It’s early evening. The family races home from its daily pursuits: Bart and Lisa from school, on skateboard and bike respectively; Homer in his car from his job at the nuclear plant; Marge in her car with baby Maggie from the supermarket. They all arrive at precisely the same time, and make a dash for the living-room sofa, all five hitting it at precisely the same moment. It’s a little crowded, but they slump there, watching a television set that has magically turned itself on, or perhaps is never turned off. This is The Simpsons, a show on TV and all about TV. What are they watching? The real-life show of us watching them maybe. They are just a typical cartoon family, amazed or stupefied, drugged anyway, by the programmed antics of humans. Or they are watching their own world’s version of The Simpsons, an endlessly recurring comic dream of what their compatriots imagine a family, a town and a country to be.
Whatever they are looking at, they are television images watching television images, and they have been doing it for ever – well, since 1989, which is nearly the same as for ever on television. Now here they are in the cinema at last, on nationwide release in countless countries. But what are they doing there? Isn’t TV their home and their reason for living? What could the big screen and a dark auditorium offer them that they haven’t got on a small screen in a nicely lit home with plenty of interruptions? Well, a second life for the franchise, for one thing. The series and its marketers are nothing if not astute. Late into the post-film credits of the movie, the family appears at the bottom of the screen as a string of silhouettes. They seem a little flustered. Something is going to happen. Yes, Maggie is about to say her first word. Then she says it: ‘sequel’.
In the early 1990s some 22 million Americans were watching The Simpsons; last year the figure was a mere 9 million. That’s not nothing; the show has deservedly become an institution. But institutions, grand as they are, are not the same as hits, and a little repair work was obviously needed through another medium. Apparently the punters and producers didn’t expect the movie to do that well, and would have been happy with opening weekend receipts of $30 to $40 million in the US. The movie did about twice as well as that ($71.9 million), and also opened with great success in other countries, notably the UK. Or, to echo the muted vocabulary of Variety, its ‘boffo launch . . . showed socko traction in international multiplexes’.
But, in a sense, The Simpsons have still not left their home. This film is not a conversion from TV, like The Muppet Movie or Life of Brian, in which creatures or sketches sought a new life in a new climate. The inventors of The Simpsons, Matt Groening et al, all on board for the movie occasion, have wisely decided to make a bumper episode of the TV series, a guest appearance of television in the world of cinema; a nifty cultural joke and an act of memory. You may remember that a treasured artefact in the episode called ‘Twenty-Two Short Films about Springfield’ (1996) was a photograph of Sean Connery signed by Roger Moore. At one point in the big-screen film the action stops abruptly and the words ‘To be continued’ appear, as if we were back on television, and entangled in a programming schedule. The words are followed, almost immediately, by the words ‘almost immediately’, and the film goes on. The audience I was in caught this tone perfectly. They were laughing happily, but with comfort rather than surprise or delight, and they were not youngsters. And even if they had been youngsters, they would still have been TV old-stagers. They would not have been seeing The Simpsons for the first time, even if their previous viewing was only a few months or a few days old.
The movie is pretty funny. Homer misbehaves as usual. Bart longs for a real dad but settles in the end for the unreal one he’s got. Lisa mounts a political campaign. Marge walks out. Grampa has a religious visitation, which he immediately forgets. Maggie, still unable to speak or take her pacifier out of her mouth, is very capable of looking after herself when the citizenry of Springfield turns ugly, as she shows when she smashes her milk bottle and brandishes the jagged end as if it were a liquor bottle. The plot is about pollution. Homer, having some sort of mid-life crisis represented by an infatuation with a pink and none too winsome pig, refuses to toe the line about sewage disposal, and tips a whole silo of pig shit into the newly cleaned-up town lake. The head of the Environmental Protection Agency, pausing only to brief President Schwarzenegger on the plan, places a sealed dome over the whole of Springfield. The Simpsons escape and take off for Alaska, returning when they learn that the EPA has moved to a second scheme: the complete destruction of the polluted town. Homer – improbably, belatedly – saves the day. Everything ends well and no one gets what he or she deserves.
The film has an amiable quota of bad jokes (when Springfield is sealed off, Marge knits a sampler with the words ‘Dome Sweet Dome’; when they move to Alaska she starts another saying ‘Nome Sweet Nome’) and like every episode of the TV series invites us to do a double take at the caricatures in front of us. How grotesque and simplified they are, from their moral characteristics to the way they are drawn, the minimal lines that signify their hair or eyes. And then: how like them we are, not of course in the rich interiority and complexity we attribute to ourselves on a good day, but whenever we or our co-citizens are playing any one of our standard roles – mother, father, daughter, son, cop, schoolteacher, bus driver, shopkeeper, mayor, neighbour, clown, bartender – with less than complete conviction. That’s when we step into the joke version of ourselves, when we start spouting and acting out the old clichés we thought we were beyond, and that’s what The Simpsons is: a world of such clichés made for laughs, but also connected to a working reality, as clichés usually are. ‘I used to be with it,’ Grampa says in one episode with remarkable self-awareness, ‘but then they changed what “it” was.’ Cartoons are funny not, generally, because they exaggerate but because they are so lucid and so clearly defined, because they streamline physical features and have people say what we ordinarily only think, and what usually echoes something thought too often anyway. As when, in one old Simpsons episode, the mayor’s assistant announces: ‘Sir, there’s an unruly mob to see you.’ Or when, in the movie, the members of a rock band on a sinking raft suddenly drop their guitars and pick up violins, so they can play ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ as they go under.
But the movie doesn’t have any of the really inspired moments that mark certain of the episodes, and perhaps couldn’t. The Simpsons is caricatural comedy, not satire. It doesn’t have a point or an agenda, and it’s closer to the Marx Brothers than Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show. This means the best jokes are casual and anarchic, stumbled on no doubt in the frenzy of writing episode after episode. One of them, though, was stumbled on very early, in 1990, in the episode called ‘There’s No Disgrace like Home’, in which the whole family goes for therapy and drives the therapist crazy. At one point, they are all wired with a panel of buzzers allowing them to administer electric shocks to other family members. This is meant to restrain them and return them to their underlying affection for each other. In fact, they have such a good time zapping each other via the buzzers that they exhaust Springfield’s electricity supply and plunge the town into darkness.
A quieter, but equally anarchic set of jokes appears in the 1996 episode ‘Much Apu about Nothing’, in which Springfield decides to rid itself of illegal immigrants. This mainly means Apu, an Asian Indian who runs the local convenience store. He loves America because of its freedom, he says. It gives him ‘the freedom to think and to say and to charge whatever I want’. A little earlier Grampa has been reminiscing about life back ‘in the Old Country’. ‘I forget which one exactly,’ he says. A memory flash shows a young Grampa on a boat where everyone has an Irish accent mixed with something that might be Polish. But the subtlest and funniest joke in the episode, the one that best sums up all the hypocrisy thriving then and now on the subject of immigration and therefore edges this casual comedy towards pointed satire after all, appears when the chief of police briefs his men about the procedures for deportation: ‘First you’ll be rounding up your tired. Then your poor. Then your huddled masses.’