Over the last week or so, in honor of the show’s 500th episode, bloggers and writers have all paid their respects to The Simpsons. It was a predictable blend of sentimentality and a hipster-ish need to show just how big of a fan, no, way bigger than anyone else, you actually were. The underlying theme is “the show was great and pioneering, it’s slowed down of late, and we may not watch it religiously now, but we’re glad we had it in our life.”
Me? Not only did I grow up with The Simpsons, but they grew up with me, and not only did they grow up with me, but they actually helped me grow. The show taught me obscure facts, the basic plot to several works of classic literature, and armed me with zingers and anecdotes for every situation…”It’s like this one time on The Simpsons…” Most importantly, its vast cast of characters trained me to find the humor in all walks of life. The quirks of the elderly, wealthy, foreign, genius, idiot, or downright pathetic are not meant to mystify or intimidate, they’re meant to entertain. As I experienced more and more of the vast tapestry of the world, I didn’t let it overwhelm or confuse me. I chose to chuckle at it and let it endear itself to me. If Marge can love Homer, and I can laugh at and love Moe and Frink and Burns and Grampa and Willie, I’m prepared to laugh at and love just about anyone.
Our favorite Springfield-ians crashed into my world at eleven years old. The episode? “The Last Temptation of Homer.” The appeal? There were jokes I got, but it was more the presence of jokes I didn’t get that hooked me. The explicitness of sex, extramarital affairs, and illegal aliens named Zutroy opened my eyes to a world I knew nothing about, but about which I wanted to learn everything I could. The subject matter made it risque, but the cartoon characters, the yellow skin, and the “Eat my shorts” jokes somehow made it childish enough to be ok.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, the show taught me much of what I know today. Whenever I spouted an obscure fact at the dinner table, my parents knowingly asked, “Where’d you learn that? The Simpsons?”
The telltale moment (not to be confused with “The Telltale Head” ) occurred in 2000. I was 12 or 13 years old and was a sucker for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? John Carpenter, the first million-dollar winner, returned to partake in the Tournament of Champions, and he was cruising yet again, reaching the $64,000 question without using a single lifeline. Regis asked, “Which of the following operas features The Toreador Song?” I’d never been to an opera, but I immediately spouted, “Carmen!” Mr. Carpenter, on the other hand, didn’t know the answer and had to poll the audience. I was smarter than the smartest man in America. And I had The Simpsons to thank.
Maybe if I’d seen “Bart the Genius” once, I wouldn’t have known the answer, I’d have only been able to replicate Bart and Homer’s mockery of the song: “Toreador, oh don’t spit on the floor!/Use the cuspidor/That’s what it’s for.” But I’d seen that episode at least three times by then and vividly remembered the “Carmen” poster the family passes outside the opera house.
That moment somehow validated all the time I would spend watching and re-watching and re-re-re-re-re watching syndicated episodes. As long as other activities didn’t get in the way, homework got pushed aside at 5:30 and 6:00 every weeknight for reruns. I used my allowance to buy all the episode guides, which I carried in my backpack during junior high and read thoroughly. When I finally caught “Hurricane Neddy” and learned everything there was to know about the University of Minnesota Spankalogical Protocol and Ned’s “freaky beatnik” parents, I had seen all the episodes at least once. The only thing left was to watch them all again.
I’m probably at about 10,000 hours of watching The Simpsons at this point, so, at least according to Malcolm Gladwell, I’m an expert.
“How can you be entertained by this?” my mother would ask. “Even I know the lines in this one.” But with each viewing came another revelation or three. Sometimes years passed between viewings, which opened my eyes to new jokes. Learning more about sexuality gave me access to more of the content and double-entendres (Homer shops for farm supplies at a store called “Sneed’s Feed & Seed…Formerly Chuck’s”). College reading assignments and the maturation of my library espoused new chuckles to literary and intellectual references (“You’re reading Gravity’s Rainbow?” “(Disgusted look) Re-reading it”). As I grew up, the show magically grew up with me.
To this day, despite the constraints of adulthood, I still make time for one of my oldest friends. My DVR records all the re-runs, and dead time is filled relaxing, laughing at jokes familiar, forgotten, or surprisingly refreshing.
Over the past couple years, watching the new episodes has transformed from a chore of obligation to a surprising treat. Everyone has their comfort blankets, mine just happens to be a dysfunctional family of five and their fellow townspeople.
One day, we’ll all have to witness the show moving to the Springfield Retirement Castle (where, we can only hope, it will at the very least have a good pair of slippers and an oatmeal spoon). But, like Grampa and his best buds Jasper Beardley and the Old Jewish Man, the show will never die. At least not for me. It will appear in my life once in a blue moon because it went to fetch the morning paper and got lost, or to substitute teach and issue out a paddlin’, or to drop its pants while singing “This Gray Mare.” The show will always embiggen the smallest man. It will live forever, never aging or passing away, not even yellowing with time.