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The real first family

How did 'The Simpsons' get to be such a cultural touchstone? We meet the enemy -- and they are us.

February 16, 2003|Bob Baker | Times Staff Writer

If life were a journey -- oh, wait, life is a journey. OK, start over. In the journey that we call life, it would be swell to be able to take two or three steps without tripping over a certain animated show that -- ouch! -- has embedded itself so deeply into popular culture that -- ouch! -- all of us are expected to get every conversational reference its fans throw at us.

You know what I'm talking about: Homer and Marge and their kids and his evil boss and her hostile sisters and the pious next-door neighbor and the four dozen others. Don't you get tired of the assumption that you should know these characters? Aren't you sick of the way so many people use a moment from "The Simpsons" as a metaphor for real life? Isn't it like living in a society that adopted Esperanto without letting you vote? Have we lost so many vestiges of mass culture that a TV show -- a cartoon! -- has to be the glue that holds postmodern society together? And whom should we blame?

Follow me.

Let's go, first, to Wisconsin, to Public Enemy No. 1. His name is Jonathan Suttin, a 34-year-old disc jockey in Madison, a university town, the kind of "Simpsons"-acculturated place where Homer might as well be the dean.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday February 25, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Simpsons" -- A Feb. 16 Calendar article on "The Simpsons" incorrectly said the theatrical spoof "MacHomer" parodies "Hamlet." In fact, the performance satirizes "Macbeth."

Suttin, who became addicted to the show from the instant it debuted on Fox in 1989, is the kind of guy who has a "Simpsons" anecdote for any situation. Suppose a buddy tells him he's courting a woman who brushes him off -- until he hooks up with another woman. "That reminds me," Suttin will tell his friend, "of the episode when Lisa is trying to explain to Bart that people want what they can't have. So Maggie is in her playpen, and Lisa says to Bart, 'Maggie is playing with her little stuffed animal and not interested in that red ball. But the moment I take the red ball out, Maggie will want it.' Then Lisa holds the ball up, and Bart starts saying, 'Gimme the ball! Gimme the ball!' "

You're supposed to know that Lisa is the gifted second-grader and Bart is the bratty fourth-grader and Maggie is the toddler. You're supposed to know this even if you're not one of the 14 million people who tune in every Sunday night. Look at them, smugly preparing their celebrations for tonight as "The Simpsons" airs its 300th episode, relentlessly marching toward overtaking "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet" as America's longest-running TV comedy. Did anybody's cultural literacy in the '50s depend on knowing what Ricky said to David in Episode 8 from Year 9?

You don't get it, says Charlene Dellinger-Pate, a communications professor at Southern Connecticut State University, who is preparing a class on "The Simpsons" for the fall. She's Public Enemy No. 2 for her belief that moments like the one Suttin described are deep and special: examples of "symbolic relational culture" -- moments when two people's appreciation of a shard of television fuses them in an intimate way. Dellinger-Pate, who was not a "Simpsons" fan until she married one, volunteers a line she continually shares with her husband, from an episode in which Homer befriended a lobster that, by show's end, he cooked and ate.

Experts like Dellinger-Pate contend that no TV show has ever generated as many conversational touchstones (sorry, "Seinfeld"). One thing's for sure: No TV show has ever generated as many excuses for "Simpsons"-loving academics to use the characters as reference points, secure in the belief that most of their students have watched the show since elementary school.

Which brings us to Public Enemy No. 3: Brad Prager, a professor of German studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia, whose colleague walked into his office the other day looking for ideas on how to introduce philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's ideas in a general-ed course. Prager suggested using Bart's persistently bad behavior. The boy and at times Homer "seem to act in accordance with Nietzsche's position that both society's laws and religion's morality are artificial constructs, better suited to earlier, more barbaric stages of human development," Prager explained.

Of course, the prof had an episode in mind: "Homer has a crayon removed from his brain and finds himself suddenly smart enough to be a member of Mensa and proves to Ned Flanders that God doesn't exist, a proclamation similar to the one 'God is dead,' for which Nietzsche was most famous."

Prager's soul mates are everywhere. A group of philosophy professors published a book in 2001 on the show's representations of great thinkers. ("Marge typically follows the Aristotelian recipe for a happy, moral life.") The same year, a newspaper's religion writer published a book on the many ways the show incorporates religion into its withering view of society. Another academic has written a book due this summer about "The Simpsons" as "oppositional culture."

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