucking is a little Bart Simpson doll. Self-reference is also present in an indirect form. There is a lot of comedy at the expense of the Fox Network.
Ned Flanders says: “So the network slogan is true: Watch Fox and be damned orever”. Other self-references are very direct. Take, for example, The Simpsons Halloween Special II . In this episode Bart has a dream that the Simpsons are rich and famous. As they enter a posh restaurant, a customer is talking about the Simpsons (but is she talking about the Simpson family or the show as a whole? ) Woman 1: If I hear one more thing about the Simpsons, I swear, I’m going to scream. Woman 2: At first they were cute and funny, but now they are just annoying.
This is a view that has been expressed about The Simpsons time and again, particularly in Australia where the show did not perform nearly as well s expected in the longer term. The same episode also parodies the heavy marketing and merchandising of The Simpsons. A boy is in a shop where he sees the very same Simpsons T-shirts as are actually available. “Eighteen bucks for this? What a rip off! ” The episode features an album titled The Simpsons Go Calypso and Otto says that this has gone too far. In real life the third Simpsons album was due to be released this month.
In another episode Chespirito (a Spanish television comic who dresses as a giant bee, generally with something attached to his backside) reiterates the words of Spike Lee. Credit the audience with a little intelligence, with the willingness to work it out, and they will reward you with their attention and their understanding. ” However, from viewing the whole section we see that the writers of The Simpsons think that the TV producers don’t agree. Chespirito: I’m just not comfortable with this [giant] lobster. It’s the same tired old jokes. Let’s give the audience some credit.
Writer: How about a giant mousetrap? Chespirito: I love it! It is well known that The Simpsons deals with many cultural issues important to modern society. It has dealt with issues of modern family ife, women in the workplace and the ‘dumbing down’/Americanisation of foreign cultures. When we look at all this together, the intertextuality and references to the media, the self-references, the comment on culture and so on, we can begin to see that the real comment that The Simpsons has to make is on the media. In so doing, it is also commenting on our reading and acceptance of media.
The key episode to illustrate this point is Homer: Bad Man (episode 2F06). In this episode Homer is accused of sexual harassment and suffers a trial by media as all sorts of shows seem to victimise him. The sensational news programme Rock Bottom puts ogether a poorly edited interview to force Homer to admit his guilt. Following the interview appear in small letters the words “Dramatization. May not have happened. ” A media circus erupts around Homer. Round the clock helicopter surveillance of “the Simpson Estate” is surprisingly similar to the coverage of the O. J. Simpson case , and the photographers who take photographs of Homer in the shower is a parody of the ongoing international problem caused by paparazzi photographers’ invasion of private privacy.
We go on to see the different ways the media covers the story as Homer flicks through the TV channels. There is a daytime-television talk show. The introduction to the second show says: Today on “Ben”: mothers and runaway daughters reunited by their hatred of Homer Simpson. One woman is crying, saying: I don’t know Homer Simpson, I — I never met Homer Simpson or had any contact with him, but — [cries uncontrollably] — I’m sorry, I can’t go on.
Presenter: That’s OK: your tears say more than real evidence ever could. Another yells: “Let’s have less Homer Simpsons and more money for public schools! ” The points made here are rather self-explanatory. These programmes do not treat the issues with any objectivity or fairness and re simply relying on the emotional responses of hatred and outrage. The media goes on to lure away Homer’s friends by offering them huge sums of money to tell their stories about him. Meanwhile TV news is stirring things up even further as it explains how Marge put the cat out “possibly because it was harassed, we don’t know.
Lisa sums up the whole situation: “The media’s making a monster out of you because they don’t care about the truth! All they care about is entertainment. ” The next aspect of the media coverage of the event is crucial to understanding the comment on the media and audiences being made. Having hown all this sensationalised and untrue material about Homer, there is a TV phone poll. Kent Brochman reads the results: 95% of the people believe Homer Simpson is guilty. Of course, this is just a television poll which is not legally binding, unless Proposition 304 passes.
And we all pray it will. So now that the entire public has been influenced and the trial might really begin, Homer has already been judged guilty. Once again this is an important comment on the nature of the media and the way it deals with such situations, made very clearly. Of course it is also a comment on the viewers, showing how they will believe anything on TV. The show then moves on to comment on the nature of viewers and how they view TV. As Homer flicks through late night television he is upset because all the channels are making fun of him.
When he finds one that is not he laughs along and forgets that they ever did. A joke is made about Mr T and Homer says, “Man, I wouldn’t like to be Mr T right now,” forgetting that most people wouldn’t want to be Homer Simpson right then. This shows how fickle the audience can be. At the end of the episode, when groundskeeper Willie’s home video has saved Homer, he sits down to watch Rock Bottom. It shows groundskeeper Willie calling him epraved.
Homer: Oh, that man is sick! Marge: Groundskeeper Willie saved you, Homer. Homer: But listen to the music! He’s evil! Marge: Hasn’t this experience taught you you can’t believe everything you hear? Homer: Marge, my friend, I haven’t learned a thing. Homer: [hugs TV] Let’s never fight again. This re-emphasises the fickleness of the audience and how it will never learn. In essence the message of the episode is self-explanatory, however this is one of the most important meanings of The Simpsons as a whole, and this episode simply says it with clarity. While The Simpsons has a broad based comedy and a successful formula, we ust really appreciate it for the message it tells us.
The Simpsons clearly contains a strong message to the media but an even stronger one to the viewers. It is telling the viewers that just as the writers of the show can manipulate ‘fact’ (or what is fact inside the world of The Simpsons) so can the other forms of media. It takes a cartoon to be able to tell us this because we are willing to accept that a cartoon can manipulate fact. It takes a cartoon to show us that non-animated, respected media of actuality can also manipulate the truth and manipulate the viewers. The Simpsons warns us to be wary of all we see on TV.