No sacred cows

So don't have one if new 'Simpsons' movie has you saying D'oh!

Posted: July 23, 2007

"Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything that's even remotely true."

- Homer Simpson

THESE THINGS are remotely true about America's longest-running sitcom, "The Simpsons" - coming Friday to a theater near you:

When its characters first aired as an animated short on "The Tracey Ullman Show" on April 19, 1987, Ronald Reagan was in the White House, Michael Jackson was very popular, and Philadelphia's last sports title was less than four years removed.

There have been exactly 400 episodes of "The Simpsons" - re-run seemingly nonstop throughout the day - and the show was recognized by Time magazine in 1999 as our greatest TV show of the 20th century. Woo-hoo!

But what does it all mean?

D'oh!

Trying to get at the cosmic significance of "The Simpsons" is a little like trying to decipher the meaning of life - the source of many books, including "The Simp-sons and Philosophy - the D'oh of Homer," and just as elusive.

But in the Buddhist sense, you might say that the world of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie forms a perfect yin to the yang of the other great sitcom of the last two decades, "Seinfeld." Because although "Seinfeld" was "a show about nothing," "The Simpsons" is our show about everything.

Thanks to the omnipotence of animation and the gift of time, "The Simpsons" and the geniuses behind it - especially creator Matt Groening and its initial producer, James L. Brooks - built a world where every aspect of American life, and the human condition, has now been skewered.

God. Doughnuts. Nuclear power. The nuclear family. Bush. Clinton. Bush. Bowling. Try to name one great American institution that hasn't been ripped apart over its 8,120 or so minutes of 'toon time. You can't, can you?

And yet the sting in satire is almost always softened by the warmth of its highly dysfunctional yet loving family - a heart that prevents the Simpson family from wearing out its welcome on America's well-worn sofa.

" 'The Simpsons' are dysfunctional, but I don't know - there is kind of a core loyalty to everybody in the family," said Daniel Santoro, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, and one cog in the cottage industry of analyzing the Fox sitcom. "Marge and Homer are really in love."

Indeed, there is now a whole generation of Americans under 30 who have a hard time imagining life without Apu, Krusty the Clown or Mr. Burns - including Phialdelphia's Marc Lamont Hill.

Hill was roughly the same age as the perpetually 10-year-old Bart Simpson when the series started to air regularly in 1989, and now he analyzes culture as a professor of American studies and urban education at Temple.

"I never imagined that it would turn into what it was - a pop-culture phenomenon," Hill said, reflecting on the show that has given America the catchphrases "Don't have a cow, man," and "Mmmmm . . . doughnuts."

This week, that phenomenon may face its biggest test since the Oliver North era. The show's legion of fans tend to argue that part of what has kept the show alive for 20 years has been a laser-like focus on producing the funniest show on television - a formula that may not translate so easily to the big screen.

Indeed, there has been talk of a Simpsons movie since the show's initial spike in popularity in the early 1990s, but the enormous amount of work in producing a weekly animated show kept the idea at bay.

The movie deal finally came together in 2001, and Groening recently told Digital Spy, the media and entertainment Web site, "We wanna really give you something that you haven't seen before . . . There are moments you actually forget that you're watching a cartoon, and that is difficult when you have characters as ugly as the Simpsons."

He also promised that the film (few plot details have been released, although the movie is said to have an environmental theme) will be unexpectedly emotional.

Actually, fans and students say that the Simpsons have always had a rich emotional undertow, even though the show - with the lazy, get-rich-quick dopeyness of Homer and the "eat my shorts" crassness of his son - was offered up as an antidote to the 1980s "Morning in America" sweetness of that decade's top sit-com, "The Cosby Show." (A contrast driven home by the Simp-sons character of Dr. Hibbert, the chuckling black pediatrician.)

That not-so-subtle spoof of Bill Cosby is just one of thousands of pop-culture references woven into the show, which despite its richly drawn (figuratively, anyway) characters tends to be driven more by its story lines, which blend today's headlines with the fantasy world of cartoon.

And that animated world has seemed a lot more real to many Americans than "the real world" that they saw elsewhere on television. Until "Rosanne" arrived, the nuclear-power-plant worker Homer and his family were more middle-middle class than any other TV show, and like a lot of America, the Simpson family goes to church on Sunday.

"They wanted it to mirror American society," said Virginia writer Steve Freeman, who interviewed Groening on the show's treatment of religion in the early 1990s.

Indeed, over two decades, the show has somehow managed to both wickedly satirize and embrace all of the world's sects.

But Simpsons watchers say the show's ultimate staying power may be less a function of any deep philosophical or political vision (although most agree it skews slightly to the left) and more the result of its cartoon nature.

For one thing, its characters haven't aged in 20 years, which has meant that "The Simpsons" has never had to deal with adolescent-growth spurts, college, marriage or the other things that can ruin a real-life family sitcom.

Also, the show's characters - voiced by top-flight actors since the show began - can't be viewed like real-life Hollywood stars, so you don't have to worry about Bart Simpson clubbing with Lindsay Lohan or Homer Simpson leaving the series to make action films, as when David Caruso ditched "NYPD Blue."

But the truth is that run of "The Simpsons" would have lasted about as long as the first Bush administration had it not been for one thing: Unlike many long-running shows, it has consistently remained as funny as hell.

"This biggest thing has always been its great writing," said Hill, the Temple professor.

"It's just a very smart show."

And in the unlikely event that "The Simpsons Movie" is a flop, you can be sure of one thing.

They'll make fun of it next season. *

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