Simpsons The American animation The Simpsons is now in its 10th season as a show in its own right. It was created by Matt Groening as shorts for the Tracy Ullman Show and was bought by the Fox Network, which began screening it as half-hour shows in 1989. Initially its success was restricted to the 9-16 year old age group, and for animation there is nothing remarkable about this. Its success grew quickly and it is now popular in many countries with many different audiences. In the 1990s we are seeing dramatic transformations in media industries and media cultures. In geographical terms, these transformations may be seen in the shift from national to global media. The Simpsons can be seen as both a remarkable piece of global culture and as a hugely successful piece of global television. (One need only look on an Internet search engine to discover that there are literally millions of Simpsons fan-sites around the world.).
The Simpsons themselves are a simple family in a small town in Middle America called Springfield. They are: Homer (loyal but stupid father), Marge (dissatisfied, trapped housewife/mother), Bart (rebellious son), Lisa (unappreciated genius daughter), and Maggie (silent baby). The show also revolves around a number of other of the townsfolk, such as Mr Burns (Homer’s miserly boss), Smithers (Burns’s loving assistant), Apu (Indian shop owner), Principal Skinner and Moe (owner of the local bar). There are a number of reasons why we cannot simply view The Simpsons as a cartoon like any other. The rules and conventions that it follows are far more those of television or cinema than those of animation.
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The humour within The Simpsons exists on many different levels ranging from the obvious to the subtle, from the literary to the movie reference, and beyond. But most importantly we must consider the show’s ability to make significant social comment, on general issues of culture and society, but more specifically on television, film and media, and on audience viewing and acceptance of these media. Traditionally, cartoons have been action driven and animation. Aside from the use of cameras to create the visual illusion of depth (Walt Disney famously explained the ‘complicated’ technique used to allow Mickey Mouse to walk along a street without distorting depth or perspective), cartoons had a language of their own, unique and separate from that of cinema or television. They were simple and without layered meanings. They had their own conventions that were regularly used and easily understood by children.
These included falling anvils, cannon balls, dynamite and gunpowder. Generally most situations in traditional cartoons are very simple and similar. They are based on a basic relationship between the chaser and chased. For examples look no further than children’s television and you will see Tom chase Jerry, Wylie Coyote chase Roadrunner and Yosemite Sam chase Bugs Bunny. So what makes The Simpsons different from these more traditional cartoon forms? Both the characters in The Simpsons their roles and situations are far more complex than in traditional animation. Indeed, what are seen as sub-characters are often the bases of stories, as executive producer Bill Oakley explains: Over eight years we’ve developed a town full of charactersMoe, Mr Burns or Principal Skinner can all provide the engines for stories. Producers of The Simpsons say they concentrate more on scripts than on animation, making the show more humour and script based than action based. But despite The Simpsons being seen by many as a sitcom, Oakley likes to keep the show fresh, and generally avoids sitcom writers: We want people who are not ruined by the standard sitcom form. One of the most important factors in explaining The Simpsons’s cross-generational and broad demographic appeal is the sophistication of its writing.
It is constructed to exist at many different levels. In terms of its humour, creator Groening says: There are the obvious jokes, the visual sight gags, the subtle literary allusions and at the most subtle, what we call the freeze frame gags. While I agree with Groening, I would categorise the humour slightly differently. The first level is ‘blatant comedy’. This includes obvious jokes.
The appeal to children that originally heralded The Simpsons is based on blatant comedy and the antics of Bart, such as his famous phone pranks: Bart phones Moe’s tavern. Moe: Moe’s Tavern. Bart: Hello, is Al there? Moe: Al? Bart: Yeah, Al. Last name: Coholic. Moe: Lemme check.. [calls] Phone call for Al.
Al Coholic. Is there an Al Coholic here? [bar denizens laugh] Wait a minute.. [to phone] Listen, you little yellow-bellied rat jackass, if I ever find out who you are, I’m gonna kill you! This level also includes other forms of blatant humour, such as juxtaposition, and many of the visual sight gags. It can also include the simplistic use of repetition, such as catch-phrase comedy. Many of the characters have catch-phrases which are repeated wherever possible. The most famous of these are Homer’s D’oh! and Bart’s Eat my shorts! Other repetitive jokes are in the form of the opening sequence, of which there are many variations.
They are the lines that Bart writes during his detention and the way the family sits down in front of the TV together. The second level refers to more subtle humour. This type of humour has accounted for the expansion of appeal to a more adult audience and includes a more sophisticated repetition type joke. For example: Homer tells Marge about a work night out: Marge: So how was the office birthday party? Homer: Oh, it was de-lightful! The frosting on the cake was this thick! [about an inch] And Eugene Fisk (my poor sucker of an assistant) didn’t know the fruit punch was spiked, and he really made an ass of himself putting the moves on a new girl in valve maintenance. Ha ha Marge: Does this girl like him? Homer: Pffft.
I have to warn you Marge, I think the poor young thing has the hots for Yours Truly! The same episode jumps to six months later, when Homer is explaining about “a little get-together with the boys at work. Eugene Fisk is marrying some girl in valve maintenance. Marge: Mmmhmmm. Eugene Fisk, isn’t he your assistant? Homer: No! My.. supervisor. Marge: Didn’t he used to be your assistant? Homer: Hey, what is this! The Spanish Exposition? Marge: Sorry, Homer..
It is unlikely that younger viewers will notice or understand this sort of humour. Other more subtle jokes include some of the signs on streets and buildings, like the one on the Springfield Hall of Records that says Not The Good Kind Of Records – Historical Ones. There is a form of highbrow humour in The Simpsons that will account for its appeal to the educated and academics. This is a level that I call educated reference humour. It is made up mostly of literary and academic references.
They are usually references to art, politics, philosophy or literature. (Sometimes they are cultural and as such will be dealt with in more detail later on.) Some examples of this higher level of humour are when Sideshow Bob refers to the documentation of his political corruption as Machiavellian art. A particularly good example is the Ayn Rand School for Tots. Ayn Rand was a founder of the strict philosophy of objectivism. There is much irony and humour in having a kindergarten based of Rand’s philosophies, and Ms.
Sinclair, who runs it, explains `Our aim here is to develop the bottle within.” Hence the humour in the posters inside the kindergarten: A is A and Helping is Futile. Other highbrow references include the TV show Rock Bottom’s correction that Women aren’t from Venus, men aren’t from Mars and a boy’s references to the work of photographers Helmut Newton and Diane Arbus when the children look at a photograph of Homer and a belly dancer. The subtlest humour of all the is the freeze frame humour. Groening explains: Jokes you can only get if you videotape the show and play it back in freeze frame. What we try to do is reward people for paying attention. There are a number of freeze frame jokes in the corrections in Rock Bottom (a parody of TV show Hard Copy. For example: Cats do not eventually turn into dogs The Beatles haven’t reunited to enter kickboxing competitions Bart is bad to the bone Everyone on TV is better than you If you’re reading this you have no life These were corrections to stories that the show must have previously run.
In this context they are quite amusing, but most viewers will miss them. This gives the show greater appeal as people know they are there and will want to find them. They will watch the shows over and over and form a cult following. If you’re reading this you have no life is a reference to this cult following, telling people that they are wasting their time (just as William Shatner told Star Trek fanatics in an edition of Saturday Night Live). However, in doing this, the writers are continuing to put in place the mechanisms that first created the cult following.
There are of course many grey areas here. Many jokes fit into two or more categories, and many jokes will also fit into issues of satire, culture, intertextuality and self-reference, which will be dealt with later. As previously mentioned, what makes The Simpsons visually different from other animations is its televisual rather than cartoon style. While other animations tend to be direct descendants of the comic strip, as a full show The Simpsons’s closest ancestor is The Simpsons shorts which appeared on the Tracy Ullman. The basic signifying unit of film – the basic unit of cinematic meaning – was not the sceneand not the unedited film stripbut rather the shot, of whichthere may be virtually limitless number within any given scene.
The Simpsons’s realisation of this is the key to its style. The use of televisual and filmic grammar has allowed The Simpsons to do so much that has given it a real TV style, to the point where it may not really be considered a cartoon. The show shares some convention with much sitcom. Just as in Friends you will see an establishing shot of the outside of a location before you see an internal shot, if we move around the regular locations of Springfield we will often see the same sort of establishing shot (e.g. outside the Simpson house, or outside Moe’s Tavern).
However, the fact that it is a cartoon also allows it to move around without budgetary problems. Episodes have been set in India, England and even in space. The use of the shot has allowed for juxtaposition comedy (such as when Marge wants to get a job and Homer tells her that they really don’t need the money – in the next shot we see the house begin to subside into the ground). It has allowed for the development of editing style that allows simultaneous actions in two separate locations to be followed such as in Bart’s telephone pranks. The use of shots and editing like animation allows for a non-linear style. This is seen in the various ‘recap’ and flashback episodes, but is also parodied well. In classical film a scene would cut to a clock face which would then dissolve to the same shot at a later time and then fade down and up into a new scene.
This trick has become a clich and it is a tribute to the audience’s understanding of it that The Simpsons can parody it. In one case the shot moves up to a clock and fades into a new shot of the clock, and down to the scene some time later. But time has only moved on by one minute, and this parody is used to emphasise that much time has not actually gone by at all. Camera angles in the programme are generally at eye level. This is perhaps because soap operas use a similar technique to try to represent reality.
By doing this, when more complex shots are used the effect is stronger and can allow for comedy or emotional responses. An example of this is when the Simpsons go to Itchy and Scratchy …