Writing on The Conversation in 2016, Travis Holland declared that The Simpsons had lost its way. He suggested the show was living on a legacy and needed to adapt or face growing demands for its cancellation. But two years later, the show is still on air and remains loved and hated in equal measure. Questions about its continuing relevance, however, remain.
Certainly, the show’s audience has declined in recent years – but this is in line with a broader pattern of declining American television audiences. Increasing numbers of young people are moving away from television to streaming services and social media. But on all of these platforms, political satire remains prolific.
The Simpsons remains the longest-running primetime scripted television show and still manages to get to the heart of issues which established newspapers struggle to analyse amid the rush of 24-hour news, allegations of widespread disinformation and declining attention spans.
Against this backdrop, political satire has given a lift to civic-minded discourse and has been shown to encourage political engagement and drive young people to seek out more information about current issues. While nightly topical comedy shows are direct and regularly work off of the back of headlines each day, often becoming divisive as they do so, the “slower” form of satire found in shows such as The Simpsons is arguably a more constructive indulgence for contemporary audiences.
Speaking at the Intellectual Forum at Jesus College, Cambridge recently, Harry Shearer – the voice of Ned Flanders, Seymour Skinner and Montgomery Burns among others – was keen to make a distinction between satire and nightly “topical comedy”. He noted The Simpsons “digs a little deeper” and “serves as a relief valve” for creators and viewers alike. In our politically polarised times – with no easy solution to bridging the divides in civic life – that “relief valve” is perhaps more significant than ever.
Such a role sits in the minds of many involved in the show. Al Jean, showrunner of The Simpsons, told us:
I think the best satire intelligently exposes all sides of a topic, leaving it to the viewer to draw the conclusion. We have our opinions of course but hope that they’re presented in a clever way so that no one knows what they are.
Funny ‘cause it’s true
The show has evolved from what some in the past called “politically neutral satire”. As Shearer explained, those involved in the show “observe the real absurdity, edit out the boring parts, and comically highlight what’s left”. It allows us to look at authority figures such as Donald Trump and ask about “what these guys are doing and maybe even why”. The appeal of the show lies precisely in the fact that it encourages a thoughtful kind of laughter, taking a tip from Homer Simpson himself when he said “It’s funny ’cause it’s true”.
Infamously, The Simpsons warned America of a Trump presidency as far back as 2000. Playing on Trump’s repeated suggestions and shortlived push as a Reform Party candidate, Bart to the Future pictured Lisa Simpson as a president who has “inherited quite a budget crunch” from Trump. The episode’s vision was not so much a premonition as a depiction of what The Simpsons writer Dan Greaney told the Hollywood Reporter was “the logical last stop before hitting bottom … the vision of America going insane”. Shearer also rebutted any prophetic role for the show, saying:
You do 30 years of television and a couple of things are going to come true; the law of averages caught up with us.
It is clear that, where such satire once appeared to push reality out to the point of being ridiculous, the reality of modern America already is ridiculous.
Taking a long view
However, how The Simpsons marks itself out – and what will keep it running – is that it is not about topical news stories. It is about broader societal shifts and trends. With established American press outlets being labelled by the president as the “failing New York Times” and “fake news” outlets, it is not surprising that there has been an overall decline in trust in media, leaving America a deeply fractured society. In the midst of this distrust, topical comedy daily shows certainly have a role in attacking and making fun of the current state of affairs.
But The Simpsons has time to consider the longer trends. With an extended lead time – months if not years per episode – it gives its writers and cast the ability to look from viewpoints across time and the political spectrum. This allows the show not only to be self-referential, but also to speak across a broader section of society.
The recent Apu controversy – a row over the problematic depiction of the Indian Kwik-E-Mart owner and a general lack of minority writers and voices on the show – highlighted that the show still has room to evolve a more culturally diverse and appropriate approach. But despite this, its appeal sits in its ability to adapt to a breadth of topics using a common language with its audience from which to say something about an issue under discussion – from environmentalism to industrial decline to vegetarianism.
This breadth of reference points – and the wealth of characters it can deploy – allows the show to speak to a huge cross section of people. It engages in considered humour, digesting ongoing public debates and expertly lampooning those involved.
It even lampoons itself. Homer Simpson, in Mr Lisa Goes to Washington, drove us to consider the point of animated satirical content stating: “Oh Marge, cartoons don’t have any deep meaning. They’re just stupid drawings that give you a cheap laugh.” Quite the opposite is true.
The Simpsons doesn’t just use humour, irony, exaggeration and ridicule to expose and criticise politics and politicians, it asks us “What is the truth?”. As Shearer said, satire “has the power to unveil … to unmask these disguises of decorum and dignity that these scandalous power hungry people affect … to rip the facade off and go ‘look, look at the writhing… wriggling mass of worms underneath’”.
Sarah Steele, Senior Research Associate, Jesus College and Affiliated Researcher, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge; Todd Gillespie, University of Cambridge, University of Cambridge, and Tyler Shores, PhD Candidate, social media and online culture, University of Cambridge