When the show first aired in 1989, the intended star was Homer’s son, Bart – a 10-year-old from brat central whose central philosophy of life, “Underachiever and proud of it”, was dutifully embraced by a target audience of adolescents. Only later, as the The Simpsons took off, did Bart’s über-slob father, Homer, a beer-and-donut-addicted, bone idle, one-time uranium rod handler, alcoholic drink developer and travelling circus cannonball-catcher, become the core character. Homer is only truly happy slumped at Moe’s Bar or in front of the television where his wife, Marge, is obliged to feed him junk food so that he can keep both hands on his video game console. “Come on,” he tells her when she balks at the task: “You’re always telling me we should do things as a couple.”
Landing Marge was the one notable achievement of Homer’s life. They were teenage sweethearts who met in detention at Springfield High School and, when Marge became pregnant, fled across the state line to marry at Shotgun Pete’s Wedding Chapel. No one would call it a perfect union. Marge is thrifty, decent and high-minded, Homer greedy, opportunistic and financially delinquent. When she threatens to leave him, he pleads that the one thing he can offer her, more than any other man, is his “complete and utter dependence”.
For all this, the Simpsons, and their two other children, precocious eight-year-old Lisa and baby Maggie, have stuck things out in Springfield. Until now. Driven from their home, they assume things can get no worse – only to find themselves quartered next door to the sinister Australian cyber-activist Julian Assange.
Currently under house arrest in Britain, where he is fighting extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges, Assange recorded his contribution to the programme by telephone. The episode will be shown in Britain in May. “It’s hard, when you’ve done 500 shows,” says Jean, “to do something that you haven’t done before.” Yet he and the programme’s creator, Matt Groening, bat away suggestions that the world’s most popular cartoon comedy may be nearing its end. “We could go on forever,” he said last week. “As long as the world stays nuts, we’ll have new material.”
Important as it is to loyal fans, the question of the show’s durability is secondary to the one of how it became so successful in the first place. Much scholarly energy continues to be devoted to what might be called “the meaning” of The Simpsons, the nature of its enduring appeal and its place in popular culture. From the beginning, it has divided opinion sharply, with liberals tending to find more to object to than conservatives.
Beyond the loopiness and subversion, The Simpsons possesses an intriguingly allegorical quality, the threads of which lead, unfailingly, back to the themes of family values, love and togetherness. It is little wonder that Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is a fan, saying: “In the huge majority of Simpsons episodes, goodness is taken seriously. Not in a solemn or moralising way, but the values of honesty, generosity and forgiveness are quite clearly the ones that the programme endorses.”
The Simpsons, in their dysfunctional way, are a metaphor of redemption. The more Homer misbehaves, the more he comes to understand his need for Marge, and his weaknesses serve to bring out the strength and grace of his wife. Homer’s delusions may run deep (“I think Smithers picked me for my motivational skills… everyone says they have to work a lot harder when I’m around”), but they don’t extend to imagining that he could last long without Marge and the children.
Groening, 56, based the characters loosely on his own family background as one of five children raised in Portland, Oregon, by Homer and Margaret Groening, respectively of German and Norwegian ancestry. At the age of 23 he moved to Los Angeles, taking what he has described as “endless lousy jobs”, including stints at a sewage farm and as a restaurant hand.
He began drawing cartoons for alternative newspapers, and in 1987 was invited to work on a short, animated cartoon that would run as part of the new Fox network’s Tracey Ullman Show. The hostess’s efforts failed to hit the spot, but audiences liked The Simpsons, and in December 1989 the cartoon moved to a full half-hour slot, quickly becoming first an American then a global TV phenomenon.
Is it still funny? John Ortved, author of The Simpsons: an Uncensored, Unauthorised History, argues that its success undermined its specialness, robbing the show of its edge and topicality, and that “after it hit the 10-year mark, it dropped off and has never really come back”. Others counter that the show has moved relatively well with the times, and that to rework it – as some critics have suggested – would be a mistake. Or, as Homer would say: “If something’s hard to do, it’s not worth doing.”