shorts for the Tracy Ullman Show and was bought by the Fox Network, which began screening it as half-hour shows in 1989.
success grew quickly and it is now popular in many countries with many different audiences. “In the 1990s we are seeing
of Simpsons fan-sites around the world.).
Maggie (silent baby). The show also revolves around a number of other of the townsfolk, such as Mr Burns (Homer’s miserly
conventions that it follows are far more those of television or cinema than those of animation. The humour within The Simpsons
most importantly we must consider the show’s ability to make significant social comment, on general issues of culture and
Traditionally, cartoons have been action driven and animation. Aside from the use of cameras to create the visual illusion of
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
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.
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
characters?Moe, 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
One of the most important factors in explaining The Simpsons’s cross-generational and broad demographic appeal is the
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
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
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
It is unlikely that younger viewers will notice or understand this sort of humour. Other more subtle jokes include some of the
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
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
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
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
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
Night Live). However, in doing this, the writers are continuing to put in place the mechanisms that first created the cult
There are of course many grey areas here. Many jokes fit into two or more categories, and many jokes will also fit into issues
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 scene?and not the unedited film strip?but rather the shot, of which?there may be virtually limitless
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
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
the same shot at a later time and then fade down and up into a new scene. This trick has become a clich? 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.
to represent reality. By doing this, when more complex shots are used the effect is stronger and can allow for comedy or
seen them park among a million other cars from the start .
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
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
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
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
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
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
Self-reference is also present in an indirect form. There is a lot of comedy at the expense of the Fox Network. Ned Flanders
“So the network slogan is true: Watch Fox and be damned forever”.
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?)
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
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
The sensational news programme Rock Bottom puts together a poorly edited interview to force Homer to admit his guilt.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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
Proposition 304 passes. And we all pray it will.
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!
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
the viewers. The Simpsons warns us to be wary of all we see on TV.