Television / Nostalgia

“The Simpsons” and Me

There’s this one episode of “The Simpsons” where Bart, Milhouse, Nelson, and Ralph are recruited by a record producer named L. T. Smash to join a boy band named “Party Posse.” It turns out that the record producer’s real name is actually Lt. L.T. Smash and he’s using Bart and his friends’ boy band music to persuade listeners to join the navy.

I saw this episode when I was eight or nine years old. Every now and then, lines from that episode get stuck in my head, such as Milhouse exclaiming “It’s NSYNC!” every time NSYNC made a cameo and one of Party Posse’s choruses: “Yvan eht nioj” (“join the navy” backwards). This is just one of the many, many, many episodes I remember so well. It’s funny—some valuable space of my brain that should be reserved for knowledge on doing taxes or fine dining is instead kind of like a kaleidoscope of little memorable “Simpsons” moments. Sometimes when I space out, my brain turns into a small movie theater run by a crusty ol’ film operator smoking a cigarette up in the window at the back of the theater. He lazily puts on a roll of film that’s just a collection of vignettes from my favorite Simpsons episodes and off we go into my unproductive little la la land. In no way am I upset that they take up most of the space up there. Frankly, I find comfort in it all.

On April 19, 2017, “The Simpsons” celebrated thirty years of life since it debuted on The Tracey Ullman show as a skit. As you can see, after three decades it’s sort of blossomed. A milestone for a TV show is one hundred episodes. “The Simpsons” has aired over six hundred. We can debate all day about whether it has “declined” or “is sh***y now,” but that’s not why I’m writing this seemingly personal article about my connection to “The Simpsons.” I actually don’t think my relationship with The Simpsons is at all unique, considering the eight billion people currently inhabiting this planet who have all assuredly been exposed to “The Simpsons” in some form or another.

“The Simpsons” was my childhood. It was everything. When I came home mad from school, I had “The Simpsons.” When I was bored out of my mind and hated what I was learning in school, I had “The Simpsons.” When I had a bad breakup with a girlfriend in school, I had “The Simpsons.” The height of my “Simpsons” watching coincided with my middle school years, the worst three years of my life. Not “worst three years of my life” in a depressing way because it frankly wasn’t unlike or much worse than anyone else’s. It was just middle school! As it goes, I was a puffy, kumquat-sized little nuisance that hated everything and was mad all the time, wore black t-shirts and listened to Rage Against the Machine.

Watching “The Simpsons” served as more than respite from school—I genuinely benefited from watching it. In middle school, we read a lot of books and every time we were assigned one, I thought to myself, “What’s the point?” In seventh grade we had to read “Lord of the Flies.” As usual, I was skeptical, but something really cool happened: I came home from school one day, turned on the TV, and saw an episode of “The Simpsons” where the kids found themselves stranded on an island and succumbing to the same circumstances described in “Lord of the Flies.” I thought to myself, “Wait, this is that same story from that weird book I’m reading in class. Why is this same story in ‘The Simpsons’?” It took me a bit of time to put the pieces together, but I came to the conclusion that they were essentially the same—my first comprehension of a reference. The more “Simpsons” episodes I watched, the more references from an assigned book or play I began to pick up on. Oddly enough, I felt more of a desire to learn because I actually got more into and out of my work in school if it meant I got to see it in “The Simpsons.” I guess my mantra in middle school was, “If it’s in The Simpsons, it’s cool.” The beautiful thing is, everything you learn in school is in “The Simpsons.”

I won’t lie to myself or you and try to elevate how the “The Simpsons” affected me too far beyond this. The truth is, “The Simpsons” is just a show I really, really enjoyed watching and couldn’t go a day without. It made me feel good if I felt bad and great if I felt good. It was my television show of choice to escape the awful middle school world. I could turn on the TV and watch Bart take off the head from the statue of Jebediah Springfield. I could watch Homer run a business plowing snow from people’s driveways. I could watch Sideshow Bob try to kill Bart. I could watch clips of “Itchy & Scratchy.” I could watch Lisa bond with a saxophone player named Bleeding Gums Murphy. I could watch any episode and I would enter this world that became my only focus for thirty minutes (twenty-three with ads).

By the time I reached high school I drifted away from “The Simpsons.” I started drifting toward raunchier tastes, for example, “Family Guy” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” (which are two great shows in their own right). It wasn’t that I didn’t like it anymore or think it was lame; I just kind of moved on.

I’m in my last weeks of college and out of pure serendipity I recently stumbled across a ranking of the twenty-five best “Simpsons” episodes. I’m skeptical of things like this, but I always like to check number one to see if I agree. Number one in this list was “Marge vs. The Monorail.” It aired in 1993, making it one of the earlier episodes. To my surprise, I wasn’t familiar with it. I found it online and watched it. What a thirty minutes that was: joke after joke after joke after sight gag after sight gag after joke. I could not stop laughing, and that one viewing rekindled something in me. I dug around the internet to find my childhood favorites again and I rewatched each one. Thirty minutes turned into three or four hours.

It puts a lump in my throat rewatching these episodes. I try to put myself in my younger socks (not shoes, because I watched TV on a couch and shoes weren’t allowed on the upholstery) and I try to remember what it was like watching them for the first time. I reminisce on how they entertained me every afternoon after school, making me feel happy in the cesspool that was middle school.
To me it matters less that the show isn’t at the height that it once was. I mean, no show can keep up that level of quality for thirty years, let alone one hundred episodes. Frankly, this isn’t how I want to think of this show. I wrote this article in conjunction with “The Simpsons” turning thirty because I didn’t want to talk about its decline. I’m not much of a hugger, but I want to give it a big corny, sloppy birthday Thank You hug. Only for this show that’s formed such an important part of my childhood and continues to amaze me even as I watch it as a bearded, stinky twenty-two year old. I hope that it keeps airing for as long as the writers, showrunners, producers, voice actors and others involved care to keep it alive, for as long as Homer’s “D’oh!”s are still hysterical, for as long as people still hum along to the theme song. I hope it keeps airing for as long as it still means to people what it means to me.