When I was a college undergraduate (Colby, if you’re keeping score), I wrote an article for the school newspaper praising The Simpsons for its combination of high and low humor, jokes for the fart-and-burp crowd and literary or filmic references for the more erudite viewers, which was reminiscent in complexity to Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote for the low-brown members of the audience, but also for the aristocrats and literati who frequented the theater. The same play had to appeal to both. There are only two modern examples that approach this level of complexity combined with accessibility. With apologies to the brilliant cartoon series Family Guy (which is not among the top two because is references are almost all to do with pop culture rather than intellectual matters), the two modern-day Shakespeares are Woody Allen and The Simpsons.
Woody Allen comes with a caveat—it is his early work, through the 1980s, that is true genius (one need only listen to his original stand-up comedy recordings to know that comedic genius is). I grew up watching Manhattan, which is still my favorite film of all, and each time I would watch it, once a year or so, I would “get” another joke. It is full of references that flew over my head as a youngster (I liked it for the love story, the beautiful cinematography that made ugly-era New York look beautiful, for the famous Reasons-to-Exist list). Now I understand about 90% of the references, which is pretty good for someone who was born the year the film came out. Woody’s early comedies are fall-off-your-seat funny, and I cannot say that any film made in the last decade or so has been as consistently, hysterically funny. I’m an Airplane!, Monty Python, Mitch Hedberg sort of guy when it comes to comedy—I like non-sequitur humor, with flying watermelons when you least expect it. No recent comedy has come close. The earliest Woody Allen comedies (What’s New Pussycat, Bananas, Love and Death) are his greatest work in my opinion, before he shifted into the intellectual romantic comedy realm that won critical acclaim (Annie Hall, Manhattan) and which I also love. But Love and Death is a good example. It is absolutely hysterical, but its humor is making fun of the “great” Russian novels—turning Tolstoy and Dostoevsky into comedic fodder. That is high-and-low humor, the dictionary definition. It is funny if you don’t know the reference material, but it is that much funnier, and more obviously brilliant, if you do.
But I was talking about The Simpsons, wasn’t I? The Simpsons celebrated its 500th episode, 23 years of programming. What is so striking to me is that I wrote that article back in college, more than a decade ago, and The Simpsons is still going strong. It is just as great as it once was. A recent New York article tested the theory that The Simpsons was less funny in, say, season 21 than in the universally-acclaimed “golden seasons” (most people favor seasons 10 and 11, but for my money, seasons 6-12 are all gold). The writer watched all of the recent seasons and came away convinced that the show was just as good as ever. While it is no longer in-the-news the way it once was (we tend to take it for granted now, it’s simply been around so long), it is the single most culturally-influential cartoon in history, and one which has been consistently brilliant for more than two decades. It still has the high-low humor (a recent episode was about Heidegger, and the literary novelist Thomas Pynchon appeared as a guest on another). It makes us laugh without insulting our intelligence, and makes us feel intelligent when we “get” all of the references thrown at us—yet not getting all the references does not harm our enjoyment. It is a universal pleasure, for adults and children, for professors and plumbers.
After 500 episodes, the legacy of The Simpsons is more than assured. It is taught in university classrooms, and will forever be the benchmark of long-term successful television.
Happy 500th, Simpsons family. We salute you.
Noah Charney is a best-selling author of fiction and non-fiction, and a professor of art history. To subscribe to The Secret History of Art Podcasts, click here.
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