Happy 20th birthday to the greatest show ever made
The internet told me the date was February 10 1991. Which makes sense because I remember having just returned home from one of my first days of the fourth grade.
My knowing eldest brother had positioned himself in front of my mother’s tiny TV while the rest of my brothers and sisters stood around for a glimpse.
Standing silently transfixed in front of that first episode of The Simpsons we were like a group of peasants listening to the Emperor’s voice for the first time over the radio. From here it would all be different.
With today being the 20th anniversary of The Simpsons airing in the US I’ve no hesitation in stating that it is not only the greatest television show ever made it is also the greatest cultural icon of my generation.
As generation X and Y lack a really unifying musical, artistic or literary interconnection in a way that used to bond, or in the least mark cultural turning points, The Simpsons are the only real common cultural icon connecting us all.
Unlike a generation of music, art or even film it doesn’t matter what sub-culture you’ve ever been a part everybody can talk about The Simpsons. It is the lingua franca of anyone under forty who hasn’t been living under a rock or the Ayatollah for the last 20 years.
It’s a show that the people just can’t seem to stop watching. Personally I’m of the belief that if Channel 10 and Foxtel got together to launch a 24-hour Simpsons channel you’d at least beat SBS in the ratings.
During high school a cheap form of entertainment was to spend entire nights sitting around quoting Simpsons lines. If you threw in a garage, some Tooheys Reds and a ping pong table you had the perfect evening on your hands.
When people quote Homer now it’s Homer Simpson you’re talking about not that Greek who wrote rhyming fantasy novels.
Really there’s no great question in life you can’t solve through a Homer quote:
Religion: I’m normally not a praying man, but if you’re up there, please save me Superman.
Work: Lisa, if you don’t like your job you don’t strike. You just go in every day and do it really half-assed. That’s the American way.
Sex: You know, boys, a nuclear reactor is a lot like a woman. You just have to read the manual and press the right buttons.
Retirement: Aw, Dad, you’ve done a lot of great things, but you’re a very old man, and old people are useless.
Drinking: I’m in no condition to drive…wait! I shouldn’t listen to myself, I’m drunk!
Sport: Son, when you participate in sporting events, it’s not whether you win or lose: it’s how drunk you get.
Perhaps the more incredible achievement than being on the air for 20 years is the fact The Simpsons was ever made.
From the acid induced world of the LA underground comics scene creator Matt Groening managed to sell the idea of a prime time, half hour long cartoon that was like nothing that had been in homes of Americans before.
Groening himself still seems amazed that the Fox Network (owned by News Corporation also owner of The Punch) bought his idea of a bright yellow family (including a mother with a blue beehive an overweight mildly abusive father with a drinking problem) bumbling their way through middle-America with storylines mimicking the humdrum of suburban life - albeit with a surreal twist.
But it is the lazy normality of The Simpsons combined with the fantastical and hilarious edge that animation provides which is the key to their genius.
George Bush senior famously remarked that he wanted American families to be “a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons”.
But the fact is Americans and Australians saw themselves much more in The Simpsons than they ever did the Waltons.
Often described as a “dysfunctional family”, The Simpsons work because we see our own families in them as all families are in fact dysfunctional on some level.
Who hasn’t got a father that at times “would rather drink a beer than win father of the year”, a righteous little sister, a mother who forces an unwilling mob to church on a freezing morning or a mildly sociopathic little brother whose charm allows him to get away with a series of criminal offences.
But despite their very human flaws The Simpsons teach a reoccurring moral lesson because they stick together through the struggles and failures of what is a very average existence.
They’ve rewritten the norm of the television family and changed the type of shows that are made about families. A series like Malcolm In The Middle would never have existed without The Simpsons.
The Simpsons still stands as the gold standard for satire in television. It managed to ridicule all aspects of modern society while never being particularly offensive or cruel.
Any Australians who were silly enough to be offended by the hilarious episode when the Simpsons go to Australia should remember that the entire Simpsons series is basically devoted to ridiculing American society.
Yes there have been some low points. The Simpsons Movie was completely unnecessary and not very good, the regression of later episodes from entertaining plot lines to a series of Homer slap stick jokes spawning entertaining, but ultimately unfulfilling, replicas like The Family Guy to name a few.
But in a time when most networks’ idea of a television show is to have Bert Newton’s wig play some old video clips followed by Gretel Killeen’s fake tan hosting a reality TV show for wannabe strippers on cargo boat called “So You Want to be a Maritime Pole Dancer”, it’s reassuring to know there are people still doing something called writing good comedy.
When the Simpsons went to air in Australia I was eight, two years younger than Bart. I’m now 27, Bart’s still 10 and The Simpsons are still on TV. There’s something very reassuring about that.
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