I grew up on a farm outside a town much smaller than Springfield. Theirs had a whole television studio, a nuclear power plant, and the town’s name displayed in adjacent hills, ala the Hollywood sign. A thriving metropolis compared to where I was raised.
In the late-1990s and early-2000s, Canadian prairie dwellers only had a few options to watch TV. Four channels, to be exact, which we farm folk referred to as “peasant vision.” Dial-up internet was the best we could get until barely a decade ago. So, appropriate information about the world, except for the local newspaper, was hard to come by.
Simpsons University: A cultural education
Unlike people today with a billion options at their fingertips, I got all my worldly information from one source; The Simpsons. All those wacky residents of Springfield had such a significant influence on my adolescence simply because one of the four channels, especially non-stop on Saturday afternoons, would air nothing but reruns. What started as entertainment became a full frame of reference for pop culture, history, and society. I like to think of it now as studying at ‘Simpsons University’.
Discovering cinema and literature through The Simpsons
The first lesson was cinema. Viewing the season five episode ‘Cape Feare’ as an eight-year-old kid, I just assumed that beloved villain Sideshow Bob, shown smoking a cigar and laughing hysterically inside a movie theatre before terrorising everyone on a houseboat, was funny fodder for the show. The intense Bernard Herrmann score would become the introductory theme whenever that character appeared in future episodes. And that’s all I assumed that music was.
Their annual Treehouse of Horror anthologies served as my literary course – introducing me to macabre master Edgar Allan Poe through the inaugural instalment, where the near entirety of ‘The Raven’ is recited by James Earl Jones. I read more Poe because of that episode. I learned about countless literary works through episodes that parodied biblical scriptures, legends, and tall tales. I never knew of Homer’s Odyssey until this Homer Simpson took it. The ending of Hamlet was spoiled for me, having never read it.
Lessons in science, politics, and religion
Simpsons University also offered lessons in science, astronomy, politics, geography, and religion. I’ll be honest; I had no idea who Stephen Hawking was until he appeared in a season ten episode. Homer’s career was my first introduction to the concept of nuclear power. I knew a kid or two who could rest assured that any space rocks headed our way would burn up to the size of a chihuahua’s head and pose no danger like the one did in ‘Bart’s Comet’. I learned the names of American presidents when Ford, Nixon, and Clinton were lampooned and never heard about the Vietnam War until it was integrated into Principal Skinner’s backstory.
Misinformation and the evolution
My town was almost wholly Catholic, so I honestly had no idea as a child that there were other religions until Krusty the Clown embraced his Jewish faith and even wished viewers a “kwazy Kwanza, a tip-top Tet, and a solemn, dignified Ramadan.” Seeing the characters go about everyday life gave me my first taste of living in an urban setting.
I’m not saying this university was one hundred per cent effective. My corruptible mind was led astray on numerous occasions. Perhaps I was desensitised to cartoon violence and laughed a little too hard at the mistreatment of the elderly. In ‘Marge in Chains’, a statue of Jimmy Carter gets toppled, with an angry resident referring to him as “history’s greatest monster.” I considered that the truth and became frightened for years whenever the former-peanut-farmer-turned-president was mentioned in the news. Another called ‘Simpson’s Safari’ parodied Jane Goodall as an evil monkey-enslaving diamond smuggler. My girlfriend, who admires Goodall’s work, set me straight. Today, as far as misinformation goes, it could be a lot worse.
Dedicated fans and changing times
I’m also not the biggest Simpsons University alumni out there – not by a long shot. Yes, my head is constantly filled with ping-ponging Simpsons references, but I know a guy who got poor, pathetic Kirk Van Houten’s (Milhouse’s divorced dad) drawing of dignity tattooed on his rear. At a Simpson’s trivia night, some people knew specific answers, such as the proper spelling of the 25-letter-long bratwurst brand sung by the show’s answer to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rainier Wolfcastle. Instead of a university, the better comparison might be an entire Simpsons religion!
Truthfully, it has been about 17 years since I have regularly watched new episodes. It’s become a completely different beast. Seeing Homer have a smartphone or Lisa listening to Lady Gaga seems wrong. Besides, audiences are more interested in discussing how the show predicted history, like Donald Trump becoming president, than anything else. That and how problematic old episodes seem.
Controversy and lasting impact
The characterisations of certain characters, such as Indian convenience store clerk Apu (now removed from the show), have been criticised in recent years. This never dawned on me as a problem in all my younger years of watching, and the show was doing nothing out of the ordinary but of-the-time satire. Springfield seemed like a diverse and welcoming place to me.
The truth is, The Simpsons has always undergone scrutiny across the board since day one. The Catholic church frequently took offence. Parents felt the humour was too adult – especially regarding violent depictions in Itchy and Scratchy cartoons. Rio de Janeiro demanded an apology over its depiction as a crime and rat-infested slum. Even fans have denounced later seasons for a decline in quality. Former President George Bush was always the loudest critic, publicly shaming the show for diminishing family values in the early 1990s.
📺On March 31, 2002, 'The Simpsons' traveled to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in the controversial episode 'Blame It On Lisa.' After the episode aired, Brazil threatened to sue the producers & FOX for portraying Rio as having rampant street crime, kidnappings, slums & a rat infestation pic.twitter.com/6rncA9d6FQ
— RetroNewsNow (@RetroNewsNow) April 1, 2018
People can have their gripes, but because of The Simpsons, I was prompted to read classic books, watch classic movies, travel across the globe, follow the news, and learn about the cultural figures like Johnny Carson or Linda Ronstadt that I’ve come to love and would have no other reason to know. To me, that’s beyond positive, and I’m beyond thankful for my lack of internet and TV channels!
As streaming offers up record-breaking thirty-four-plus seasons, The Simpsons is the multigenerational gift that keeps on giving. Simpsons University seems to endure with new students ‘enrolling’ every year who, like me, shall graduate with yellow colours.