The Evolution of Homer J. Simpson
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It's difficult to even conceive of a time when Homer Simpson, everyone's favorite carbon blob from sector 7G, wasn't a keystone of contemporary pop culture. In addition to appearing in one of TV's most iconic shows for more than three decades, Homer has popped up in countless commercials, video games, award shows, and he was even inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame -- which apparently doesn't include "being an actual flesh-and-blood human being" as one of its qualifying prerequisites.
When The Simpsons first hit the airwaves, it was certainly no secret that Bart was the breakout star, as evidenced by the most expansive bootleg T-shirt racket in human history. But Homer soon became the show's standout character; a paragon of lovably absurd idiocy and a cultural icon. It wasn't long before we were all endlessly reciting his famous quotes –
– and turning his antics into internet-conquering memes.
But when we think about Homer Simpson … who is it exactly, we're thinking of?
There's no denying that the character has changed more than Jeremy Piven's hairline over the years. According to Simpsons creator Matt Groening, Homer was inspired by (and named after) his father – who, in real life, was an "athletic, creative, intelligent filmmaker and writer" who happened to also like the occasional donut. While Groening may have been attempting to "amuse" and "annoy" his dad with the homage, the earliest incarnation of the character (on The Tracey Ullman Show) was a mostly well-meaning and relatively articulate father who happily promised his kids a round of "frosty chocolate milkshakes" in a warbly Walter Matthau-esque voice.
Even in the first season of The Simpsons, Homer is almost unrecognizable compared to what he would soon become. In the third episode of the series, "Homer's Odyssey," he gets fired from the nuclear plant (for far less than the atrocities he would later cause on a near-weekly basis) and ends up attempting suicide as a result. Even more incongruous with later episodes, the very next story, "There's No Disgrace Like Home," is all about how Marge and the kids embarrass Homer in front of his co-workers at a company picnic.
Even putting aside the latter part of the episode in which he subjects his wife and children to shock treatment to cure their bad manners, Homer acting as the driving force of his family's respectability seems laughably unfathomable in retrospect – just a year later, he would end up spending his own dinner party ogling Maude Flanders before drunkenly passing out in the middle of the floor. (A complete reversal of roles with drunken Marge in "There's No Disgrace Like Home.”)
It was as though, even despite its then-radically subversive tendencies, the first season of The Simpsons was still bogged down by whatever family sitcom staples required a certain degree of dignity from America's TV patriarchs. And as Homer evolved (or devolved) in the ensuing years, he became stupider but also more endearing. Yes, he was wildly irrational, gluttonous, and selfish, yet he was always portrayed as loving and sweet in the end. Long-time Simpsons writer Mike Reiss once said that Homer may have "exhibited all seven deadly sins" but was ultimately a "good guy." While acclaimed writer and prolific chain smoker, John Swartzwelder's secret to writing Homer was to think of him as "a big dog."
Homer's evolving emotional range also directly inspired his vocal makeover; actor Dan Castellaneta felt that his Walter Matthau impression didn't have "enough power" to facilitate Homer's extreme mood swings and modified his voice to fit the new characterization. Somehow as Homer's character became less-grounded, he, almost illogically, became far more emotionally relatable in genuinely touching episodes. Season two's "One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish" is literally just about Homer confronting his own mortality after he eats a poison blowfish at a sushi restaurant – which is apparently a thing that just happens sometimes?
So many of these classic episodes find Homer struggling against his own worst impulses and ultimately working to be a better father and/or husband. More than once, The Simpsons was able to wring genuine drama out of a scenario in which the stability of Homer and Marge's marriage is threatened. Whether it was the time Homer managed a flirtatious country singer, or when he befriended cartoon Michelle Pfiefer, or blabbed about their sex life to an adult education class which led to Marge throwing him out of the house.
But much of what made the pathos of those early Homer stories work so well was inexorably damaged by the show's longevity. After all, it's hard to elicit concern for the Simpsons' marriage when Homer and Marge have stayed together (against all common sense) for literal decades. And it's tough to explore the concept of mortality through Homer Simpson, who is basically a Highlander at this point.
Yes, the show is ultimately a comedy, but even the wackiest of episodes during the show's artistic peak managed to find an emotional arc for some pretty ridiculous storylines. For example, "Homer the Great" was ultimately about Homer joining a secret, legally-dissimilar-from-the-Freemasons society with members that included both aliens and Steve Guttenberg, but it was also about Homer's very relatable fear of being excluded.
While many of the other Simpsons characters mostly settled into their familiar molds, Homer continued to transform. Most notoriously, around season nine, he became what the internet dubbed "Jerkass Homer," named after an episode in which Homer randomly and inexplicably nearly commits vehicular manslaughter while yelling: "Outta my way, jerkass!"
Sure, Homer had previously been prone to the occasional violent outburst, but suddenly he became not only dumber but casually, and even borderline psychotically, cruel. In various episodes, Homer picks a fight with Springfield's sanitation department, refuses to give his dying father a kidney, and frames Marge for a DUI. When palling around with Mel Gibson is at the bottom of your list of offenses, there is clearly something is very, very wrong. Earlier seasons, as we mentioned, typically found Homer battling and ultimately overcoming his negative attributes, but Jerkass Homer gleefully reveled in them, free of consequence.
The impact of this change may not have been lost on the creative powers behind the show, either. As YouTuber Nerdstalgic theorizes, the episode "Homer to the Max," in which Homer changes his name after a popular TV character named "Homer Simpson" becomes a one-dimensional irritant, could be seen as an allegory for what was happening to our Homer. Even more cynically, one could argue that there is a hidden layer of self-awareness in the episode "In Marge We Trust"; the B-story finds Homer in existential crisis mode after he discovers that his face is identical to "Mr. Sparkle," the mascot for a Japanese dishwasher detergent. Why? Because his identity is coincidentally nearly identical to the combination of two soulless corporate logos. Homer Simpson, deep down, is just another commercial product, not a real person.
As the show progressed, the show's writers seemingly yearned for the tenderness of the pre-jerkass Homer – and even made derogatory meta-references to the Jerkass Homer phenomenon.
This apparent pivot is perhaps best evidenced by the return of Homer's mother Mona in season 15, almost a decade after first she first appeared in "Mother Simpson" an episode that is still considered to be one of the most emotional in Simpsons history, with an ending sad enough to melt a robotic librarian's face off.
Mona returned again in season 19 and, despite her death, yet again in season 23, thanks to an Inception parody in which the Simpson family probes the recesses of Homer's subconscious in order to root out the emotional trauma behind his bedwetting problem.
Naturally, a lot of us view Homer Simpson much differently as adults than we did when we were kids. Growing up with The Simpsons, Homer functions as a sort of fantasy parent for kids in that he's confirmation that, as we all suspected, adults are simpletons far less capable than their wunderkind offspring. But now, those of us who were children when The Simpsons first premiered are hurtling towards becoming the same age as Homer himself: 39. And Homer's behavior plays a tad differently if you're an adult today, and possibly even a parent yourself. You know, like, the way he routinely strangles his son, even when he was a diaper-clad infant.
Maybe all of Homer's variations make sense if we look at things slightly differently and acknowledge that he, despite being ever-stuck in his perma-30s, has actually been aging along with us early Simpsons viewers. When we were kids, he was full of childlike naivety. Similarly, the "Jerkass Homer" period represents his angsty teen years as we exited childhood. And then, eventually, he mellowed out in his 20s. All while being frozen in time at the age of 39, not unlike Paul Rudd.
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Top Image: 20th Century Studios