Simply Simpsons Mania

In 1987, when “The Simpsons” made their television debut as a two minute sketch on “The Tracy Ullman Show” nobody could have expected that these crudely drawn figures with their bright yellow skin and bizarre hairstyles would become popular culture icons.

Those who dismiss Homer, Marge and their brood as “just another cartoon family” are ignoring the sophisticated humor, visual jokes and social commentary that is packed into every episode.

The program’s writers demand their audience posses a certain amount of sophistication and cultural awareness in order to appreciate their humor.

In one episode alone there were allusions to Paul McCartney, Crazy Horse, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Gandhi, Garfield the Cat, Edgar Allan Poe, Rod Serling, Alfred Hitchcock and Binky-the rabbit from “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening’s alternative comic, “Life is Hell.”

When the program first achieved great popularity in the early 1990’s, Bart (an anagram for “brat”) was the main focus of most episodes and of the media’s attention.

Phrases such as “Cowabunga,” “Don’t have a cow, man” and “Eat my shorts” entered the American lexicon. His pride with being an underachiever was discussed in editorials as detrimental to the nation’s youth.

Even President George Bush said he preferred “The Waltons” to “The Simpsons.” Despite such criticisms, “The Simpsons” flourished and became even more irreverent as it began to focus less on Bart and more on the other Simpsons and their Springfield neighbors.

The appeal of “The Simpsons” lies in the fact that it can be understood on two levels. Children can enjoy the quirky animation, slapstick and outrageous characters and their various misadventures.

However, the program is not only for kids. Adults can appreciate the Simpson clan and other denizens of Springfield as offering a critique of contemporary American culture.

The cartoon format serves as the perfect vehicle for addressing issues that would seem “preachy” or even “taboo” if placed within a live-action setting.

Topics discussed by these outlandish characters have included: sexism, environmentalism, alcoholism, homosexuality, racism, divorce, religion, the freedom of expression and even public nudity.

Somehow the audience will accept Lisa’s struggle with the sexist Malibu Stacy doll makers or Homer’s trip to Duff Gardens-the theme park that promotes alcoholism in the animated format more readily than if the same cultural satire had been performed by live actors.

Groening and his team of writers have developed one of television’s best repertory companies from which to draw their laughs.

Moe the bartender, Mr. Burns, Burns’ assistant Smithers, Principal Skinner, Bart’s best friend Milhouse, Qwik E Mart proprietor Apu and Krusty the Clown have all been fully fleshed out over the last several seasons and are, thus, engines for stories.

The town of Springfield, which takes its name from the setting of the bland 1950’s sitcom “Father Knows Best,” reveals all of America’s insecurities (whether it be suffering through a dead-end job like Homer at the nuclear power plant or failing in school like Bart) and aspirations (such as Marge’s various attempts to find a career or Lisa’s goal to be the best eight-year-old saxophone player) that define America at the end of the 20th Century.

For all the social commentary and the roster of guest stars that is rivaled by the 1960’s “Batman” series (what other show can boast appearances by Bob Hope, Aerosmith, Johnny Carson, Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, Smashing Pumpkins, John Updike and the three surviving Beatles?), “The Simpsons” has endured because it is funny and one of the few television programs that causes people to laugh out loud.

We are amused by Homer’s gluttony and stupidity, Bart’s prank phone calls to Moe (Is Oliver there? Oliver Clothesoff?) and the other plots that can only occur in an animated universe (Bart adopts an elephant, Lisa uncovering corruption at the Junior Miss Springfield pageant, baby Maggie being accused of attempted murder).

The key to “The Simpsons” is its ability to balance its cartoon mayhem with true human emotion. Groening has said, “My goal from the very beginning has been not to get mired down in this kind of sour, ‘ain’t life horrible’ kind of humor that is the hip stance today.”

Without a doubt Groening and “The Simpsons” have succeeded.