Tikkun Magazine, July/August 2007
The Simpsons: It's Funny 'Cause it's True
By Mark I. Pinsky
Flying into Orlando in a 2003 episode of The Simpsons, patriarch Homer peers down at a theme park and sees a large, distinctive Future Sphere like the one at Disney's Epcot, and takes a decidedly dim view. "It's even boring to fly over," he whines. Thus begins a typically madcap set of misadventures and missteps familiar to any family that has dragged itself to Florida for a vacation it couldn't afford, including a run-in with a fascist-sounding mouse and grossly overpriced food.
Now, life threatens to imitate art, with the April announcement of a new ride based on The Simpsons at Universal Studios in Orlando and Los Angeles. The opening of a feature film on July 27, following the show's landmark 400th episode in May, is likely to cement the long-running television hit's place in American popular culture. The show has managed to accomplish in two decades much of what took Disney seventy years. "The Simpsons pulled off an exquisite sleight-of-hand worthy of its postmodernist attitude," said Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "By targeting the ironies and contradictions of the entertainment-industrial complex, it became itself a textbook example of modern cultural marketing and synergy." Thus, as a show written on many levels, and one that critics have noted rewards intelligence, it is not unlikely to hear the bright daughter Lisa discussing Pablo Neruda, only to have her determinedly doltish brother Bart assure her, incongruously, "I am familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda."
Now airing in seventy countries around the world, the show is the subject of numerous books, including serious works dealing with philosophy, psychology, and religion. In its 2000 millennium edition The New York Times predicted, perhaps with tongue in cheek, that The Simpsons would still be a top-rated show in 2025. The paper suggested that one of the show's characters, the avaricious nuclear plant owner Montgomery Burns, was a better-known exemplar of capitalism than Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Life magazine, in a cover story titled "The Shows That Changed America: 60 Years of Network Television," called The Simpsons the "millennium family unit: struggling, skeptical, disrespectful, ironic, hopeful.... The Simpsons verify our country's strength: If they can make it in today's America, who can't?"
In its first dozen years, the show was nominated for thirty-four Emmys and has won twenty-three, including nine for best-animated series. It has also won a Peabody award, which recognizes distinguished achievement in radio and television. Time magazine called The Simpsons the twentieth century's best television show, and the entertainment industry took note of the series' tenth anniversary with a star on Hollywood Boulevard. The show has made the cover of TV Guide a dozen times. "It's not too hyperbolic to mention The Simpsons in the same sentence as Chaplin, Keaton, or Twain," said Thompson. "It ranks with the best American comic art, not just on TV, but in any medium."
But it is in its portrayal of religion that The Simpsons may have had its greatest impact. As a family, they have represented the faith practices of most Americans more accurately than any other show on commercial, prime-time television, apart from shows built around a religious premise, like 7th Heaven, Touched by an Angel, Joan of Arcadia and Highway to Heaven. The Simpsons attend church on Sundays, say grace at meals, read and refer to the Bible and pray aloud—if only out of desperation. Polls suggest that in these respects they are reflective of most Americans. Individually, family members represent a spectrum of belief, from Homer's fear-based neo-paganism, to Marge's true belief, to Lisa's disenchantment with mainline, socially conscious Protestantism, in favor of Buddhism. And their next door neighbor, Ned Flanders, is a cheery but fervent evangelical. But, like every other institution of modern American life, organized religion is a fat target for the The Simpsons satire, usually embodied by Springfield Community Church, somewhere between the Lutheran and Presbyterian traditions. Other, non-Protestant denominations and faiths also figure in episodes—Catholicism, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism (but not Islam).
Asked by Bart what the family's religious beliefs are, Homer answers, "You know, the one with all the well-meaning rules that don't work in real life. Uh, Christianity." Inexplicably, Unitarians have been the butt of most denomination-specific jokes: "If that's the one true faith, I'll eat my hat," Homer cracks. Over the years, the show has grappled with weighty subjects, albeit with a light touch, including: the nature of the soul; a sophisticated critique of mainline Christianity; the continuing theological tension between Protestants and Catholics; the missionary experience in the Third World; and a deft deconstruction of the apocalyptic, "End Times" theology made popular by the Left Behind novels. As Tony Campolo puts it, the series "can easily be mistaken for an assault that ridicules middle-class Christianity. It is not! What the show is really depicting through the antics of The Simpsons is the character of some of the people who are in our churches, and the ways they choose to live out their faith.... As an evangelical Christian, I find that The Simpsons provides me with a mirror that reflects my own religious life."
All of this has not gone unnoticed in the religious world. Among the show's best known fans is Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who once declared, "The Simpsons is one of the most subtle pieces of propaganda around in the cause of sense, humility, and virtue." During the same two-week period in early 2001, The Simpsons appeared on the covers of both Christianity Today and The Christian Century, two magazines at opposite ends of the Christian theological spectrum. The Simpsons' successful portrayal of religion—mocking the institutions, while respecting sincere faith and never questioning the existence of God—has made it "safe" for other animated comedies to deal with the subject. A show like King of the Hill, for example, portrays with sympathy and understanding the sadness and soullessness of the Sunbelt suburbs. Others treat religion with considerably more savagery, if not outright blasphemy and sacrilege. South Park (where Jesus is a full time resident) routinely mines the territory between scatology and eschatology. Both Jesus and God are regularly lampooned in Family Guy, another Fox show.
To be sure, The Simpsons is not a television show about religion. It is a domestic situation comedy about modern life that includes a significant spiritual dimension, and because these weighty matters are coming from cartoon characters, viewers with no particular interest in faith seem to be willing to accept them. If you excise the jokes, The Simpsons is a tragedy of operatic proportions—repeated failure and frustration in the cause of self-improvement, punctuated by the occasional, wacky, life-affirming reprieve that returns everything to the status quo. And, like any comedy aimed at a mass audience, it is at its base doggedly conservative. Leon Trotsky used to characterize a political movement he opposed as being "left in form, right in essence." With The Simpsons, I think it may be a similar case: cloaking the show's sacred essence in the guise of profane storytelling, although there is no evidence that this is a result of any conscious effort on the part of the show's writers and producers, they have insisted in interviews.
For me, the consistent message of The Simpsons is this: If you are part of the American working class or, increasingly, the middle class, your family—and to a lesser extent your faith—are the only reliable defenses against the vagaries of modern life. For some, "modern life" may mean car pooling, office politics, making ends meet or anxieties about raising kids in a risky world; for others, it is a convenient euphemism for globalized capitalism. In this context, religion serves as a palliative, comforting characters in their powerlessness and social futility. As always, Homer says it best: "I guess I'll have to give up my hopes and dreams and settle for being a decent husband and father."
The Simpsons' gospel is not the fighting faith of the Old Testament prophets or of the confrontational Jesus, all of whom sought to rock the boat of unrighteous comfort. At the same time, The Simpsons' theology is not one that takes joy in acceptance. Marge, Ned, Reverend Lovejoy, and other believers in the series are not like those collaborationist ministers of the early twentieth century, accused by radicals of preaching "pie in the sky, bye and bye." Their faith is a bulwark, a highly meaningful and relevant refuge. As it is for many us, faith is a last resort against the pressures of the increasing pace and power of the global market, personal and natural disasters, or whatever other significant stresses one might face. Given the world we live in and the economic system we live under, The Simpsons is about as trenchant, as life-affirming, and as socially critical a prime time situation comedy as we can reasonably expect on a major commercial television network.
Television, what Homer calls his "teacher, mother, secret lover," has transformed his own family into a consumer unit. "They're creatures of consumption and envy, laziness and opportunity, stubbornness and redemption," Matt Groening said in a 1998 talk at the Museum of Television and Radio University Satellite Seminar Series. "They're just like the rest of us. Only exaggerated." His television family is "utterly addicted to TV," and the series is "about watching TV," he told the students. The movie industry—television's older sibling—has always been fascinated by its younger rival for a mass audience, and by TV's impact on society. One such examination, The Truman Show, posits a ratings hit "reality" series about a totally artificial environment in which everyone except the program's title character, played by Jim Carrey, is in on the conceit. The show's promos promise "No Scripts ... No Cue Cards ... It's Genuine ... It's a life." At the film's conclusion, the unsuspecting Truman finally punctures his television-created environment. Just as Truman is poised to escape, the show's developer and director, played by Ed Harris, introduces himself: "I am the Creator," he explains, "of a television show that gives hope and joy and inspiration to millions."
Might it be possible to create a progressive cartoon comedy that actually would provide hope and joy and inspiration—and sharp-edged humor—rather than some counterfeit, cinematic fantasy? Something beyond The Simpsons, with a cutting, South Park sensibility, but with a consistent ideological viewpoint? After all, European broadcasters have been churning out such programs for decades. And didn't we always insist that there is joy in struggle? The answer, I think, is yes—with a big "if." It would have to appeal to a group I call "Daily Show Democrats." By that I mean a funny show that not only ripped and ridiculed Republicans and conservatives, but also targeted mushy Democrats when they fail to live up to their principles and ideals, when they sell out and compromise. It would also have to be able to poke fun at our own solemnity and self-righteousness. Given the ideological constraints already on public broadcasting, a program like this would have to emerge from the commercial sphere, probably on cable or as a podcast.
More than a decade ago, when they were still a counter-cultural movement, Evangelical Christians learned the lesson of the market economy. They realized that in order to create a successful alternative to what they saw (not without justification) as a cesspool of secular television, movies, radio, music, and books, they would have to compete in the marketplace with comparable, if not superior, production values—and they have, earning billions of dollars in the process. The first law of survival of popular culture under a capitalist system is to entertain. Thus, creators and producers understood that their target market, young evangelicals, would not pay for, watch, or consume products simply because they were "Christian."
By the same token, young progressives—or those at least open to progressive notions—will not watch a television program (or listen to a talk radio network like Air America) simply because it promotes or reinforces their values. Because "it's good for you" is not sufficient motivation, as the evangelicals learned. Political magazines aimed at expanding the progressive base cannot read like homework. Funny is money, as the comedians say. A left wing successor to The Simpsons would have to entertain, and thus draw viewers and sponsors, but without pandering. Jon Stewart, despite his consistent disavowals of an ideological viewpoint, has demonstrated that this is indeed possible. In many ways The Simpsons has opened the door to something bolder; all it requires is for some creative people to walk through.
From my experience, there are lots of laughs on the Left. Why not have an animated comedy show centered on a group of feisty, slightly twisted twenty-somethings putting out a blog or webzine, a group like moveon.org? What if their chief financial backer was an old sixties radical who was sometimes pompous and sometimes wise? Or one based on a multiracial group of urban squatters trying to survive on the economic edge? Or maybe one about a troublemaking religious community, like Jim Wallis' Sojourners? If these are too adventuresome, how about something more traditional, a flawed superhero with a social conscience? There must be some comic book character out there with a taste for rabble rousing and a post-modern sense of humor.
Mark I. Pinsky covers religion for the Orlando Sentinel. He is the author of The Gospel According to The Simpsons: Bigger, and possibly Even Better (Westminster John Knox. 2007), and The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust (Westminster John Knox. 2004).
Pinsky, Mark I. 2007. The Simpsons: It's Funny 'Cause it's True. Tikkun 22(4): 72.