The Simpsons Turns 20

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When I learned Morgan Spurlock was directing last Saturday's The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special, I was excited. Then I watched Super Size Me and I was worried. I didn’t need to be. Spurlock packed a lot into the hour-long documentary-style special, kept it fast and funny, and (mostly) kept the focus off himself.

A little history: The show we now know as The Simpsons began 22 years ago as an animated featurette on Tracey Ullman's variety show. When Fox decided to spin off a “Simpsons” series, creator Matt Groening and the other writers assumed they’d do thirteen episodes and move on. Hah. The Simpsons is now the longest-running show ever on prime-time TV.

Show creator Matt Groening named many characters on the show, including Reverend Lovejoy, Mayor Quimby, and Robert “Sideshow Bob” Terwilliger, for streets in his hometown of Portland, Oregon. He’d have named more characters after Portland streets, he said, if he could have remembered them off the top of his head. Back in Portland, Spurlock interviewed the principal of the school that inspired Springfield elementary. The interview was kind of boring, but who am I to dump on the guy's big moment? Later in the hour, the brief clip on "Simpsons science" was a waste of airtime. Maybe Morgan had better leave the satire to the experts.

Spurlock attributed the show’s success to its passionate fanbase, and he introduced us to even the most intensely committed Simpsons fans without making them—or himself—look silly. First we met Noel Bankhead of North Carolina, who maintains what he calls the “Simpsonian Institute” and said, “If it says ‘The Simpsons ’ on it, I have to have it.” His collection was eclipsed by that of England’s Glynne Williams, whose house was stuffed from entry to attic with over 30,000 pieces of Simpsoniana. Williams cheerfully referred to his packed attic as his Treehouse of Horror. His good-natured wife Andrena understood; she had a room of her own devoted to an enormous collection of teddy bears.

Even better than the collections were the tattoos. The guy with the Milhouse tattoo on his arm was a dead ringer for Bart’s nerdy BFF. Still more amazing was mild-mannered fan Chad Rowland, who removed his shirt to reveal a Simpsons-themed mural that covered his whole back.

There were celebrity fans as well. Network anchors Dan Rather and Brian Williams both lavished praise on Springfield newsman Kent Brockman, and it’s hard to say which one of them Kent resembles more. Sting, who guest-starred in a Season 3 episode, jokingly (I think) attributed all his success to The Simpsons. John Waters and Hugh Hefner were fans, as was former Simpsons writer Conan O’Brien.

Of course, it’s virtually impossible to be funny without offending someone. But the truly offended were few in number here. Bill Donohue of the Catholic League went on at length about how a few pretty mild Catholic jokes treated the church like “a pinata.” George Bush the elder dissed The Simpsons early in its run (“American families should be a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons,”) and his wife Barbara called the show “the stupidest thing [she’d] ever seen.” (“I think now, hey, look at your kid, you know?” commented executive producer Mike Reiss.)

Sadly, the entire country of Brazil still seemed upset about a 2002 episode in which The Simpsons visited Rio de Janeiro and were attacked by a monkey gang in a shantytown. (Evidently Rio has both shantytowns and monkeys, but the monkeys don’t actually gang up on people.) It was in Rio that Spurlock briefly put the focus on himself, parading for the camera in a Speedo-style swimsuit. I have to admit, he didn't look bad.

The nuclear power industry was surprisingly mellow about its portrayal on the show. Representatives— who seemed to be struggling not to crack up— only said calmly that the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant was “definitely not reality” and affirmed that they’d never seen a three- eyed fish.

Although one might reasonably expect the Scots to be angered by the portrayal of their countryman Groundskeeper Willie as drunken, illiterate, and occasionally homicidal, they adored him. In fact, two Scottish cities — Glasgow and Aberdeen — vie for the honor of being identified as Willie’s hometown. Another country that loved The Simpsons was Argentina, where a citizen has founded his own Duff Beer brewery. (Fox is suing him.)

Perhaps The Simpsons’ biggest proponent was sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who dismissed the idea that the family is dysfunctional. Marge and Homer are “the perfect couple,” she said. “They love each other,” she explained. “The secret is that they talk to each other, that they have a relationship, that they don’t just have sex.” Julie Kavner, the voice of Marge, agreed, but pointed out, “Actually, the sex is really good.”

It’s hard to believe that there are adults walking around today who don’t remember a pre-Simpsons world. It’s even harder to imagine life today without them in it. “Without The Simpsons, the world would be like a Cormac McCarthy novel—just scorched earth, nothing,” said Sting. “It’s a horrible thought. How ridiculous.”

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