Going from a cartoon that wanted to be a sitcom to a sitcom that wanted to be a cartoon, The Simpsons has paralleled the evolution of US comedy.
Realism isn’t something we should expect from a cartoon, because the beauty of animation is that it can do things that a live action programme can’t. An animation can be as bonkers as it wants. Television cartoons are known for their rapid pace, their multitude of gags and their often violent fantasy. Tom & Jerry wouldn’t have been the same without its shameless violence, where Tom was often strangled, shot or run over, usually all in a single episode. And the great thing was that none of the characters ever gave him an ounce of sympathy.
One of the attractive and warming things about the first few seasons of The Simpsons was their realism
Likewise, The Flinstones wouldn’t have worked if Fred had been an introspective chap who feared redundancy and infidelity from his wife. Cartoons are instead pure escapism, where our mundane, everyday issues don’t exist. They offer us the chance to escape our woes and watch characters whose main troubles centre around evading being blown up by dynamite. But one of the attractive and warming things about the first few seasons of The Simpsons was their realism.
From the start, The Simpsons set out as a cartoon about an average American family with ordinary problems. It started as a cartoon that wanted to be a sitcom. It wasn’t interested in nihilistic violence, where characters died only to then re-spawn. It was interested in telling us a story. It was interested in developing character and building gentle punchlines through its plots.
Homer was an average Joe who worked on the breadline to sustain his family. He enjoyed a beer with his pals at the local bar and worried about losing his job. He and his wife, Marge, experienced marital troubles familiar to many. Sometimes Homer was so down-on-his-luck that he couldn’t even afford Christmas. His daughter, Lisa, was a child genius who was handicapped by an inability to relate to children her own age, whilst son Bart represented the wild, rebellious nature of first youth. They were characters we could relate to, and their flaws opened up the opportunity for intelligent, well-observed humour.
After Season nine, The Simpsons took a turn for the worse. The realism slipped away, replaced by inanity and over-the-top zaniness
But it is agreed by many that, after Season nine, The Simpsons took a turn for the worse. The realism slipped away, replaced by inanity and over-the-top zaniness. The characters became caricatures and parodies. They shapeshifted into voice-pieces for the show’s socio-political agenda, with Bart making sharp comments on the government, comments completely alien to his original incarnation. The storylines became increasingly bizarre, with no roots in reality. The magic faded. The pathos died.
A lot of observers have laid the blame for the show’s demise on Mike Scully, who became show-runner in season nine. Scully has come under fire for shifting The Simpsons from a touching comedy into a gag-crazy cartoon with no emphasis on character. But the wider picture needs to be taken into account; The Simpsons didn’t just bleed internally, but was fractured by external factors, such as the change in comedy in general. When The Simpsons first aired, in 1989, the enduring American sitcom Cheers was the nation’s most popular situation comedy. During its eighth season, which ran through 1989 to 1990, Cheers was the third highest ranked television show in America, enjoying an average rating of 20.9 million viewers.
Cheers was a serialised sitcom noted for its characters, which were invested with empathy and realism. It was slow-paced, often warm-hearted and centred around working class characters with problems the average American could relate to. The gags were often subtle and well-placed, coming at the audience not with force or rapidity, but with tact and timing. The first season of The Simpsons reflected this – the gags were there, but they were sprinkled sensibly around an episode, always informing the plot rather than bulldozing through it and dictating it. These episodes dealt with real-life issues, such as Bart’s heart-wrenching failure to achieve at school or Homer’s desire to impress his boss.
The writers of The Big Bang Theory seem to be paid on a gag-per-minute basis. It reflects the 2013 incarnation of The Simpsons
Through the 2012 to 2013 American television season, in which season 24 of The Simpsons ran, season six of The Big Bang Theory aired, drawing in an average of 18.7 million viewers. It was the third highest ranked television show in America, mirroring the success of Cheers in 1990. Yet the two shows are worlds apart in terms of aesthetic and style. The Big Bang Theory encapsulates modern mainstream American television comedy: it has a degree of realism, but relies on a fast pace and rapid-fire gags, reminiscent of cartoons. It is extrovert and zany, sustaining flimsy, recycled plots with a plethora of witty gags that come at us quicker than a Ronaldo free kick.
There is no subtlety in The Big Bang Theory, while the attempts at empathy and sentimentality seem half-hearted, compromised by the insensitive and manic breakneck speed. The writers seem to be paid on a gag-per-minute basis, which comes at the expense of a well-honed story. It reflects the 2013 incarnation of The Simpsons.
At the beginning of the 80s, Taxi was one of America’s most popular and successful comedies. In the mid-to-early-90s, it was Seinfeld, Roseanne and Frasier. Then came South Park and Family Guy, cartoon comedies which engaged with a new kind of audience who seemed to be thirsting for wackiness, something The Simpsons had previously been unable to offer.
The Simpsons has become alienated from reality and currently exists in its own cocoon of a warped version of its old self
In further light of new television comedies, such as the manic How I Met Your Mother, The Simpsons formula was beginning to look tired and old hat. Yet, owing to its longevity, The Simpsons embodies modern television comedy’s transition. It has absorbed the change, posing the question that, had it stayed still and continued along its path of character-driven episodes, would The Simpsons even still exist? Did The Simpsons have to adapt to a new audience in order to stay relevant, to survive?
The fact is, though, that shows like The Big Bang Theory have to retain a degree of realism because of their medium. The Simpsons, as a cartoon, can be as logically impossible as it wants. Sadly, madness has taken over. The Treehouse of Horror episodes have proliferated all over each season. The Simpsons has become completely alienated from reality and currently exists in its own cocoon of a warped version of its old self, spiked with gag after gag, implausibility after implausibility. It has transfigured from Cheers into Tom & Jerry, offering a unique panorama of the change in mainstream comedy in general.
Featured image: 20th Century Fox
Inset images: 20th Century Fox; NBC; 20th Century Fox