The Simpsons at 25: Satire in serious times

Satirical writer Jon Methven reflects on the importance of the show on the anniversary of the first episode

FOX / Getty Images

One of my fondest episodes of “The Simpsons” is from “Deep Space Homer,” in which the Simpson patriarch becomes an astronaut. He gazes out of the space shuttle, admiring the view of Earth.

“It’s beautiful. It’s the most awe-inspiring sight I have ever seen. Giver of life, mother of us all.” Then he pulls out a bag of potato chips. “Hey, guys, look what I smuggled aboard!”

The other astronauts warn him not to open it, but it’s too late. He opens the bag, and the chips scatter in the shuttle’s weightlessness, the crumbs threatening to get into all the equipment. Homer promises to take care of it. He unbuckles himself and begins floating through the cabin, gobbling up all the potato chips, very proud of himself as he displays his superpower: obesity.

That short scene has everything that makes “The Simpsons” arguably the most influential television series of all time for its always spot-on critique of American culture. On the surface, the episode hinges on the simple conceit of bumbling Homer as an astronaut. But beneath that lies a metaphor of the complexity of our modern life. Just as we contemplate our unique place in the vast cosmos, aboard a spacecraft that generations of humans have contributed to inventing, everything is ruined when one of our species opens a bag of potato chips and mucks up evolution. Our world in a nutshell.

Beaver vs. Bart

My mother grew up on the show “Leave it to Beaver,” which followed the antics of Theodore Cleaver, a boy roughly the same age as Bart Simpson. It was set in 1950s America, and because it was reminiscent of her childhood, the reruns became important to our household. I could never relate to the Beaver. The show was dated, the scenarios charming but unmemorable. And if the television show had anything to say about American culture, it was not an America I ever experienced. The Beaver was a nice kid trying to fit in with the expectations that his parents — and the world — had of him.

FOX via Getty Images

Six episodes of The Simpsons that made us scream 'Ay, Caramba!'

Twenty-five years on, Fox’s hit animated series "The Simpsons" is still forcing us to reexamine the world we live in through raw, subversive and often zany humor.

Here’s a quick look back at some prime examples of how they did just that.

Read more

I had Bart Simpson. Bart was a rebel. He was foulmouthed and disrespectful. He rebelled against the expectations of his parents and society, and his adventures spoke to what it was like to grow up in the late 1980s. I wanted to be friends with Bart. Other sitcoms of the 1980s — such as “The Cosby Show,” “Family Ties” and “Cheers” — were also great. But their impact stopped at entertainment, whereas the weekly skewering of our culture on “The Simpsons” set it apart from the pack.

Animation has changed drastically in the past 20 years, but when “The Simpsons” first aired, there was nothing like it. “The Flinstones” and “Scooby Doo” were tame by comparison. Risqué meant Jerry would flatten Tom with a tire iron or Wile E. Coyote would plummet off a cliff as the Road Runner dashed to safety. “The Simpsons” was different — the way the characters spoke and interacted, how the writers poked fun at cultural happenings, how everything Homer Simpson did was both hilarious and cringe-worthy. It was scary to consider this was the person operating our nuclear plants, raising our children, driving on the same roads as us, voting for our leaders. It was scary to think this was us.

Homer the muse

I didn’t become a writer because of Homer Simpson. But the character did inspire me, and I’ve learned a lot about satirical writing as a result. Drinking beer and eating doughnuts is neither funny nor clever. But in the hands of “The Simpsons” writers, it’s as funny as anything ever written.

The same brilliance is found in each member of “The Simpsons” supporting cast. Every character in Springfield not only has a unique voice and personality but also is hilarious and true to life. A few of my favorites are Kent Brockman, the local anchorman; school groundskeeper Willie, who seems like a good guy to know in this era of school shootings; and Waylon Smithers, the brown-nosing assistant to Montgomery Burns (mostly because it seems so many of us have worked with people like Smithers).

What’s impressive about “The Simpsons” is that with these characters, the show is able to lambaste and dissect every aspect of America, always in an unexpected and thought-provoking manner. In an era when Dennis Rodman is serving as a makeshift ambassador to North Korea, it’s difficult to write provocative satire that stands out. Homer Simpson is a prime example of how to do this expertly. He is a celebration of drunkenness, obesity, dim-wittedness and sloth — and somehow he’s still lovable.

“How is education supposed to make me feel smarter?” Homer asks Marge during an argument in their bedroom one evening. “Besides, every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain. Remember when I took that home wine-making course and I forgot how to drive?”

“That’s because you were drunk,” Marge hollers.

Attempting to drive a vehicle while inebriated on homemade wine, in the hands of “The Simpsons” writers, is funny. And that’s the purpose of satire in today’s abysmally politically correct and serious world: to both be a part of the madness and find the angle that makes it fun.

Related News


Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter



Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter