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Dissected: The Simpsons by East India Youth

April 3, 2014

Originally posted on the 405

EIY_simpsons_2

There are few shows – hell, extend that to any form of contemporary culture – that have made such a broad cultural impact on Generation Y than The Simpsons.

This idea formed the basis of an in-depth chat that I undertook with fellow Simpsons fanatic Will Doyle, aka East India Youth, in the run up the release of his quite stunning debut album Total Strife Forever (you can read our original interview
here
).

It’s influenced the way we talk. Our world view. Our cynicism. Our irony. Our comedic values. Our flippancy, particularly in regards pre-exiting culture and establishments. I’ve even used it for flirting for Gods sake. And in its early days it achieved this with a frightening accuracy in terms of wit, and covered so much ground that it’s hard for a Simpsons fan on a daily basis to not find a quote, a reference, a sound, whatever – that is relevant to an everyday situation. Even in this intro at the mention of “Generation Y”, so into my head popped-up Lisa and Bart’s MTV generation gambit:

Bart: “Nothing can upset us, we’re the MTV generation.

Lisa: We feel neither highs nor lows

Homer: Really? What’s it like?

Lisa: Mehhhh.”

Or even this. Or this from the infamous Homerpalooza Episode. You see? There’s a quote for every facet of your life. Entire conversations can take place consisting purely of Simpsons quotes.

This is testament to the quality of writing, and it achieved greatness in a particular post-modern knowing kind-of-way that’s become par for the course for many comedy vehicles in these times. It’ll take you an age to get through this list of “Meta” moments in episodes. And the details, oh my. The early shows weren’t created with the Internet/DVD explosion in mind as they of course were not around; now every frame and joke can be spotted and shared in an instant – even frequent syndication wasn’t evident in the early 90’s. But yet the attention to detail was still embedded in their approach, writers willing to create jokes and set-ups that may well totally fly over their audience. Those signs on buildings, shops, pamphlets, that require freeze-framing. Check out this one via Reddit, that I freely admit I would not have got had it not been for the discussion that followed in that thread. Another example, did you know that the films of McBain shown in various episodes actually make a whole mini-film? Well maybe you do now thanks to the Internet, but at the time…

Having said that, perhaps there was a glimpse into knowing their greatness as the show developed – via this quote from Season Five at the opening of Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song:

Marge: “I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with the idea of your classmates laughing at our family’s private moments. How would you like it if, twenty years from now, people were laughing at things YOU did?”

Bart: “Not likely”

It’s a subject that we could have undoubtedly discussed for hours; however we still managed to cover a lot of ground relating to the above while also crowbarring in a brief look at Seinfeld (and Futurama) along the way. Read a (mostly unedited) transcript of the conversation as we go through various theories, and memories of The Simpsons. All wrapped up in a neat little package for you.

East India Youth: You should start a feature… there must be so many musicians that have thoughts on stuff likes this…

Tim Boddy: I really wanna do one that analyses Seinfeld as well

EIY: Yeah that’d be really great actually…

I think the most important thing to mention here (and you should definitely write this up): I don’t think it’s possible to have that connection to the show anymore, with the new episodes. You know this as well as I do I’d think, but there’s definitely a golden age to that show.

Seasons Two to Nine we’re talking?

EIY: Yeah… And the super fans of the show totally respect that, it’s like an unwritten rule isn’t it? That is the best period.

It’s just accepted as fact. I think about this a lot (sadly), but… it’s not that it’s not funny per se, it just feels like there’s an important part of it missing as it’s evolved so much from where it came from, and is now deep in surreal realms and occupies a different world. It’s lost that emotional bite.

EIY: Do you think that they felt the pressure to appear more zany because of things like Family Guy?

I think there’s a little bit of that. Also, there’s only so much ground you can tread within those realms of that more normal, everyday world that it generally used to inhabit. I mean there was always surreal moments in episodes, but they were sort of based in reality or offshoots away from the story. So, if you’ve covered pretty much everything to such an extensive and beautifully written level like they did, it has to go somewhere else as there’s only so much to talk/write about. Even Seinfeld that talked about “nothing” could only last that nine seasons…

EIY: They knew when to call it quits on that show.. Even then perhaps that was too late? I know we’re not supposed to be talking about Seinfeld – but towards the end it does get a bit weird, when Larry David leaves the show..

Yeah in way, but it gave it this mini lease of life conversely. Those two last seasons were definitely tonally different to the rest, and they were slightly wackier. I mean for me those two seasons were great, but, if it continued any further than say nine seasons, then it could have been jumping the shark.

EIY: Yeah. And the way that they have done that reunion via Curb Your Enthusiasm as well, is genius, that’s television genius. They actually gave people the reunion without actually having to do it and that’s great.

It’s all meta on meta…

EIY: It is meta. Anyway, The Simpsons…

So we’ve got that caveat out the way, the “golden age” period… let’s talk episodes.

EIY: I’m trying to go back as far as I can remember. The one where Homer becomes President of the union, the “Lisa Needs Braces/Dental Plan”.

Last Exit To Springfield I think it’s called…

EIY: Yes that one… it’s a fantastic that one. I remember that one particularly because… I think I was just old enough to start taping stuff on VHS by myself and I used to tape The Simpsons a lot. I remember having that on my tape, those tapes that would last three hours. I used to watch that one over and over and over and over. The bit where Homer is doing the “wooop-woooop-woooop-wooooop” [mimes Homer spinning around]

Oh wow was that from that episode?

EIY: Ha yeah! So Burns was trying to bargain with him isn’t he? Completely by accident Homer’s resolve won’t break and he won’t give up on this thing; and what Burns thinks is that Homer is driving a really hard bargain and Homer is oblivious to that whole thing. There’s that bit where he needs the toilet really badly. So he… [much laughter at the thought of the scene] when Burns invites him round to the mansion and he needs to go really badly, Burns misconstrues that as Homer not wanting to listen to him, or negotiate with him…

And Homer’s trying to find the toilet and is going down the corridor opening and slamming every door. Eventually he comes back and Burns says “So did you find the bathroom okay?” and he pauses for awhile and says with shifty eyes “…yyyyyes”

EIY: And Burns says he’s a bit strapped for cash at the moment only for the ceiling to fall in where they get covered on jewels – and the crown lands on his head. But yes he does that iconic spinning around in a circle bit as because of all that Burns cannot be bothered anymore and relents, and Homer just celebrates by doing that.

Is that something that they’ve brought back, or somehow later referenced?

[yes]

It’s possible, I’m not sure. It may be because I’ve seen it so many times, it just feels like it must be a more fresh thing. But that episode is so consistently funny it’s unbelievable and with such a fast pace of gags. I watched five minutes of it sometime recently, and the amount of visual gags, references, witty jokes that it packed in during that time is ASTONISHING. I mean, the Dental Plan, the…

EIY: I like the one where the set-up is “All in favour say aye… all against say ‘ney'” in that hilarious weedy voice/ “Who said that? It’s him!”

“Let’s get him boys…”

And there’s the scenes when Lisa does get braces at the dentists, and it’s playing out a scene from Batman when the joker looks in the mirror.
When I first watched that as a kid – I should say I did not have a TV until I was 12 – so I missed out on film and popular culture. Therefore I didn’t get the reference but regardless thought it was funny, just…

EIY: Just because it was.

Yes, exactly. And I’ve had that so many times with The Simpsons as I’ve grown-up and I’ve become more culturally aware. Recently I re-watched an old episode for the 10th time or whatever, and still picked up some news jokes from them.

EIY: You know what? That’s an interesting thing isn’t it. Because we’re from a generation who views their pop culture – if they’re a Simpsons fan – their pop culture references are the ones that The Simpsons have referenced and are used to take the piss out of. You’re looking at life through a completely different lens, through this prism.
As a child… that has such a massive impact on how you view things and how you approach the rest of your life. Like, what sort of things you get into say on television and film, or even just your sense of humour is crafted by that world.

That piece you sent me yesterday is really interesting isn’t it? But you do, you go back and watch episodes, and you realise that they’re referring to something else that you thought was a completely original thought for ages.

Much of it, and the quotes, have just become part of my everyday vernacular I find. Anyway more episodes…

EIY: Okay another episode would be the Monorail one.

Oh a classic.

EIY: An absolute classic. It’s got the best song they’ve written – the songs in that “golden age” are brilliant, unbelievably great.

They stick with you, even two decades later you can still remember every single couplet.

EIY: Totally, I can still sing ‘See My Vest’ word for word.

I’m not quite so good at that one… I’m almost there.

EIY: Ha I can remember all those words, I don’t know why… but yeah the monorail one. There’s bits in that where they have the grand opening and Spock from Star Trek is there, and he makes a Trekkie joke and says “I bet this vessel can reach at least warp 5″ and everyone politely laughs. Then Mayor Quimbie says And errr let me say, may err the Force be with you”. Spock says “Don’t you even know who I am?” “Weren’t you one of the err Little Rascals?”, just getting the wrong end of the stick again.

It’s these subtle bits of humour that they don’t seem to have time for anymore – when Marge meets the guy who invited the monorail in North Haverbrook and she’s seen how it has completely destroyed that town, and he offers to help Marge. She brings him in and they’re rushing back in time for the maiden voyage of the monorail so that they can warn people but they get there too late. But: the initial scenes where Marge meets him he has long hair, and then later on when they get there he has short hair. And they see the monorail moving and go “No we’re too late!” and he says “I really shouldn’t have stopped for that haircut“.

Who thought to put that level of humour into it? It’s such a non-joke isn’t it, and they don’ draw any attention to it and it’s brilliant.

Yeah I’m pretty sure I didn’t even notice that gag for years and years.

EIY: Also another joke that is two of this linked together. When you have the controllers of the monorail sat in the control tower and they’re watching it go round and round.

[I make the AaaaaayyyyYYYAEERRPPP noise the passengers makes]

EIY: Yes! And one of the controllers says “Wait a minute, why don’t we just shut off the power? “. And they remember it’s solar powered. And he says to him “Solar power: when will people learn…”. Then at that exact moment there’s a solar eclipse and Spock’s looking out the window and he says “Solar Eclipse: The cosmic ballet goes on”, and trying to be really mysterious…

Isn’t he sitting next to someone? And says..

EIY: “Does anyone wanna change seats?”.

It’s weird just before I came out I was watching this really good discussion with some of the original writers of the show – so the ones that were round from 1989 to 1994-ish. And it’s hosted by Conan O’Brien who was one of the staff writers for the early years before the left to do his chat show. It’s fascinating hearing them talk about the show..

EIY: I need to watch that, definitely.

It’s about 90 minutes long, but great to put it on like a podcast in the background. But yeah – he wrote that monorail episode and he talks about the pitch in this video…

EIY: Yeah he did – and he also wrote Homer Goes To College that is also one of my favourites. He’s PURE golden age Simpsons isn’t he? You can always tell the episodes that he was behind.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about – I had a period where I hadn’t been watching it but I’ve had a big urge to revisit. I mean I could still quote it and all that. But like you said… they pack so much into such a short amount of time. It’s mental..

It’s frightening, and with such a consistent hit rate.

EIY: If you think back to when you watched them when you were younger the episodes – from memory – seem so much longer than they actually are..

Yeah. Yeah!

EIY: Do you not think that?

They’re almost like these mini-movies.

EIY: But now when you rematch them they rattle through it so quickly and so much happens, its over really quickly, in 23 minutes. They definitely hit a stride – so the start of the episodes would have absolutely nothing to do with the story arc… and they’re still cramming that sort of thing in without any loss of quality. That would never happen nowadays.

Now a lot of TV works very differently and it’s… linear, and each episode relates to the last one.

Very true – each Simpsons episode inhabits its own world; so you can catch any episode as a one-off and it would be fine contextually to watch.

EIY: Totally, it didn’t reference the episode before it. So anything could happen and it wouldn’t affect the way the next episode works.

They even do a play on that idea at the end of one episode – well they’ve done that quite a few times I’m sure.

[The Frank Grimes episode ‘Homer’s Enemy’ is essentially plays heavily with this concept]

EIY: Yeah, they’ve always been very self-aware. I think a good moment to identify when there was a decline in quality of the show is when Maude Flanders dies. In my memory that’s the first permanent change of that dynamic; even though she wasn’t that important a character, or even directly that funny, that’s not the point..

They sort of did it for the sake of having this talking point.

EIY: Yeah, to keep it going. Exactly. Other than Who Shot Mr Burns? Where that lasted for more than one episode – but it wasn’t as permanent comparative to the Maude thing.

Yeah, a couple of characters were written out like Dr Marvin Monroe without mentioning it, which was fine (and a better way of doing it).

EIY: Why was that again? Did the voice actor die?

I think they didn’t like him as a character…

EIY: They wrote out Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure when that actor died…

Oh Phil Hartman

EIY: That’s it.

I think that’s another reason why it declined a bit…

EIY: Lionel Hutz was one of the best characters.

Totally, would kill with every line – that was down to Hartman. Did you know that his death occurred roundabout the time that Futurama was being developed? And he was to play a role in Futurama also (Zapp Brannigan)

[FACT: Philip J Fry from Futurama is so named as a tribute To Phil Hartman]

EIY: Are you as into Futurama?

Well… I was a bit late to the party with it. So I did watch it when it came out and did enjoy it to a degree, but somewhat wrote it off as a subpar Simpsons; but I’ve definitely come round it to now. It’s very cleverly written and…

EIY: Is there a ‘golden age’ to that as well? But there’s not like a lot of seasons…

Five or six seasons I think? The first season is finding its feet and it’s a bit slower paced – much like The Simpsons was in its first. But there’s genuinely some really render and emotionally resonate episodes from two onwards.

EIY: Yeah they were able to do that… I think when they started doing that with Futurama that’s when The Simpsons started going downhill.

…To the extent that I would say that Futurama is better than new Simpsons? And that “old” golden age Simpsons is better than both those two things.

EIY: Right, I should probably go back and watch those I think. The problem is that it’ll never be as iconic. No-one’s ever done anything like that, it’s insane…

EIY: You can’t do that with TV anymore. You just can’t.

How do you mean?

EIY: Right. What’s iconic now is Breaking Bad and things like that, but iconic for very different reasons. It’s not as a relatable thing now. I’m not saying you can’t identity with characters or stuff like that. But that is not going to – no matter how good it is – is not going to change the way you live your life.

It’s a piece of entertainment. Or possibly also a commentary..

EIY: It is entertainment. It’s not a way to live your life. I’m not saying that every TV show has to change the viewer as that’s mental, much like every album that comes out shouldn’t be “Wow this is the best thing I’ve ever heard and will change me as a person”.

I just don’t think television can operate in that way anymore. The medium – because of the way it’s consumed right now will not allow a show like that to become popular to that level. Seinfeld is another example. We’re never going to have anything that speaks to such a large number of people..

We live in a more fractured society, when it comes to absorbing culture. When The Simpsons was in the 90’s, it was on 6pm, BBC2, and there was pretty nothing else (if you were of that age) to watch.

EIY: Apart from when Wimbledon was on…

That was so annoying!

EIY: Yes! I couldn’t stand that at the time…

There was a point when it was only on Mondays and Friday? And sometimes they rotated the days I think. So occasionally Due South would be on instead when I wanted to watch it… and that would make me really mad.

EIY: Due South! Yeah… that was a really awful show

I mean some of my friends liked it, but it used to make me irrationally upset purely because it wasn’t The Simpsons.

EIY: But yeah it was great wasn’t it? It was a shared experience.

I think it’s important not to bemoan that change because, well there’s nothing you can do about it – and it’s wrong to look back at golden ages of televisions or music, or anything really…

It’s a revivalist sort of mentality.

EIY: Yeah you’re just ignoring the positive change that’s happening before you really.
To be informed by a TV like that is a weird thing isn’t it?

It’s an internal part of our upbringing oddly.

EIY: It’s been so important to me I’m wondering NOW what people get that from. What fills that hole within young people’s selves? I really wonder about that sort of thing.

And will they be talking about about the thing that is culturally relevant to them now in say 20 years times like The Simpsons, like me and you are right now?

EIY: It’s not like we’re the only ones, there are literally millions of people out there who get this.

Loads of my friends are on the same wavelength..

EIY: All your friends that like The Simpsons, like that “golden age” period and share that with each other. Will the current generation be talking about something shared from their childhood… I don’t know.

Adventure Time? Possibly..

EIY: I don’t think so you know? Even though that’s great as well, it’s not the same thing is it? It’s not the same thing as The Simpsons so heavily referenced the world around you and recontextualized the world around you at the time. Because it did that so successfully, it was only going to expand your world view.

And of course you’re at a very malleable age when you watched it, you were only going to absorb everything up.

EIY: The amazing thing is that it’s universal as well – there’s jokes that you wouldn’t have ever identified with when you were younger but only later in life. And it gives it that enduring quality doesn’t it?

That’s another reason why the show wouldn’t work as well anymore… TV is too demographic based those days, aimed at a certain group of people. Who was The Simpsons aimed at? Really? It’s a cartoon, and pretty much the first of its kind. But at the time people would assume it was aimed at younger viewers – but not true as the humour’s really subtle. There’s a lot for a child to enjoy and indeed we did, but think of how rewarding it is as an adult to go back and find new things about it. And that’s what makes it enduring.

“Oh Marge, cartoons don’t have any deep meaning. They’re just stupid drawings that give you a cheap laugh.”

Also there’s something about watching the classic episodes where you get these multiple levels of nostalgia. So, I’ll remember watching that same episode at different points in my life. I’ll just about remember watching it when it first came out, and of course missing lots of dialogue and jokes like we’ve discussed. And then remembering when I rewatched them, and rewatched them again as a young adult, and now I’m 29 I pick up on all these weight of memories associated with the episodes. And now I’m sort of watching from above on all this wealth of nostalgia. And it’s so weird!

EIY: It is a good way to pin point moments from your life isn’t it?

Yes, and it gives the episodes yet another emotional resonance? Because many of the episodes have pathos in them anyway – but then you’re sort of emotional in regards to your own life as well from a purely selfish perspective. As you’ve grown with it.

EIY: I’m trying to think of other examples of when it was so emotionally trenchant.

I’ve got one: I remember at the time thinking “yeah this is emotional, I recognise that this is a sad story” – they treaded that line between genuine pathos and flippancy so well. Anyway, at the time I knew this episode was sad but it didn’t floor me in that sense. It’s One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish, where Homer eats some dodgy sushi and is given 24 hours to live.

EIY: Oh yeah… fuck, yeah…

So a couple of years ago I watched it with a friend, and we’d been out on an serotonin-boosting all-nighter and thus feeling quite, erm… fragile and emotional next day, and swimming in nostalgia; even before viewing. On Sunday afternoons they have it on C4 and we were both sank in the sofa, watching The Simpsons, which was all nice and comfortable. Then at the end of that episode when he “collapses” in his chair as the sun rises… we both went really quiet for quite a few minutes… and tears were rolling down my cheek! And he was essentially the same.

EIY: Ha ha… you don’t’ expect it to have that impact…

Yeah, again it was that emotional nostalgia, and all these levels going on…

EIY: It can be sad like that – the word heartwarming comes up a lot doesn’t it from the era. They did those episodes where they’d sit on the couch and they’d do these flashbacks, and tell the story of how Bart was born or whatever. And the one with Maggie, and Homer ends up..

Oh the “Do It For Her” part…

EIY: Yeah that’s it, it tugs on your heartstrings. And you actually give a shit about the characters, you care about what happens to them.

To counteract that: I’m going to go back to Seinfeld again that was totally heartless. And that was the beautiful thing about it, there was literally NO emotions allowed at all.

EIY: Everyone was a total arsehole in it.

Yeah – even when George’s fiancé Susan dies, he shows no sadness or grief.

EIY: [laughs] It’s hilarious and you’re laughing at it…

Yes, not one of the characters really gave a shit. I guess that shows that it’s not necessary to have that emotional pull that The Simpsons has and does so well. So you can do it without all that and still create something iconic. They’re two polar opposites in a way, but…

They just speak to different parts of you. The Simpsons speaks to the emotional, sarcastic… ironic part of me. I think The Simpsons humour was darker than Seinfeld in its way, that’s what gets to you. Seinfeld is all about how everyone’s really neurotic and they completely over analyse every situation – and that speaks to the neurotic, over analytical side of me obviously, the one that speaks about the machinations of life in a minute-detail-microscopic-way.

Yeah, actually having those two shows combine together are really good companion pieces aren’t they?

Essentially yeah, appealing to these two facets to your character.

EIY: I can’t think of many people how love one and don’t like the other.

With Seinfeld if I watched that as a kid I would not have got it. In fact I think a watched a couple of episodes when I was 14…

EIY: Yeah I think I did too, and I just didn’t really get it.

It felt like just a bunch of adults talking.

EIY: Seinfeld definitely speaks to the adult in you.

Yeah more cynical, like adults generally are.

EIY: And the more mundane things that you have to deal with as an adult. Life’s too fantastical when you’re a kid. It’s only when you sort of get worn down by the..

..Crushing reality..

EIY: ..And disappointment of being an adult that you start to look at things in such microscopic detail as you’re trying to find some sort of meaning.

[Article conclusion:]

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