Attempting to pinpoint the Simpsons style of humor
So recently I ran across this image on the internet (source here):
The top is the original Simpsons opening animation. The bottom is from 20 years later when they redid it in HD. Some people disagree with my opinion but I can't believe how much better the original one is! While somewhat crude, the animation has so much more life and personality to it; somebody had fun making Marge's hair whip around and making her emote her relief. The redone version makes Marge look creepily robotic, and it was changed just to add in a Unibrow Baby reference -- which isn't even a joke, it's just a callback to a joke that was only slightly funny the first time, before they ran it into the ground.
I hadn't thought about The Simpsons for years, but this made me all nostalgic for it. New Simpsons episodes used to be the high point of my week, back in high school. I found out Sushu has seasons 4 and 8 on DVD so I've been rewatching them. The Season 4 episodes are amazing and have me cracking up from beginning to end despite the fact that I can quote pretty much every joke from memory. The season 8 episodes are meh (I watched the Mr. Sparkle one tonight. It isn't anywhere near as good as I remembered it being).
I think it jumped the shark with "Who shot Mr. Burns?" which started a trend of really gimmicky plots that edged out the satirical, character-centric stories of the earlier years. (The Simpsons is now in season 22, which means by my count it's been going on more than twice as long after jumping the shark as before!)
Anyway, what I mainly want to talk about is not how much new Simpsons sucks, but rather the impact that the Simpsons had on comedy. When it was brand new it was the funniest thing I had ever seen, because it pioneered a certain style of humor that I had never encountered before. If it doesn't seem so innovative now, it's because every American comedy post-Simpsons couldn't help being influenced by it. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say of people in my age bracket that the Simpsons literally re-programmed our sense of humor. It even re-programmed our use of the English language.
But what was that style of comedy, exactly? Can we identify it and analyze what made it funny?
It's easy to forget now, but the Simpsons of the first few seasons was almost unbelievably bleak. The humor was driven by a level of cynicism bordering on existential despair. The Simpsons were a bunch of losers living in a crapsack world and watching lots of TV to distract themselves from their meaningless lives. The stories involved characters confronting death, having serious crises of faith, making painful choices, trying to do the right thing and getting punished for it by an uncaring world, and at the end when they barely scraped by it counted as a happy ending.
Remember that one where Homer ate the improperly prepared fugu and faced the fact that he likely had only one day left to live? He doesn't even make it to most of the things on his sad little list. He tries to listen to the Bible on tape to comfort him in his last moments but all he gets is a list of "X begat Y, who begat Z..." Religion is powerless even to provide solace in the face of death. When Homer survives, he promises to live each day to its fullest -- but he's soon back on the couch eating pork rinds and watching TV.
See? Bleak as hell! And still hilarious.
The joke about the Bible's contents shows a willingness to make anything a target of satire. There are not a lot of shows today, and there were even fewer in 1991, willing to make such a direct attack on something so sacred, but organized religion is no safer from Simpsons mockery than are public education, local government, or the news media; all of which are, in Springfield, transparently corrupt and self-serving.
The bit where Homer promises to live each day to its fullest and then immediately goes back to watching TV is a great example of the "instant hypocrisy" joke, a mainstay of Simpsons humor -- a character makes a weighty ethical statement; their actions contradict it less than five seconds of screen time later. There are jokes like this in almost every episode. Since The Simpsons, the "instant hypocrisy" joke has popped up almost everywhere; it's just a standard part of humor now, but it's hard to think of examples from before The Simpsons popularized it. More generally, The Simpsons frequently showed its own protagonists as hypocrites, as having their priorities all wrong, and as lacking the basic qualities of a decent human being. (In early Simpsons, before he became a one-note religious fundamentalist, scenes with Ned Flanders were there to show how an ideal non-dysfunctional family treated each other, in stark contrast to the Simpson family.) Comedies have always made their protragonists the butts of jokes, but seldom with the vicious pessimism towards its own characters that the Simpsons regularly showed.
The end of that episode also shows TV as an evil influence - another statement the Simpsons made as frequently as possible. Before The Simpsons, you pretty much never saw a TV family watching a TV of their own; it would have been considered too self-referential. Earlier shows didn't even acknowledge the existence of TV within their fictional universes, let alone show characters talking back to the TV, let alone showing the TV as something that ruined their imagination, just like it's ruined their ability to... uh... oh never mind. I think The Simpsons pioneered the show-within-a-show (Krusty, Itchy&Scratchy, Kent Brockman, many more) as a way of satirizing the media. And every time the Simpsons attacks TV, they're indirectly reaching out through the fourth wall and mocking their own creators and their own audience. Sometimes they're quite blatant about this ("Wow, Fox turned into a hard-core pornography station so slowly I didn't even notice"). This was rare before the Simpsons, to say the least.
(Aside: It's really weird to go back to early Simpsons and see Homer and Marge expressing attraction to each other and having other such traits of a real married couple. Before their personalities got flattened to "idiot" and "nag". It's even weirder to see Lisa joining in mischief along with Bart; she was always the conscience but she wasn't always a one-dimensional spoilsport about it.)
The Simpsons of seasons 4 through 7 was a lot less bleak, but even funnier. They picked wider-ranging targets for satire, they had smart, funny dialogue, and they had an amazing sort of rapid-fire joke density. Watch an episode from this classic period and notice how every line is either a joke or a setup for a joke; there's no dialogue wasted on boring exposition, but the story gets told all the same.
As an example, I present one of my all-time favorite jokes. From the 4th-season monorail episode:
Marge (shocked): "Homer! There's a family of possums living inside the control panel!"
Homer (cheerful): "I call the big one Bitey."
The first line is relevant to the plot because the episode is about the town being ripped off by an unscrupulous pusher of shoddy monoral construction. It hits one of the major themes running through the Simpsons, which is that everybody with any kind of power is corrupt, everything you get is always a crappy and broken version of what you hoped it would be, everything you touch is falling apart, Springfield's schools are inferior to Shelbyville's schools, and life generally sucks. Humor comes from exaggerating this to absurd levels: not just frayed wires or jammed gears, but an infestation of marsupials. Also, possums are funny because it's very specific while being unexpected. Saying a family of "animals" or "rats" would not have been nearly as funny as possums.
Of course that's just a setup for Homer's line, which tells you so much in so few words: He's already encountered the possums. Not only that, one of them bit him. (Implying that something horribly painful has happened offscreen is always funnier than showing it directly, because it forces your brain to fill in the blanks.) Despite getting bitten, he doesn't even recognize it as a problem. (Characters with misplaced priorities: another endless source of humor.) In fact he reacted by essentially adopting them, and naming them the way a 6-year-old would. ("Homer is stupid" jokes work best when he's a very certain kind of stupid - a certain childlike innocence, well-meaning but clueless.) Homer's reaction to the possums is the classic way of coping in the crapsack world of the Simpsons - life gives you absurd situations, you come up with absurd systems in order to deal with it. Life gives you a monorail full of possums, you treat them as pets. These coping mechanisms are another bountiful wellspring of humor.
In just six words, "I call the big one Bitey" squeezes in three different jokes while summing up an entire philosophy of life. That's some efficient writing right there!
Another good example of joke density - from the visit to Duff Gardens:
Bart: "Look, it's the Duff Beer-a-mid!"
Lisa (reading from pamphlet): "It contains so much aluminum that it would take five men to lift it... 22 immigrant laborers died during its construction."
Selma: "Lots more where that came from."
The aluminum thing is funny because it's a parody of the style of those information pamphlets you would get at a tourist attraction; in this case the fact is completely unimpressive but it's still delivered with total seriousness. It also sets up the next line, about the 22 immigrant laborers, also parodying historical factoids, but funny because it's so implausible that 22 people could die while stacking beer cans. (It's also another "Bitey" joke - imply something horrible happened and make the viewer's brain fill in the details). That line sets up the last joke, which is about Selma's incredibly callous disregard for human life. (Again with the showing the main characters as terrible people.)
To recap, we've identified some recurring joke types:
- Instant hypocrisy - where somebody states what's right and is proven a hypocrite in their very next breath
- Jokes about how bad TV is for you, and jokes at the expense of the TV-viewing audience
- Jokes in which authority figures and public organizations are shown as absurdly corrupt
- The offhand statement that implies horrible painful things happened offscreen that we'll never know about ("That's where i met the leprechaun. He tells me to burn things.")
- Jokes about how little the Simpsons care about things they're supposed to care about - each other, human dignity, their supposed religion, etc - compared to how much they care about food, TV, beer, etc.
- Jokes about the exaggerated horribleness and decrepitude of pretty much everything in Springfield
- Attempts to cope with horrible situations via weak-ass excuses ("The grocery store sells sugar for 45 cents a pound, and that doesn't have nails and broken glass in it." "Those are prizes!")
- Homer the well-meaning but clueless and incompetent man-child
- The extremely specific and unexpected thing; the non-sequitur: "Release the robotic richard simmons."
Here are a bunch more that I don't have lengthy examples for:
- The one where we laugh at a character for laughing at something that we think isn't funny; the joke is that they have a horrible sense of humor. (A lot of Itchy & Scratchy is this kind of joke.)
- The depressing, apathetic, or amoral statement delivered like a heartwarming moral: "If something's hard, it's not worth doing. Now let's put your karate uniform in the closet along with your shortwave radio, your boy scout uniform, and your unicycle, and go inside to watch TV."
- The one where we cut to some unrelated character across town - or jump through time - for the punch line. (Marge at the town meeting: "It looks like the whole town showed up for this!". Cut back to the neighborhood street, where burgulars are breaking into every house: "Suckers!")
- The made-up words / intentionally incorrect grammar joke: "Me fail English? That's unpossible!"
- Speaking in sentence fragments to indicate going crazy: "Can't sleep. Clowns will eat me." "Urge to kill rising"
- When someone words something in an unexpectedly precise, literal, even pedantic way in the middle of otherwise normal conversation: "I find your ideas intriguing and wish to subscribe to your newsletter". "Money can be exchanged for goods and services."
- The sudden incongrous switch between epic/serious and mundane/comic and back again: "You must find the jade monkey before the next full moon." "We found the jade monkey sir. It was in your glove compartment."
- Jokes where somebody confidently says something completely wrong ("Vampires are make believe, just like elves, goblins, and Eskimos")
I'm sure you can think of more.