Last night’s (Sept. 29) episode of The Simpsons, “Homerland,” saw Homer Simpson turn eco-terrorist, his daughter’s dream. Lisa Simpson is a quintessential caricature of a Springfieldian liberal: too smart for her own good, a media elitist, well, any kind of elitist, too accepting of anything new, self-aggrandizing and yet cripplingly self-conscious, flip-floppy. Her father, Homer, is a parody of small town conservatism: The son of a radical hippie, he watches Fox News, loves his guns, donuts, meat and beer. He is the ultimate American, bald, fat and lazy.
I discovered The Simpsons at a guitarist’s apartment. I was happily co-writing soundtrack music with Ted Dailey, who had a state-of-the-art recording set-up, when all things came to a halt. The Simpsons were on. I knew about The Simpsons, they were already a phenomenon, but I’d avoided it, because it was a phenomenon. Sitting in that room, waiting to record, I got hooked. I started videotaping episodes the very next day. Ted was convinced that The Simpsons had a conservative bent. He pointed to one of their clip shows where they basically gave out all the hints to prove it. I thought those hints were red herrings; that The Simpsons, if anything, were left-leaning. It seemed to me that all the conservative hints they were throwing were ironic, just because they were throwing them. But people are very clingy when it comes to The Simpsons. Conservatives claim them for their own. Liberals say they speak for them. Communists sing their praises. Anarchists quote them. Everyone wants The Simpsons on their team. I personally believe that The Simpsons is an equal opportunity offender. Conservatives who hear that say I’m being naïve.
Conservatives usually point to the cash register scanner in the opening sequence, which supposedly reads, according to the 1989 anniversary show hosted by Troy McClure, “NRA 4EVER,” “Just one of the many right-wing messages that can be found in each episode of The Simpsons.” They never mention that conservatives initially jumped on The Simpsons for promoting bad family values or consider the possibility that the series might have been having a laugh at their expense as a long-running revenge gag. Conservatives are acquisitive and believe The Simpsons are their domain. Liberals are distributive and think The Simpsons are nobody’s.
Early Simpsons episodes ended with full-throated hails to god and country. The Simpson proclaimed, often, that Jimmy Carter (or Bill Clinton) was the worst president in U.S. history. When Abe Simpson found that he was getting checks for telling a cat and mouse what to do, he assumed “the Democrats were back in power.” The Simpsons showed George Bush, the First, King George, not the idiot son, as a take-charge president who answered to his boss: The People. Of course, he also tried to strangle Homer in a sewer, but that’s all forgiven if not forgotten. It makes sense for Homer to go after H. W. Bush in the sewer, The Simpsons weren’t The fucking Waltons. But The Simpson always painted the first Bush with deference. Maybe H.W. held Snowball I hostage, slowly turning on a spit or something. That’s the way they do it in the CIA.
All of the right wing references seemed to be a little too over-the-top to me. Their anti-liberal bias didn’t seem as biting, sure, liberals are pussies who can’t make up their mind and throw money at problems. Conservatives take money away from problems, like the poor. Or they defund their problems. The Simpsons never made bold statements as conservative spokespeople, they spun clichés into fresh barbs. But Simpsons writers have made a brave statements for the left. They made strong anti-war statement after 9/11, showing a Springfield devastated by battle. In the “The Day the Earth Looked Stupid” segment of “Treehouse of Horror XVII,” Kang and Kodos invade the earth in equal parts Orson Welles Alien Invasion Radio broadcast and part Dick Cheney’s Iraqi War. The Aliens of “Operation Enduring Occupation” aren’t greeted as liberators like the soldiers of Operation Enduring Freedom weren’t greeted. Weapons of mass destruction become mass disintegration. The jokes were just a little more on-target and subversive.
The Simpsons is the brainchild of Matt Groening and Homer Simpson is based on his father, Homer. I have no doubt that the two Homers are to the right of the political spectrum. Homer on the show might be a little shaky in his foundation, but he is the quintessential working class conservative American. Republicans basically want to keep their money or spend it however they want and if that means they want to spend it on dime bag of sour diesel, they want that right. Homer is a drinker and a sometime stoner. He’s dropped acid and puffed joints and really, what American hasn’t? That’s not the litmus of Republican humor. National Lampoon, one of the great comedic institutions was, at its heart, frat boy Republican humor and PJ O’Rourke has smoked and toked with the best of them. The Simpsons takes the very worst of stereotypes and clichés to illogical conclusions. They lampoon everything until they become loathsome but lovable caricatures.
So, if Homer represents Homer, who is to the right. That’s fine. A lot of men identify with Homer, whether we agree or not with his political affiliations, his desire to plow through hippies or his take on gun control (“Three days? But I’m angry now” – “The Cartridge Family”). As Americans, we know it’s our duty to do a half-assed job. Homer, like most of the small town Pacific Northwest, is conservative. Springfieldians would love country, god and fast food. Vegetarian, feminazis like Lisa would be laughed at. But do we believe Homer after he’s been watching too much Fox News? “I’m sorry Lisa, but I won’t live under the same roof as a member of the liberal media. Did you know that every day Mexican gays sneak into this country and unplug our brain-dead ladies?” Or is it subversive, liberal? Homer is never shown as being particularly bright, except when they pulled a crayon out through his nose. If Homer is dumb, the writers might be implying that his beliefs are dumb. Yet, still not as bad as being a know-it-all liberal. Everyone can identify with Homer. He is universal. So we’re all dumb, fat and lazy.
“Ironic, isn’t it Smithers? This anonymous clan of slack-jawed troglodytes has cost me the election, and yet if I were to have them killed, I would be the one to go to jail. That’s democracy for you.” Standing atop Springfield and sometimes blocking the sun is my favorite character, Montgomery Burns. He is the most evil man on earth. He is also the wealthiest. Well, he’s the wealthiest man in Springfield. The richest man Homer knows. Probably richer than Artie Ziff. Mr. Burns doesn’t really have a soul, he turned his back on his family as child for just a little more. Burns convenes the GOP big wigs, among them Dracula and Satan (“Who’s that cloven-hoofed fellow? I like the cut of his jib”), to get rid of the liberal and licentious Mayor Quimby, a liberal monster with an even more corrupt Boston accent. But it’s a case of choosing between evils. The Simpsons distrusts them all. Politicians are all corrupt no matter which side they are on. Except, usually, George Bush 1 and the founding fathers, but even they get their powdered wigs handed to them.
One thing the left and the right pretty much agree on is that politicians are corrupt and politics is a pointless waste of time (Barney Gumbel: “An election! That’s one of those deals where they close the bars, isn’t it?”) Voting issues are moot (“I don’t agree with his Bart Killing policy. But I do approve of his Selma Killing policy”). Politics is a racket. To wag the dog on a story about a three-eyed fish that mutated because of Mr. Burns’ nuclear power plant (where Homer works, if you’re just tuning in), Monty runs for office. He’s not a politician, but an industrialist wanting to change laws that impede his progress. Homer, the Republican out for himself, lets the Simpsons shill for him. Lisa, the liberal who is out for the fishes, is against him. Marge saves the day for the environment.
But The Simpsons usually speaks for the small-town conservative. Springfield swallows all the silver tongue lies. They are happy in their naiveté. Washington is good. America is just. Corrupt politicians, outside of Springfield, get their comeuppance. In “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington,” while Lisa is getting inspiration from DC’s landmarks, she sees Springfield’s Congressman Bob Arnold taking a bribe. The news that “a little girl has lost her faith in democracy” shoots all the way through Congress, which can only happen in a cartoon, and they get rid of the sullied statesman.
In “See Homer Run,” Mayor Quimby opens the door to recall elections by accidentally referencing the town charter. Almost immediately, he is in a runoff in a Mayoral race against over 200 people, including Springfield’s own Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rainier Wolfcastle, and the Safety Salamander, I mean Homer. Of course, with that many people running, no one can get enough votes to oust Quimby. I mean, what else is he going to do? Sell hot tubs? Quimby makes a similar mistake in “Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment,” reading the town charter, where Springfield learns they have never done away with the Volstead Act, turning Springfield into a pre-HBO Boardwalk Empire, until they read just a little more.
The Simpsons aims at Fox repeatedly. As the fledgling network struggled for cash and respectability, you know, the kind that goes with hosting a football team, they got pious and opened a propaganda machine, I mean a news channel, to battle the liberal media. But Fox’s programming got sleazy to pay for it. Kent Brockman explained, “Fox deliberately runs shows that will earn them huge fines which are then funneled through the F.C.C. straight to the Republican Party. Everybody in the media knows it, but no one has the guts to say it.”
The Simpsons embrace traditional conservative values. Springfield is a religious, god-fearing Christian town. The entire population goes to church to hear the ultra-Presbyterian Reverend Lovejoy. Marge forces the Simpsons to go to church. When Homer finds his own religion in Sunday morning television and whole-bar-butter waffles, he gets immediate karma. His house burns. God personally saves the Flanderses house. When Bart sells his soul to Millhouse (another right wing reference to Richard Milhouse Nixon), he senses the emptiness. The Simpsons both revere and disrespect all religions, be they Christian, Jew or other (“Hindu, there are 750 million of us,” you know.) Springfield is alive with that old-time religion. Some of it appears to be really old time religion like when it looks like Ned Flanders is hepped up on goofballs and Abe Simpson yells “Let’s sacrifice him to our god.” They did it all the time in the thirties.
“If it’s a crime to love ones country then I’m guilty of that. And if it’s a crime to give a trillion dollars to communist Cuba then I’m guilty of that too. And if it’s a crime to bribe a jury, then so help me god, I’ll soon be guilty of that.” God bless America. You can always count on Mr. Burns to tell the truth. The whole truth and nothing but the truth as he sees it. Burns is probably the most evil, self-serving, self-important money grabbing, lovable old man in television history. He’s unabashedly ambitious, ruthless, empty and wealthy. Monty Burns has a stranglehold on the town, he can suck the oil right out from under a school or steal the sunlight from his neighbors just to squeeze a few more dead presidents thanks to unnatural light. He represents the worst and the best of the Republicans, the money party.
Democrats vote with their conscience and Republicans vote with their wallets. Mr. Burns is the best representative of someone who votes, who makes every move in life, in deference to his wallet. He releases the hounds on girl scouts selling cookies. He has a trap door in his office for workers who want to take advantage of him through fund-raising, benefits or salary. He cashes out his nuclear plant only to buy it back at a profit just to crush the little man who works for him. He’s a genius, otherwise he wouldn’t have amassed all that he’s amassed. As a kid in short pants, Monty abandoned his family for an opportunity for wealth without batting an eye. There was no conscience. He sits at the head of the Springfield Republican Party. He holds a higher position than Satan or Dracula or Texas Oil Man. Burns can buy his way out of charges of “grand grand grand grand larceny.”
Democrats, like Lisa Simpson and Springfield Judge Snyder are always weak, indecisive, self-absorbed and self-aggrandizing. “Oh yeah, Lisa, my terrorist masters wanted to know all about you.” The judge can make sweeping mandates happen “under penalty of torture” that have nothing to do with the law, not even cartoon law, which doesn’t have to adhere to even the laws of physics. He can ban sugar from the whole town just to lose weight, giving the idea to Nurse Bloomberg in New York. In another attempt to oust the overstay Democrat, the local GOP pulled in Rush Limbaugh to push Sideshow Bob against Mayor Quimby (“Mayor Quimby, you’re well known for your lenient stance on crime. But suppose for a second that your house was ransacked by thugs, your family tied up in the basement, with socks in their mouths! You try to open the door, but there’s too much blood on the knob!” Quimby: “What is your question?” “My question is about the budget, sir.”) Lisa, the arch-liberal, of course, saves the day for still waters.
Corruption is everywhere. In “Last Exit to Springfield,” Homer learns the only way to make money as a union leader is through corruption, the mob ties are a perk. But the unions win their dental plan. Homer talks down strikes in favor of laziness in “The PTA Disbands.” The Simpsons take the Mexican border war in “Coming to Homerica.” Mayor Quimby has to build a wall, but because it’s built with cheap immigrant labor, it’s useless. They take on gun control (Krusty “Guns aren’t toys. They’re for family protection, hunting dangerous or delicious animals and keeping the king of England out of your face.”). The Simpsons take on all comers.
Most of the people who work on the show, including Matt Groening, identify themselves as liberal, several times usually, on the DVD commentaries. I don’t believe them. Even at their most sincere. John Swartzwelder says he’s a conservative and he wrote a lot of episodes. It’s a good thing he does, no liberal would come up with Fox News crawls like as “Do Democrats cause cancer?” or end an episode about equal marriage rights, “There’s Something About Marrying,” with Thelma Bouvier, Marge’s gay sister for anyone who doesn’t know, waiting in line to get married holding her pet iguana, Jub-Jub, because everyone knows that’s where it’s all leading.
Simpson creator, Sam Simon, who also developed Taxi and The George Carlin Show, announced that he would be committing the ultimate liberal act when he learned he had terminal cancer. He is giving away his fortune. He said he’s not exactly sure how much it is, but he says it’s a lot. Simon has been giving it away anyway. He gives to PETA, Save the Children and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. His Sam Simon Foundation rescues stray dogs from being put to sleep and the Sam Simon Foundation Feeding Families program feeds people and animals vegan food. His foundation is worth about $23 million.
Those who hang to the right point to “The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular,” where they admit that there are “hundreds of radical right-wing messages inserted into every show by creator Matt Groening,” but it’s Troy McClure saying it. How could it possibly be sincere? Whether The Simpsons champion liberal themes with conservative values or hail right wing issues with a sinister twist, they remain noncommittal. They just want to make fun of the ostentatious and stereotypical behaviors of everyone in society. Are the Simpsons liberal or conservative? My friend Guy Batt speaks for me when he asks “Is the syrup I pour on my pancakes liberal or conservative. Well, I pour it freely right on top, but I try to keep it on the plate. Ergo, it is both.” The Simpsons really take no prisoners. Everyone is their target. Conservatives say The Simpsons is conservative. Liberals, being liberal, say that they are equally offensive.
The Simpsons are slaves to the joke. It doesn’t matter as long as there is a punch line and someone comes out on the bottom. Comedians drop their values, shit, they’ll drop their pants, for a laugh.