Simpsons Creator on Poking Fun
Simpsons Creator on Poking Fun
By: M. S. Mason
Date: April 17, 1998
Source: Mason, M. S. "Simpsons' Creator on Poking Fun." Christian Science Monitor. April 17, 1998: B1.
About the Author: M. S. Mason is a staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor. He writes on television and popular culture.
Early television programming was tightly regulated. Convinced that television had the potential to improve human life, the medium's pioneers insisted that programming conform to a rigid set of guidelines for content and taste. Networks employed their own censors to ensure that profane or vulgar material did not air, protecting the networks from potential fines and other penalties. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC), established in 1934 to regulate interstate communication, set and enforced broadcast standards.
As a result of this self-censorship, many early television programs were quite idealistic in their portrayal of American life, depicting homes as cheery, congenial places in a world free of war, hunger, and conflict. Programs such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Leave it to Beaver told the stories of model American families headed by industrious working fathers and held together by loving stay-at-home mothers. In many ways, these television families reflected an idealized vision of a nineteenth-century family unit living with twentieth-century conveniences.
Despite their unrealistic portrayal of American life, the shows faced little competition and soon became hits, running for hundreds of episodes apiece. As television became a staple of American family life, its portrayal of American families was absorbed by children, many of whom eventually realized the fallacy of what they watched. Some of these children grew up to produce their own television shows about American families; in at least one case, a show produced in the 1980s was conceived as a parody of the fairy-tale family shows of the 1950s and 1960s.
Simpsons Creator on Poking Fun
There's a little bit of Matt Groening in Bart Simpson. The man who created the diminutive provocateur for The Simpsons says he grew up watching too much television and fantasized what he would do if he got his own TV show.
"Well this is what I would have done, and I did it," he says, adding wryly, "At an early age I was most strongly affected by Leave It to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet. [The Simpsons] is my skewed reaction to those shows."
Mr. Groening's baby is the longest-running prime-time animated series in television history. It has won a Peabody Award, 12 Emmys, and a shelf-load of assorted others. About to hatch its 200th episode, Trash of the Titans (Fox, April 26, 8-8:30 p.m.), the "plausible impossible" family long ago achieved pop-icon status.
In the best tradition of TV families, the Simpsons love one another, no matter what. The show has all the elements of its live-action family-oriented prototypes, with a twist: an involved community; assorted villains; a sweet, annoying next-door neighbor; and the family itself—a goofy dad whose frailties get him into trouble; a loving, sensible mom who usually gets him out again; two adorable little girls; and one 10-year-old trickster.
Bart is Dennis the Menace with self-awareness—a kid so abused by the public school system that when he was labeled a failure in kindergarten, he found his self-esteem as the class stand-up comic. But Bart's pranks can be obnoxious, and he has worried many parents and teachers who fret publicly about his bad influence—his cheeky back talk, his enthusiastic naughtiness, and his inattention at school. He's no role model.
"Bart isn't a good example," agrees Groening. "He isn't a good role model. But I used to get letters saying, Homer isn't wearing a seat belt; he's a bad example. But you can laugh at him because you don't want to be like him."
The nature of Bart's abrasive commentary is satirical. And the nature of the best satire is, of course, to poke fun at human foibles. When it's good, satire makes you think, and The Simpsons skewers everything from nuclear waste to alien abductions, the movies, TV, and official hypocrisy.
"For me, it's hard to approach satire directly. I don't think we sit down and say, 'How do we satirize this subject?' We are trying to make a solid half-hour of entertainment—cram as many jokes in there as we can. But everybody [on the writing staff], Republicans and Democrats, has a strong point of view. And we share a vision that our leaders aren't always telling us the truth, that our institutions sometimes fail us, and that people in media don't necessarily have any corner on wisdom—because we're in media ourselves and we know what idiots we are," he laughs.
"So we just have fun with it." Satire, says Groening, is about "not taking ourselves too seriously. Solemnity is always used by authority to stop critical thinking. 'You can't make a joke about that' is a way of shutting people up. It's a cartoon: [Making jokes] is what we're supposed to do."
Mining his own experience, Groening based his characters on people he knew and named many of them after people he loves. "Homer is not like my father, also named Homer, except that my father did get mad sometimes. But he wasn't stupid, fat, or bald. My father was a cartoonist and filmmaker, so he's not like Homer.
"There is a little bit of my mother in Marge. My mom is long-suffering like Marge, and she did have tall hair when I was a kid. She always denied it, but we have photos. My sisters, Lisa and Maggie, aren't really like Lisa and Maggie [in the show]—although Lisa claims she always was the unrecognized talent, and [she thinks] it's great the way I captured that."
But, he emphasizes, the characters aren't designed to inflict vengeance on people in real life. "Over the course of the show, some of them have taken on doltish characteristics, and now I'm afraid to call up some of these people," he laughs.
"Overall," says Groening, "I've always said it is a celebration of the American family at its wildest."
The Simpsons got its start in 1987 as a series of short sketches on the short-lived Tracey Ullman Show. By 1990, the Fox Network had ordered an entire season of the shows, which went on to become one of the upstart broadcaster's first prime-time hits.
During its first few seasons, the popular show stirred frequent controversy. Bart's smart mouth and penchant for causing trouble drew criticism from schoolteachers who claimed to be seeing imitations in their own classrooms; partly in response to this criticism, later seasons focused more on Homer and his adventures. In 1992, President Bush criticized the fictional family, complaining in a major speech that America needed to become more like the family portrayed in the series The Waltons and less like Homer and the Simpsons. Following Dan Quayle's widely publicized spelling gaffe during a visit to an elementary school in 1992, Bart Simpson, who appears in the show's opening credits writing a single phrase repeatedly, began one episode by writing, "It's potato, not potatoe."
In 2006, The Simpsons entered its eighteenth season, having run longer than any of the 1960s family shows it parodied. A feature film version was slated for 2007 release. Much of the success of The Simpsons can be attributed to exceptionally good writing, but the show also demonstrates the lasting appeal of stories that revolve around families. According to writer Marla Brooks, American television has averaged two new shows focusing on families each year since the late 1940s, suggesting that the tried-and-true formula retains much of its appeal. While Homer and Marge are clearly not Ozzie and Harriet, their experiences in some ways better mirror their viewers' lives than the earlier show did. The show's willingness to make fun of anybody and anything, regardless of political affiliation or viewpoint has also endeared it to an educated audience that appreciates its sharp satire.
A retrospective of television families finds that they differ in virtually every imaginable way, but one common thread seems to unite them—particularly those that remain on the air for many years: the family members genuinely care about one another. From blustery Archie Bunker to clueless Homer Simpson and congenial Mike Brady, the fathers appear genuinely concerned about their families, despite frequent confusion about how to express that concern. While the forms and the norms of behavior may change, the image of a cohesive loving family unit remains deeply appealing. And if the characters can make an audience laugh as well, all the better.
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