How 'The Simpsons' Works


The Cultural Impact of 'The Simpsons'
A crossover episode of "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy" called "The Simpsons Guy" aired on Sept. 28, 2014. FOX via Getty Images

Some of the show's cultural impact is less tangible. The show's catchphrases and one-liners create a shared cultural knowledge among fans. And its success as a prime-time animated show led directly to the creation of others of its kind, like "Family Guy" and "Futurama," and less directly to an explosion of sharp-witted animated shows aimed at adults.

There's nothing less funny than explaining a joke, but that's exactly what sociologists and critics have done over the years, analyzing how "The Simpsons" uses humor in complex ways. The best Simpsons episodes layer jokes using multiple references — to the show itself, to cultural concepts and to simple comedic ideas like sight gags, all prodding at satirical ideas about American culture. An example: Homer ignoring the voices in his head ("Dental plan!" "Lisa needs braces!") to vote against his own interest is funny all by itself, but even funnier if you understand the decades-old film trope of depicting a character's echoing memories. And the joke is even better if you're aware of the history of labor rights in the U.S. That's a lot of weight for one joke to carry.

The show has declined in popularity over its decades-long run — there was an average of 4 million viewers in season 27 as compared to 10 million in season 17 — and a lot has been written about why "The Simpsons" isn't as good as it once was. The main cast members even agreed to a pay cut to $300,000 per-episode from $400,000 in 2011, due to the show's declining ratings [source: Block & Masters].

It's possible that during the mid-'90s the show was so good that even the tiniest slip in quality is glaring. The show might be a victim of "'The Simpsons' did it already," as writers have increasing difficulty coming up with fresh stories and jokes. "The Simpsons" might still be as good as it ever was, but the audience could be fragmented and distracted by a splintered media landscape. It's also possible that the writing just hasn't been as good, or the show's satire seems quaint in an era when reality has become too unbelievable to mock. It's likely a little bit of all those factors.

Yet, as of May 2017, "The Simpsons" has broadcast more than 600 episodes and aired for more seasons than any prime-time scripted show in TV history. By the time its 30th season ends, there will be more episodes of "The Simpsons" than any prime-time scripted show, surpassing the record held by "Gunsmoke" [source: Porter].

Whatever the show's current quality, or whenever its run ends, one thing's for sure: We'll always remember Springfield.

Author's Note

I'm a big fan of "The Simpsons," and have been since I was very young. But I've had the theme song stuck in my head for three weeks now — please help. (My favorite Simpsons character is Professor Frink.)

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Sources

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  • Busis, Hillary. "'The Simpsons' Address Springfield Reveal in Chalkboard Gag." April 16, 2012. (May 22, 2017) http://ew.com/article/2012/04/16/simpsons-oregon-chalkboard/
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  • Fink, Edward J. "Writing The Simpsons: A Case Study in Comic Theory." Journal of Film & Video. Spring/Summer 2013. (May 17, 2017) http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/jfilmvideo.65.1-2.0043?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
  • Libaw, Oliver. "Doh! Oxford Dictionary Takes Homer Simpson." ABC News. (May 5, 2017) http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=93098
  • Kinsley, Michael. "Bart for President." New Republic. July 23, 1990. (May 3, 2017) https://newrepublic.com/article/76699/michael-kinsley-bart-simpson-president
  • Owen, David. "Taking Humor Seriously." The New Yorker. March 13, 2000. (May 17, 2017) http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2000/03/13/taking-humor-seriously
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  • Porter, Rick. "'The Simpsons' is forever: Series renewed through Season 30 on FOX." TV By the Numbers. Nov. 4, 2016. (May 3, 2017) http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/more-tv-news/the-simpsons-is-forever-series-renewed-through-season-30-on-fox/
  • Skonie, Sharon. "Bart Simpson T-shirts force ban at some schools." Northwest Indiana Times. May 31, 1990. (May 2, 2017) http://www.nwitimes.com/uncategorized/bart-simpson-t-shirts-force-ban-at-some-schools/article_a138fccc-7cb3-5798-a38e-e0d4c918fd3b.html
  • Weinraub, Bernard. "D'oh! Am I Underpaid?; Negotiations Are Stalled for Voice Actors in 'The Simpsons'." The New York Times. April 14, 2004. (May 3, 2017) http://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/14/arts/d-oh-am-i-underpaid-negotiations-are-stalled-for-voice-actors-in-the-simpsons.html?_r=0

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