“Yes, the Simpsons have come a long way since an old drunk made humans out of his rabbit characters to pay off his gambling debts. Who knows what adventures they’ll have between now and the time the show becomes unprofitable?” – Troy McClure
With The Simpsons now in its 16th season, it’s about time someone wrote a book about it. Kudos to Chris Turner, a history graduate from Queen’s University and Ryerson’s journalism program, who provides a lens to view the satirical brilliance of the cartoon that continues to entertain all ages. You name it: The old, the young, the bold and the beautiful. But why the popularity? Why the urge to write a book about what so many people already know?
It was while studying journalism at Ryerson that Turner was interning at the influential Shift magazine and was assigned to tackle writing an essay on The Simpsons. Easy enough for a Simpsons fan like him, having watched the show since its birth in 1987. And with over 300 episodes readily available to dissect, he couldn’t ask for anything more.
“By far the biggest challenge in writing about The Simpsons was deciding what to exclude,” Turner explains.
His highly acclaimed essay, “The Simpson Generation”-a 12,000-word piece in the 10th anniversary issue of Shift in 2002-was reprinted in newspapers across North America. This essay became the fulcrum for Planet Simpson. And that was just the beginning.
A winner of four National Magazine Awards in three years, including the President’s Medal for General Excellence in 2001, Turner was approached by gadfly editor Sam Hiyate with an idea of transforming this essay into a viable book proposal. Excited, yet with some reservations, Hiyate and Turner presented the idea to publishers.
“The editorial board was divided whether it was worth doing a book about. There were other people on the editorial board who thought, why would we do a book about a cartoon? There were other people who thought that this should happen, and so it wasn’t going anywhere for a while. Then Sam put the editor of Shift in touch with me, he read the Simpsons piece, liked it a lot, and we built a book proposal together. It was a pretty quick sellout [of the Shift issue] and there definitely was a lot of interest in it.
“I think of The Simpsons as the most vivid wide-angle lens that Western pop culture has yet devised through which to view the society that created it, and so I do my best in the book to use that lens to talk about the most interesting developments in that society in the last 15 years or so,” Turner commented in a recent interview at the offices of his publisher, Random House.
In many ways, the show preys on its realism. But in this allegedly ‘realistic’ world, there is an absence of legitimate authority. Every one of the authorities is corrupt, compromised, hypocritical, and above all, they are utterly without merit. Ironically enough, for The Simpsons to be one of the most popular shows of its time definitely suggests dark undertones about our world in the sense that as easily as it satirizes, reality outpaces the show. It is a wonder how this cartoon, which started as a bit on the Tracey Ullman Show, evolved into a monster commercial hit that makes us ponder nearly everything from food to fashion, environmental issues to politics, greed to religion.
“One of the most subversive elements of the show is that Homer is the Hero,” offers Turner. “Because Homer represents everything that America claims not to stand for. He’s lazy, he’s gluttonous, he’s completely indifferent to almost anyone but himself. He’s the opposite of what America claims to value in itself… And yet, he’s the hero.”
Clearly, there is an argument that (whether consciously or not) the people who have grown to love the show and would be willing to read a book like this are hopefully of a similar mindset of a generation and worldview that is far too self-aware and skeptical to be naively idealistic. The cartoon is hopeful in a way that isn’t too naïvely optimistic. Hopefully The Simpsons, says Turner, being as popular and important as it was to a large number of people, means that there’s a wider spread interest in a change for the better.
“The Simpsons alone has had the depth, intelligence and scope to chart the links between the new world order’s scattered fragments,” notes Turner. “From the rise and fall of the internet to the re-emergence of protest politics, The Simpsons has found the last word on every facet of our culture and every event of our time.”
And yet, we cannot stop Homer from having the last thought: “Oh, Marge, cartoons don’t have any deep meaning. They’re just stupid drawings that give you a cheap laugh.”
We’ll let Chris Turner’s weighty book be the judge of that.