Watching the third season of this longest-running animated series in the history of television, you get the keen sense that so much of the Simpsons humor is so bound up in cultural memes with a half-life of two or three years, these references are going to require some kind of steward to set them down in writing just so people will understand why they were funny at the time. Season three covers 1991-1992, and even at this short remove, many of the jokes hinge on references that, for me, trigger flashes of recognition on the trailing edge of my (admittedly patchy) memory. This late in the recollection game, many of the jokes came within just a single timely memory-jogging of being lost on me. Like, okay, this is amusing because that was a popular catch-phrase for a few months way back when—wow, I totally forgot that people ever said that. Now that’s funny because this development in sports or entertainment—politics, even—enjoyed oral currency that fall, one of those mayflies of the zeitgeist that would have crumbled to dust had it not been trapped and preserved in sticky Simpsons amber. The Simpsons is the place to go day-tripping for flash-frozen nostalgia. In a way, the series is a repository for cultural flotsam and jetsam that no place else will take, that no other cultural museum has figured out a way to display. To name just one example out of dozens in each half hour: In the episode where Bart and his “wiener” friend Millhouse go to see a Spinal Tap concert, the Comic Book Guy is in the parking lot flogging T-shirts depicting the group collectively booting Muammar Khaddafi in the butt. The Libyan strongman has earned a place in the official history books, but what about the craze for anti-Iran, anti-Iraq, Oliver-North-for-President T-shirts that throve in the late ’80s? Where else but The Simpsons can you turn to see those kinds of cultural exhibits on display?
The good thing about our inevitable oblivescence, in this case, is that the show—which can seem pretty diddly-ding-dong Dada at times to begin with—will only become more esoteric as more of the cultural context slips from our collective memory, leaving once-relevant jokes stranded on the proverbial beach with no explanation, like mysterious sea creatures washed up by a typhoon. Future unearthers of old Simpsons tapes will be left to puzzle over what, if anything, to make of quips and sight gags that really amount to inside jokes once readily understood by millions of Simpsons fans, but now just kind of hanging there in mid-air for want of someone to grasp the reference. And if ever a show were an index of pop culture references, it’s The Simpsons. Hence the pressing need—for posterity’s sake, mind you—for a thoroughgoing Simpsons companion, which would surely weigh 60 pounds and require at least a dozen volumes. One per season, like the annual supplement they send you when you buy a set of encyclopedias.
Of course, you could argue that the same befuddlement awaits anyone rediscovering lesser TV sitcoms 20 years hence—Mad About You, for example. But here’s the crucial difference: The Simpsons is one of just a handful of TV comedies filmed—for obvious reasons—without a laugh-track or a live studio audience. Laugh-tracks are an insidious form of peer-pressure, “proof” that something you just heard was funny because people were laughing, instead of the other way around. TV sitcoms from the ’50s and ’60s can seem excruciatingly unfunny today, but because of the laugh track you can at least gauge which parts were once funniest, at least to the tape-jockeys charged with adding the laugh track to, say, Gilligan’s Island. You’ve seen it in the movies: There’s a staffer out of frame holding up a sign that says “applause” or “laughter,” or even—significantly— “much laughter.”
Leaving nostalgia aside for a moment, the fact that production assistants and sound recorders decide, to a certain extant, which parts of a script are the funniest and deserve to be treated accordingly suggests that the most idiotic shows are still worthwhile (read: in permanent syndication on some channel somewhere) simply because people still seem to be laughing along with them. You already know what it’s like if you’ve ever watched a close-captioned sitcom in a noisy bar, but just imagine watching Friends without the laugh-track and tell me honestly that one out of every 10 laugh-snagging lines would scratch up so much as a nose-breath in the absence of the prompter. Perhaps most of the purported humor lies in the uniformly twitty non-acting, but still—how much of it is the performances and how much of it is the forced carrot-and-stick routine? Strip away the laugh-tracks and most sitcoms would be consigned to forgettable TV history after two seasons, tops. It’s thanks to that reassuring canned laughter, whipping the viewer like a rented mule, that David Schwimmer’s career has lasted as long as it has.
The Simpsons doesn’t prod you into laughing like that. It doesn’t congratulate itself or its audience, but it does reward a lifetime of TV and movie watching with references so subtle that you can easily miss them. I maintain that there isn’t a Simpsons fan out there, myself included, who has seen absolutely everything required to field every pop-fly reference the show sends his way. If you’ve never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example, you’re missing the brilliant homage to the special effects of Douglas Trumbull in the episode in which Homer test-drives a vibrating recliner. Likewise, if you’ve never seen Beverly Hills Cop, you’re not up to speed with the playful parody of Harold Faltermeyer’s “Axel F” that plays while Bart does a locker-by-locker search for stolen teacher’s editions in the episode where he becomes a hall monitor.
What’s great is that scenes can still be funny even if the intended joke goes right over your head. You never feel like the show is holding back while the slower students catch up. The recliner test is still arresting even if you’ve never seen the movie—although as any Simpsons fan will tell you, it’s frustrating to realize that something is obviously being spoofed but not know what it is. A short list of other movie homages in the Simpsons oeuvre: Paper Moon, The Shining, Planet of the Apes, The Graduate, Soylent Green, A Bronx Tale, The Godfather, The Amityville Horror and The Great Escape. The episode in which Bart’s dog runs away and ends up being trained as an attack dog features an outstanding spoof of the Ludovico Treatment in A Clockwork Orange. There are nonspecific genre homages, too (such as ’40s film noir), and a whole slew of TV show, theater and literature references—far too many to list here.
The series also displays a sure hand for spoofing other TV genres, like the infomercial, and films of the kind most people remember watching in high school health class. Many of these star washed-up series regular Troy McClure (“You might remember me from such educational films as...”), and are true to the shopworn aesthetic of educational film, right down to the pops, scratches and poorly-made splices. There are even references to cartoon history: One third-season episode starts off with a spoof on the perennial Roadrunner-Wile E. Coyote feud, both characters freeze-framed with captions giving the genus and species in spurious Latin.
No other TV show manages to combine so many disparate elements of style and humor as The Simpsons, with every episode a treasure-trove of pop-culture artifacts. What’s really amazing is how little time it took for the series to arrive at its consistent excellence and inventiveness. The difference between the first and second seasons of The Simpsons, already available on DVD, is night and day compared to the second and third. In just a year, the series went from having relatively crude animation and half-formed personalities (Homer is essentially a good Walter Matthau impression) to far better animation and fully-realized characters. By the third season, nearly all of the recurring themes and running jokes are in place: corporate lickspittle Smithers’s ambivalent sexuality and crush on his boss Montgomery Burns, the ultraviolent “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoon, Bart’s prank calls to tavern-owner Moe, the charming ineptitude and corruption of the Springfield police force, and a certain coyness concerning the geographic location of Springfield. Simpsons fans get into this stuff, too, analyzing all the scattered and conflicting evidence (coastline, mountains, radio stations with call letters that start with W, which would place the town east of the Mississippi) to try and figure out which state Springfield is in.
It’s a fool’s errand: Springfield is clearly nowhere, but at the same time everywhere—it’s the very picture of Anytown, U.S.A. that’s listed on the sample Publisher’s Clearinghouse envelope. Every day in Springfield (and, by extension, every episode of The Simpsons) is a fresh palimpsest for its characters to engrave according to an elastic set of rules.
The Springfield community has a long memory in a lot of ways, and an obliterated short-term one in just as many others. When Homer comes to his boss’ attention (generally through Smithers, who guards his privileged position jealously and invariable describes Homer as one of Burns’ “carbon blobs” or “cabbage-heads” from sector 7-G), it’s almost always as though Burns is hearing the name for the first time. Never mind that a long series of misadventures (assassinations, skiing accidents, failed business ventures) has intertwined their fates—usually it’s “Simpson, eh?”
At the same time Springfield is forgetting its previous-episode self, characters steadily gain in depth and dimension. By the show’s third season, minor intrigues have begun to blossom into defining characteristics—Smithers’ closeted homosexuality among them. To date, the shrewdest thing the creative team behind the series has done is to shift the focus of the show from Bart’s high jinks to the rich inner life of his father, whom one writer has succinctly described in a New Yorker essay as a “dreamy dumb-bell.” By season three, the shift is all but complete, with Homer’s deliriously escapist 40-watt intellect illuminated further with vivid fantasy riffing on, for example, how he would spend $25 in stock earnings. In the 12 television seasons since 1991—1992, Simpsons episodes have moved beyond Homer and his nuclear family to alight on nearly every minor player in the Springfield sandlot: Grandpa Simpson, Marge’s sisters Patty and Selma, Lisa’s hapless classmate Ralph, Millhouse and his squabbling parents, the jaded Krusty the Klown, Sideshow Bob, Principal Skinner and town drunk Barney.
But Homer himself is still the show’s squishy center, as he has been since season three. He has a hard time keeping his inner life to himself: His daydreams often leave him chuckling or drooling, to the dismay of other participants in discussions that have long since moved on from the topic that sent him into his reverie. He can also be quite eloquent, generally for comic effect, and sometimes poignant in trying to salve his frequently wounded pride with lines like, “I have always carried myself with a certain quiet dignity. Tonight you robbed me of it.” Sounds disingenuous after all the stupid stunts he’s pulled, but there’s no ignoring the real hurt in his voice.
Season Three marks the beginning of the Golden Age of Homer, and therefore of The Simpsons. For fans, sitting down to over two dozen episodes is like being a crackhead sitting down to two dozen big brown rocks. If you still doubt that this is the best TV show ever, you better get with the program.