Misc //

Maybe There is No Moral. Maybe It’s Just a Bunch of Stuff That Happened.

Naaman Zhou probes the politics of your favourite sitcom.

Nine months before the ballot box dumped him, George Bush Snr said he hated The Simpsons. It was 1992, the campaign trail, the Washington Sheraton. Picture flashbulbs, flags and Bush like a sad foxhound, hunting that second term he’d never get. In the glare of the lights, the crowd looked like an easy kill.

“We need to strengthen the American family,” he says, and they roar. “We need to make families more like The Waltons” ––and here he grins like he’s really nailing it[1]–– “and a lot less like The Simpsons.”

It was textbook Republican rhetoric: Family values! Corruption of the youth! The crowd cheered on the night, but it was, in hindsight, an historical fuck-up. The Waltons was a nostalgic rural drama, set in the 30s, shot in black-and-white. It was all-blonde and anodyne. Edgeless as threshed wheat and already rotting. The Simpsons was young but manically popular, not only wrangling Michael Jackson but slaying The Cosby Show. Bush –– high off Desert Storm, blind to the ratings – gambled and lost.

The thing is though – it should have worked. It’s an institution now, but back in ‘92, The Simpsons was newly-hatched and somewhat vulnerable. You can see how the traditional furrows of American Conservatism––hatred of the new, sanctity of the perfect family––saw in it a natural enemy.

Thus I make the case for The Simpsons as a watershed. It’s the show that shaped the decade, seat of its king trend: the rise of the mean sitcom.[2]

It’s no secret that the modern sitcom was forged in the 90s through cold wit and yuppie malice. It’s the story of sociopathy becoming acceptable comedy fodder. It started in Springfield, peaked with Seinfeld, and via Friends, is now in the process of a long withering––think Charlie Sheen and Sheldon–– a studio-lot hollowing out.


Before The Simpsons, the world was Family Ties and Growing Pains.[3] Characters were spotless and conflict flowed, in twenty-minute spans, into clean moral resolution. The Very Special Episode rode tall in the timeslot. It was like if fables had adbreaks. But The Simpsons ran on selfishness and dysfunction. It was gloriously funny and casually cruel and happy to let bad things happen to good people. See: Homer bankrupting his brother, Bart exploiting a program for orphans, every interaction with Flanders ever.

There’s a scene the writers talk about in season 3’s Lisa the Greek. Lisa, desperate for parental affection, tries to sit with Homer on the couch. The gag is that he hates it and pushes her onto the floor. They nearly didn’t air it, nervous about how audiences might react to such cruel disregard.

It was this superficial shittiness that tricked Bush into thinking The Simpsons was a soft target, shunnable, contra-society. Instead, they were the groundswell. The malicious sitcom was in many ways, a reflection of the national mindset. The Simpsons was almost prescribed by its time period to be sarcastic––by the 90s, TV had accrued a stiflingly rich history, became so trope-dense you almost had to be trope-aware, cynical or actively mean to get noticed. The public had shown an unexpected taste for this kind of venom, and hand in hand, the networks and the politicians changed.

Over in New York, the writers on Seinfeld had one rule and they called it “No hugging, no learning”. Fiances died and bubble-boys burst, but characters weren’t allowed to grow or express empathy. On paper it sounds horrific. But it turned out to crucial to the on-screen chemistry, a tool that opened up a new class of deep-observational humour.

This is because, when you think about it, the genius of Seinfeld has always been somewhat inhuman. Its hallmarks have a touch of the robotic – precise gag-syntax, analytical overclocking, eye like a microscope. Diminished emotional capacity completes the circuit, allowing things like breaking up with someone for eating peas one at a time.

Seinfeld twisted the sitcom formula in so many different ways but this was the one that stuck. The ratings soared and the studios, because all TV is cloning and tweaked descendence, birthed Friends.

If The Simpsons was Bush kryptonite (subversive, anti-core but inexplicably, maddeningly popular), Friends was politically muted, a gentle backdrop to Clinton and Bush Jnr. It was socially duller, never controversial and began, at the end of its run, to resemble a hermit’s chamber of expendable income and constant leisure. Proof that America was doing just fine.

What you have to remember about Friends is that its opening seasons were grungier and less popular. It was only through a process of shedding, of keeping what was most pleasing, that it became a behemoth. Friends had all the snarky, caustic trimmings of its predecessors, but the suffering was gradually airbrushed out.

The Simpsons on the other hand––indebted to Roseanne––were working-class and financially insecure.[4] The people may have been drawings but money had reality. Seinfeld’s ballast was an ever-present, always terrible family. Even Jerry, whose gig as never-struggling comedian was a kind of proto-Joey-the-actor, had Uncle Leo. A withered accoutrement, eternally hanging off his arm, like Guilt in a weather-appropriate coat.

As the noughties wore on, Friends grew gradually untethered. With its blend of free love and free rent, it created a new creature – a kind of yuppie-hippie. This was an invented demographic –no young, nebulously-employed bohemian could afford to live in that kind of apartment. It’s the offspring, not of the Seinfeld gang, but of Kramer alone. The zany and carefree, grafted onto a source of guilt-free nutrient and left to grow. And the fruit got too sweet.

So while The Simpsons and Seinfeld were explicitly progressive––Lisa used a searingly feminist vocabulary,[5] Elaine was pro-choice and sex-positive––Friends was a bit mushy beneath the skin. It did its best, nodded approvingly at the issues, but still made jokes about “homos” and coined, to its eternal discredit, the phrase ‘friend-zone’.

It was a dangerous lesson: that the douchebag could be depoliticised, the bastard could be loveable even without redemption. That’s how we got the Chuck Lorre protagonist, where being mean for no reason is its own joke. Bush would have spat the dummy.


[1] Think: old man’s glee, the kind of grin that celebrates, unironically, being “totally down with the youth”.

[2] If this sounds harsh it’s because it’s not strictly true. As progenitor of the trend, The Simpsons is naturally the most exempt – the mildest, introductory course. At most, it’s a 50/50 split between bitter and saccharine, and this probably, is what makes it superior to later copycats.

[3] See also: Full House

[4] Non-exhaustive list of bankruptcy storylines: Marge Gets A Job, Homer vs Patty & Selma, Homer’s Triple Bypass, Lisa’s Pony.

[5] “Cast off the shackles of our male oppressors” (Marge on the Lam), “The things she says are horribly sexist!” (Lisa vs Malibu Stacey)