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The Simpsons Essay Examples

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
the 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
number 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
social 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
regularly 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
sub-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
pranks: 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
the 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
to 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
kindergarten: “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
of 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,
telling 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
tells 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 cliché and it
is 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
piece 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
we 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
particularly 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,
and 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
forever”. 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
as 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
life, 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
together 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
are 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
shown 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
depraved. 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
must 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.

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