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“Ralph, why must you turn my office into a house of lies?”

January 10, 2010

For me, there have always been two Simpsons – the old, good one, and the new, mostly pointless one.  Noting the drop-off that happened ten years or so ago is pretty common, but for me recognition of the show’s brilliance and its decline happened simultaneously.  I caught an original short on the Tracey Ullman Show when I was ten or eleven – it involved a camping trip, I think.  Based on that, I watched the series premier, the twentieth anniversary of which was commemorated tonight.  I watched in my room, on a tiny television with rabbit ears and no remote.  I was there at the beginning, but I can’t say I’ve been a fan for 20 years.  The same night The Simpsons premiered, Fox also brought out America’s Funniest Home Videos, and that monstrous creation of novel technology and timeless vulgarity was what I ended up watching regularly over the next few years: I generally watched tv with my parents (the little tv in my room was so uncomfortable to watch, and it was so cold in there in the winter), and they wouldn’t watch The Simpsons.  It wasn’t a big part of my life growing up, and when I rediscovered the show in college, my best memory was for the first season.  By the time I really became a dedicated viewer – two episodes a day on Fox 5 in DC, sophomore through senior year of college – I was watching a time-capsule; the show’s slide had begun.  I devoured the nine or so quality seasons and started tuning in on Sundays, but it didn’t take long to realize that something was different.  Junior year we watched the episode with the jockeys and I gave up.  I’ve accepted the duality as long as I’ve been a fan – I saw the movie and thought it was fine, I watch an occasional episode on Sundays (although before tonight, the last time I watched a recent episode was on an airplane, as part of the seat-back show on JetBlue or Air Canada).  It is what it is – a plotless and rambling imitation of its imitators.  Disdain for the last ten seasons or so is so widespread that it was acknowledged glancingly in the celebratory anniversary special tonight, with one of the current (?) writers joking that he really felt the online message boards (where the current show takes a beating) were funnier ten years ago.  I long ago stopped thinking about The Simpsons in the present tense, but I don’t go out of my way to judge the current show harshly.

Because in October of 1995, “Bart Sells His Soul” and “Lisa the Vegetarian” aired in back-to-back weeks.  The first episode that November was “King Size Homer,” my personal all-time favorite.  Such a condensed expression of perfect brilliance must come at a price.  Who wouldn’t trade 20 seasons of above-average for four or five seasons of unimpeachable genius?

I try not to judge harshly because when someone asks me if I drink, I suppress my natural response — “Meh,  I have a snifter of brandy at Christmas” – and I giggle to myself.  Because Steph and I still routinely refer to ridiculous grocery-store products as “Tubbb!” and we giggle together.  Because “Yar, I don’t know what I’m doin’”; “the toppings contain potassium benzoate”; and “Come on Shoshana, let’s roll” deployed in the right situations can bring my best friends in the world to a giggling standstill.  It’s a situational vernacular – Simpsons lines became for my generation and education-bracket a verbal shorthand.  I could pull out some Bakhtin to talk about this, but it’s getting late and I need to be done.  Suffice to say that not just any script sticks in collective memory like this.  My subjects use the Bible this way, and The Simpsons is possibly my best window into the sort of saturation and textual devotion required to make the highest level of reference and re-reference work.  Also, those lines and the situations they represent are hilarious.

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