Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Writing the Simpsons: A Case Study of Comic Theory

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Writing the Simpsons: A Case Study of Comic Theory

Article excerpt

there has been much debate ov er the reasons for the enduring success of Fox Tele- vision's long-running animated, prime-time comedy series The Simpsons, now in its twenty- fourth season (1989-present). The program satirizes contemporary American life, allowing us to see ourselves in the mirror of the absurd. It explores topics of the day, poking fun at the sitting president, going green, and the latest fads. It parodies our culture, including movies, T V shows, and pop songs, offering us laughs at inside jokes along the way. It is written tightly, with every word and action setting up or delivering a joke or gag while moving the plot speedily from scene to scene, sometimes barely lingering long enough for viewers to get a joke (e.g., the sermon titles on the marquee in the cover shots of the church before cutting to the interior scenes). The list of reasons for its success goes on.

This article argues that another reason for the lasting popularity of The Simpsons can be found in comic theory. In an era of technologi- cal change and audience fragmentation, the prolonged success of this series reveals that theories of comedy still operate effectively for writers. Specifically, this article demonstrates that the show's writers incorporate every element of comedy in one way or another in every episode. The result is that each episode contains at least some humor to fit everyone's comic style. Everyone can laugh at The Simp- sons, regardless of what that person normally finds to be funny.

It is doubtful that the writers of The Simpsons actually keep a list of the many types of humor that make up comic theory (e.g., incongruity, superiority). Certainly they do not consult a laundry list of how to write jokes (e.g., run- ning gags, rule of thirds) when they hit writers' block. Rather, their years of creativity and expe- rience as comedy writers in general, and for The Simpsons in particular, have resulted in their understanding comedy at a tacit level. They know the world of the imaginary Springfield so well, their characters in such depth, and the culture they are satirizing so thoroughly that they almost automatically include all types of humor in their scripts week after week.

To make the case that the writers of The Simpsons utilize the full gamut of comic theory in each episode, even if subconsciously, this article presents a case study of a single epi- sode, though the argument can be applied to any episode. The episode selected for this analysis is "There's Something about Marrying" (season 16, episode 10, originally broadcast 20 February 2005).1 This episode is somewhat rep- resentative in upholding the tradition of satiriz- ing contemporary culture. It also contains many of the regular cast of characters. Additionally, it is noteworthy because it is the only episode that ever aired with a parental advisory, warn- ing viewers, "This episode contains discussions of same sex marriage." The advisory does not air online, in syndication, or on the DVD series.

Act 1 opens with young Bart Simpson and his friend Milhouse attempting a prank, only to realize that the town folk are wise to their mis- chief. They need "fresh meat." A turnip truck drives by, and a man falls off, introducing him- self as Howell Huser, a happy-go-lucky country bumpkin who travels about. The boys prank him multiple times, and he leaves, shaming the town. Howell next appears on television. He does travel features, and in this segment he gives Springfield a bad review. Immediately, the town's tourism dries up. The mayor calls a town meeting to discuss the problem. It is decided to legalize same-sex marriage to bring tourist dollars back to town.

Act 2 begins with Springfield's TV commer- cial for gay marriage. The cars roll in. The local pastor, Reverend Lovejoy, refuses to marry gay couples. Bart's father, Homer Simpson, real- izes an opportunity to cash in and becomes an instant minister via the Internet. He moves beyond gay weddings, marrying anyone to anything, and is featured on the TV show Smar- tline. …

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