Politics & Policy


A once-edgy trend-setter reaches maturity.

Hello, I’m Jonah Goldberg. You may remember me from such medical films as Alice Doesn’t Live Anymore and Mommy, What’s Wrong with That Man’s Face? Or perhaps you know me from my work in Earwigs — Ewww! and Man vs. Nature: the Road to Victory.

Woops, actually that’s Troy McClure.

I’m Jonah Goldberg and I recycled that opening from a column from six years ago.

I have a good reason for recycling material. I am writing this in one of the emptier corners of Wyoming (where they like candy for the sweet, sweet, taste) while my wife drives some 80 miles an hour and my daughter watches her DVD of Angelina Ballerina (or is it Barbie Pegasus?) and Cosmo the Wonderdog wonders why we’re driving so far just to put him in a kennel.

But I promised Kathryn Lopez that I would write something about The Simpsons in response to all of the hype about the movie. I was hoping to review it. There’s even a ticket to a screening waiting for me in Seattle, but, as I write, it doesn’t look like we’ll make it there in time.

To be honest,I have no Internet access to speak of at the moment. So I can’t really look up the facts, figures, and quotes for a big thumbsuck piece on “The Meaning of The Simpsons.”

(You don’t know the quotes by heart? A mocking, Nelson-like reader might object, “Hah-hah!” To which I might respond that getting a Simpsons quote wrong is a surefire way to invite a couple hundred correcting e-mails, so I’ll be sparing).

It’s just as well. By now the “The Meaning of The Simpsons” piece has been written ten million times.

They recycle the same stats and anecdotes over and over again: Longest-running sitcom ever, most widely watched cartoon ever, Matt Groening invented the show in a few minutes so he could hold onto the rights of “Life in Hell,” George H. W. Bush attacked The Simpsons as a sign of cultural rot: Homer Simpson likes his beer cold, his TV loud, and his homosexuals flaming. Etc.

The reason these pieces have been written so many times is simple: It’s been around for so long. It’s difficult for younger fans to fully appreciate that the show was in fact controversial when it first appeared. Thanks to its progeny — South Park, Family Guy, and the rest — it now seems almost stately.

Indeed, seven years ago, I wrote a piece for National Review on Dead Tree on The Simpsons in which I argued that conservatives should make peace with the show. Rereading it — and overlooking a few glancing misquotations which have left the mark of Cain upon me in the eyes of Simpsonophiles — I think the argument still holds up. The show is more liberal now — its political jabs are occasionally painfully lame (Elmo in jail?) — and one sometimes detects the whiff of desperation in their story lines.

But the amazing thing about The Simpsons is that it actually deserves its longevity — something you certainly couldn’t have said about, say, M*A*S*H, which ultimately became a laugh-tracked Phil Donahue show in olive green, or All in the Family, which became so forced that it crawled into a hole called Archie Bunker’s Place to die, terminally unfunny.

Some of The Simpsons’s advantages are structural. Cartoon characters don’t have to obey the laws of physics (this runs counter to Homer’s admonition of Lisa when she builds a perpetual-motion machine: “In this house, we obey the laws of Thermodynamics!”). They don’t age, nor do they necessarily “grow.” Maggie Simpson has, to my knowledge, learned to say one word over the years, when technically she should be heading to college by now. But this is all stuff you can find in any of dozens of Simpsons puff pieces.

So, instead, with the space and time left — I have to drive soon and the curves on this state highway are making me nauseous — let me just make a few (even more) random observations.

‐ I’ve been meaning to write a long essay on the death of “youth culture.” The Simpsons would be a good example of what I’m getting at. I started watching the show when I was in college. It was denounced as an example of cultural rot amongst the young — particularly when Bart, not Homer, was the star of the show. While I’m sure that its viewership skews youngish, it’s not really a show for young people anymore. In much the same way that South Park’s most public fans seem to be middle-aged and Family Guy is aimed at an even older demographic. The Simpsons, on the air for nearly two decades, demonstrates how the once hard-and-fast line between the young and edgy and the conventional and staid has been if not completely erased than largely redrawn.

In fact, I would argue that young people have become more apolitical and less inclined to wear their youth as a political badge in some small part because of the impact of The Simpsons.

‐ My major defense of the show seven years ago — on political grounds at least — wasn’t that it’s a conservative show, but that it’s an equal-opportunity laugh-seeker. As satire, it tries to poke holes in the pieties of American life, wherever it finds them. This, by itself, is advantageous for conservatives because so many of those pieties are on the Left. Again, with South Park, My Name is Earl, and The Wire considered conventional fare, it’s hard for people to recognize that it was The Simpsons that first ambidextrously took swings in every ideological direction.

As I put it then, “Conservatives are accustomed to being mocked constantly in the popular culture. But the experience must come as something of a shock for hothouse liberals. For example, Homer Simpson’s mother is a ‘‘60s radical still on the lam. How did she dodge the feds? ‘I had help from my friends in the underground. Jerry Rubin gave me a job marketing his line of health shakes. I proofread Bobby Seale’s cookbook. And I ran credit checks at Tom Hayden’s Porsche dealership.’ Some important pretensions are being punctured here — but not the usual ones.”

The fact that the show has gotten more liberal is in part a function of the times. Conservatives and/or Republicans have been in power for a very long time (particularly in the eyes of Hollywood types). And the show is of necessity going to poke fun at those in power. This is a fact lost on some liberals who’ve declared The Daily Show the Pravda of Progressivism. The Daily Show takes shots at those in power. When or if liberals take back the White House or continue to hold on to Congress, those guys will make fun of them, or they will cease to be funny. It will be a painful lesson.

‐ But, as I’ve often tried to point out, scrutinizing everything on a political calculus is often pointless and, worse, it sucks the marrow of joy out of the bone of life (Hmmmm bone-sucked joy-marrow). The Simpsons is funny because it’s funny. The politics of the show are a very small part of the equation, because politics are — and should be — a very small part of life, in Springfield and everywhere else.

‐ And, yes, I know what you’re saying right now, “Stupid column, be more funny!” But alas it’s over.


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