'The Simpsons' Were Once A 'Danger To America'

'The Simpsons' Were Once A 'Danger To America'

The 1990s were an intensely specific historical moment – the Cold War had just ended, everybody had landlines, and pre-internet peoples took to local forests to harvest their precious smut. This week, Cracked's taking a look back at those artifacts of Nineties culture and how they shaped our present. Today's topic: The Simpsons' war on the American family.

These days it feels as though The Simpsons is simply an immovable part of daily life, like the moon, or the sun, or Mr Burns' giant machine that blocks out all the light from the sun. But amazingly, there was a time when the family's antics were fresh and exciting. Cartoons made for adults/sneaky kids may be everywhere now, but that wasn’t the case in the early ‘90s. In the primordial days of animation much of what was produced, including the Looney Tunes shorts, were crafted specifically for adult audiences, boasting modern pop-culture references, violence and even “sexual innuendo.” Bugs Bunny and his pals only became kid-friendly in the 1960s when the films were heavily censored for television.

But before The Simpsons debuted with a Christmas special in December 1989 (following a series of shorts first introduced on The Tracey Ullman Show) TV animation was dominated by children’s entertainment, mostly designed to sell action figures and disproportionately-sized animal toys for them to ride. The previous prime time cartoon that hit the airwaves was more than a decade earlier; Hanna-Barbera’s Wait Till Father Gets Home, a typical family sitcom complete with laugh track (despite the fact that no studio audience would endure the tedium of watching a cartoon get made). While it failed to match the success of the studio’s previous hit The Flintstones at least it had more … casual racism?

The point is, while we may take the existence of shows like Bojack Horseman, Archer, Rick and Morty, and Big Mouth for granted, it was The Simpsons that unlocked the brightly-colored cartoon floodgates. If you weren’t around in the early ‘90s, you might not be aware of just how colossal an impact the show immediately had on the culture at large. Sure it’s become a comforting, even tame, TV standby, but when it first came out The Simpsons was considered controversial, and even dangerous to some.

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In one early review, Newsweek described the series as “wild, acerbic and sometimes deeply cynical … hardly the stuff of Saturday-morning children’s programming.” People Magazine remarked that it “owes more to underground cartoonist R. Crumb than it does to Hanna-Barbera.” And in a way they were right; the show was created by Matt Groening, then known only as the indie artist behind Life in Hell, a comic strip about anthropomorphic rabbits and an oddly identical gay couple. 

Matt Groening

Groening’s early celebrity, too, paved the way for future animation superstars like Beavis and Butthead’s Mike Judge and Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park fame. Well before the TV showrunner was widely celebrated in mainstream culture, the creators of these animated shows were heralded in the press as the series’ primary authors. In the case of The Simpsons, the elevated focus on Groening helped sell the mythology that a lone scrappy cartoonist had upended the television establishment --- but that wasn’t totally accurate.

There were also producers James L. Brooks, the legend behind The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Sam Simon, who had previously written on hit shows like Brooks’ Taxi and Cheers. But, as Simpsons writer Mike Reiss put it, while this narrative made for a “great story” in reality it was “veteran TV producer” Simon who was “running the show” in The Simpsons’ early days. Groening’s fame, at the expense of Simon’s due credit, eventually inspired one of the greatest episodes of the show; “Flaming Moe’s” similarly tells the story of how Homer is robbed of credit for his popular creation -- in this case a combustible drink made of booze and cough syrup. 

The Simpsons didn’t just influence future animated shows in terms of artistic achievement and cultural acceptance, it set the template for how a show can modulate its role as an apparent piece of boundary-pushing outsider art, while still thriving in a painfully mainstream medium. For starters, the show’s early success prompted controversy, and then exploited that controversy to reach new heights of popularity. Most famously, in 1990 Barbara Bush called The Simpsons the “the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen” and George H.W. Bush stated in a speech that Americans should be “more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons.”

In what was neither the first nor the last screw-up made by a Bush in the White House, these comments played right into the Simpsons creators’ hands, specifically recalling how the show was initially marketed; early promos hyped how the Simpsons were not your average TV family like the Bradys or the Cleavers. And that same clip of Bush was incorporated into the show itself, perfectly teeing-up a cartoon 10-year-old to effortlessly dunk on the Commander-in-Chief.

It almost certainly made the show more enticing once it was condemned by America’s lame dad as did the prior raging anathema directed at Bart Simpson merchandise. As we’ve mentioned before, the line of t-shirts featuring Bart bragging about he’s an “underachiever” and dropping the dreaded H-bomb (as in “Hell,” not “Hydrogen”) sold like hotcakes made of cocaine, but they also drew the ire of parents groups who claimed that the character led to an “upsurge in brattiness” amongst kids. The shirts were banned in multiple schools and JCPenney even removed the offending items from their stores. 

Then there were the bootleg t-shirts, which became their own weird phenomenon. The officially-licensed shirts that caused such a ruckus were nothing compared to the rip-offs which included a wide assortment of lurid interpretations of the character (Bart smoking weed, Bart flipping the bird) not to mention the flood of racist shirts featuring everything from Gulf War-themed Islamophobia to “Bart Marley." There were also less offensive, more empowering takes on the “Black Bart” trend including several anti-South African apartheid shirts, and images of Bart standing proudly next to Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X. 

According to one report at the time: “Young black folks across the country ... adopted the wisecracking lad from ‘The Simpsons’” -- which then seemingly inspired the creation of several Bart Simpson hip-hop tracks for the hastily thrown-together novelty album The Simpsons Sing the Blues

Somehow The Simpsons' anarchic irreverence always managed to work in tandem with its mainstream appeal. Bart Simpson’s rebelliousness, frowned upon by school boards and world leaders, was also used to sell everything from Whoppers to Butterfingers to Toyota Corollas.

The Simpsons themselves were, in a way, created purely to sell merchandise. When Groening was first approached about producing animated segments for The Tracey Ullman Show, he rejected the offer, not wanting Fox to own the merchandising rights to his Life in Hell characters -- so instead he took the advice of a friend who suggested he simply create new “more marketable” human characters -- hence why thirty years later, children everywhere can perform open heart surgery on an unanesthetized Homer Simpson. 

Despite its overt commercial endeavors, The Simpsons was somehow able to retain its subversive cred, not only due to parental outrage, but also through repeatedly ridiculing their corporate hosts: the Fox network. The show has thrown a parasol factory’s worth of shade at the channel and its programs over the years. But in reality, this was less of a punk rock move  than it seemed, ultimately serving to fulfill Fox’s over-arching agenda to sell themselves as the “alternative” network for Gen X audiences.

Unsurprisingly, the success of The Simpsons led to a rash of prime time animated fare, much of which failed miserably (*cough* Fish Police *cough*). But perhaps not coincidentally, some of the most successful ‘90s animated shows followed The Simpsons’ formula for whipping up controversy, in oddly specific ways. When Beavis and Butt-Head debuted on MTV, they too provoked outrage from parents, resulting in yet another highly-publicized t-shirt ban in schools -- the shirts were, incidentally, also banned by JCPenney. Just a few years later, the teenage duo were presenters at the Oscars. 

When South Park came along, they were also targeted by offended parents and were also the subject of a t-shirt ban in schools -- and hey, guess what, South Park shirts were also banned by JCPenney! Apparently pissing off your mom’s third-favorite department store was some kind of magical blessing for ‘90s cartoons. 

South Park also followed The Simpsons when it came to utilizing its controversies, not just for publicity, for artistic inspiration as well. South Park retreading The Simpsons’ territory became an explicit part of the show’s text, but in the early days both series mined their respective content battles for episode ideas, using their in-universe cartoons to lampoon real world criticism. In “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge” the Simpsons’ matriarch is forced to re-evaluate her definition of artistic freedom after leading a crusade against animated indecency.

And similarly, in South Park’s first season episode “Death” (and later the movie Bigger, Longer & Uncut) the Terrance and Phillip cartoon is picketed by angry parents who would rather kill themselves in protest than allow fart jokes on TV. 

The Simpsons inarguably created a space, and even a demand, for adult animation on TV -- but it also set the cultural tone for how we accept these shows: as a product that can maintain the semblance of an artist-driven respite from conventional TV while also very much serving the demands of conventional TV. It’s that same mindset that allows for a show like Rick and Morty to feature, say, a scene featuring two small children disemboweling a Leprechaun and yet still accommodate a massive tie-in campaign with Wendy’s.

The Simpsons is obviously one of the greatest comedies of all-time, and its longevity can either be viewed as a sad attempt to continue milking a cow that died decades ago, or a reassuring monolith that uses the medium of animation to continuously defy the ravages of time. Either way, it’s easy to forget that the long-running show was once an invigorating blast of calculated mischievousness, and that those early ‘90s years are what set the stage for so much of what we continue to enjoy today, even beyond the borders of Springfield. 

You (yes, you) should follow JM on Twitter! And check out the podcast Rewatchability.

Top Image: 20th Century Television

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