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The 'Toon America Ate Up

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2000; Page C01

Build your own "Simpsons" anniversary essay. We'll walk you through it.

First, you'll need a paragraph here musing about what it must have been like prehistorically, before "The Simpsons": before all that knowing wink-wink, nudge-nudge about fathers and sons, about giant blue hair, and bullies who say "hah-hah," and shopping malls, and nuclear power plants, and the hidden despair of mainstream American politics and religion. (Add a sentence here about the time before cartoons unhinged themselves and acquired a delicious, forbidden naughtiness beneath the form.)

Segue quickly to an obvious peg: "The Simpsons" television series debuted 10 years ago tonight. (Qualifier: Yes, after the original Christmas special. Yes, after the short segments on "The Tracey Ullman Show.")

Next, put a paragraph here suggesting the writer (you) will be able to explain the show and its success to some brief satisfaction, despite all previous Sunday-section essays, critical reviews, magazine thumbsuckers and academic dissertations that have already and capably done so.

Some sort of hackneyed thesis statement goes here, such as:

Long departed from sitcom templates, "The Simpsons" endures as social comment, to such a degree that it infiltrates and subverts even our most insidious and pervasive construct-- television--by in fact becoming a highly successful and profitable TV series. So sneaky! So perfect! Iconoclasm as beloved megahit!

Quick sentence here quoting Homer Simpson on all this: "BORRRING."

Visual distraction here: Homer is now doing trademark Homer dance, with singsong Homer voice: "Look at me, I am a fancy newspaper writer, stringing together my big words. La, la, la."

Two more sounds here:

1. Marge growling disapprovingly.

2. Maggie's pacifier sucking ambiguously.

Subhead Here to

Separate Thoughts

Put a paragraph here about Matt Groening:

Matt Groening, Matt Groening, Matt Groening. Rhymes with raining, although even 10 years later you can still get someone to argue this. How brilliant is Matt Groening? Hagiography time: background here about his early days as stick-figurist, how the truly urbane fans knew him for his "Life in Hell" comic strip in the free weekly papers of the 1980s, before all the free weekly papers were all owned by the same corporation (a kind of Simpsonesque reflection on the mass marketing of rebellion). Sentence describing how "Life in Hell"--using depressed Trix rabbits and homoerotic, fez-wearing midget twins--paved the essential cruel, humorous sensibility that would later inform "The Simpsons."

Paragraph here should note that Groening, in this week's issue of Entertainment Weekly (note: use liberally from other publications, but care-fullll-y . . . ), picked his favorite 10 "Simpsons" episodes of all time. Ponderous sentence about how four of his picks come from the much-maligned and poorly drawn first and second seasons, which, counting for Groening's potential sentimentality, is, in fact, a plausible selection of greatest hits. (Hint: Listing them will help fill up some space. Pick two or three and say something about each--"A Streetcar Named Marge" from 1992 is a good one, as is 1996's "Much Apu About Nothing.")

Paragraph goes here about how "The Simpsons" is the sendup of all sendups, even sending up itself if need be. Stand on desk and sing from the episode where Troy McClure starred in the musical version of "Planet of the Apes": "I hate every ape I see/ From chimpan-A to chimpan-zee/ No, you'll never make a monkey out of me." Sit back down and resume typing. Using semicolons, pay brief tribute to a list of faves--"The Itchy and Scratchy Show"; the Kwik-E-Mart; Springfield itself, where you can view art exhibits at the "Louvre: American Style" or play at Sir Putt-a-Lots Merrie Olde Fun Centre, or shop at stores like It's a Wonderful Knife and Sportacus. Break here for a painfully abbreviated--but hip, but smart--analysis of Krusty the Klown.

Paragraph here should attempt to fathom the entire "Simpsons" canon, enough to make your brain hurt. (Stop here for an Advil and a run to the Coke machine. Mmmmmmm . . . Advil. Mmmmmm . . . forbidden donut. Mmmmmmm . . . hog fat. Also make snide comments to available co-workers about why none of the three, yes three, television writers around here is doing "The Simpsons" anniversary thumbsucker. Now, back to your creation. You're doing fine.)

Subhead Here Makes

Article Look


Now then: Bart Simpson. Ten years of Bart. Sentence here will recall that Time magazine named him one of the most influential people of the 20th century. Next sentence should say this didn't sit well with some cultural critics. Next sentence should resist the standard eat-my-shorts-dude retort and, instead, emphasize that the selection was not about Bart Simpson so much as it was about a universal Bartness--the ascendancy of the modern American adolescent.

Next comes a utility paragraph, about what we've learned in the last 10 years: What Montgomery Burns teaches us about the sinister corporate mind. ("Send out the winged monkeys," he orders from his office window. When they all jump out the window and fall to their deaths, Burns turns and grumbles, "Continue the research.") What Ned Flanders teaches us about cheerful-diddly-ness. What Milhouse says for the nerd. What we've come to loathe in news anchors and game shows and police chiefs and comic-book store owners is what we've come to love about the world anyway. Sentence here that screams aha: "The Simpsons" taught us to love a damaged, crass, grossly overadvertised world--our world. Choice of four paragraphs here:

1. What "The Simpsons" begat. This is going to have to cover "Beavis and Butt-head" and "South Park" and "King of the Hill." May be cut for space.

2. The redefinition of "Homeric."

3. Remember the time they came running to the couch in the opening theme and it was in black-and-white and they were all dressed like Mickey Mouse? Ouch! Or what about the time they came running to the couch and . . .

4. Writer, self-reflectively, wishes he had gone to an Ivy League school and then landed a job writing for "The Simpsons."

A nice, pithy wrap-up paragraph goes here, returning to thesis statement (see above). Sentence immediately following should marvel at how "The Simpsons" has stayed aloft, and fresh, and yet basically immune to protest. Why has it not been silenced by any number of maligned groups--organized religion, for example, or the family values groups, or the AARP? Where have they been all these Sunday nights? Stunning conclusion: Perhaps they, too, were charmed.

Obligatory paragraph here containing local angle: Yeardley Smith, voice of Lisa Simpson, grew up in Washington, blah blah blah. (Can trim.)

Finally, pause to congratulate yourself for getting through each paragraph without employing the feature writer's trite crutch: D-oh!


Read over your essay in sloppy, Homer-at-the-reactor-control-panel manner. Press "submit" key. Drool. Later, head to Moe's Tavern, while whistling theme song.

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© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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