That’s perfectly encapsulated by the opening of the episode Bart’s Friend Falls in Love, where Bart Simpson steals a jar of pennies from his dozing father. The entire scene is a glorious pastiche of the opening of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (itself a knowing tribute to those rough-and-tumble Saturday morning matinees Spielberg loved as a child), complete with Homer resembling a giant boulder in an epic chase down the stairs. It remains, more than 20 years later, one of the show’s great, laugh-out-loud moments.
Every Simpsons fan will have their own favourite – for me, it’s pretty much all of the season six cliffhanger and season seven opener split episode, Who Shot Mr Burns? It’s a Dallas homage that also packs in references to the Mambo Kings, Hitchcock’s Vertigo and in Homer’s cellmate Dr Colossus, every B-movie mad scientist ever. But The Simpsons’ enduring appeal – even if long-time fans might sniff that its best days are long behind it – is that it’s much, much more than a collection of pop culture jokes.
“The Simpsons took [that referential humour] mainstream through just being a good show,” says Christopher Irving, a pop culture historian and writer. “It’s that simple: the pastiche, parody and inclusion of pop culture isn’t what the show is built around – the show is built around relationships, which is what makes the Simpsons themselves believable enough to love.”
Irving believes the show also celebrates some of the arcane geek culture that the programme’s writers are clearly fans of – while most people are likely to spot the references to Star Wars, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, there are many references that appeal to a much more selective audience.
“Oh, God, yes. Look at comic book guy; sure, he pokes fun at the stereotype of the obsessive comic book fan, but that works because people like him really do exist,” Irving says. “The ‘geek culture’ aspect of the show might not have worked without the production getting the real people on board for guest voice spots.”
British cultural historian Christopher Cook believes The Simpsons has some strong links to the past – and not just TV. “You could argue that this is already a strategy developed by Pop artists – Richard Hamilton, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, to name three. However, it does seem to me that The Simpsons is the television series that really embraces the idea,” says Cook. “It may be significant that The Simpsons were created by Matt Groening who began his career as a cartoonist, so that he would clearly be across the work of, say, Lichtenstein.”
“But I would suggest that you also need to see The Simpsons as one the very first postmodern TV shows developed for mainstream US TV,” Cook says. “Someone once defined postmodernism as an ‘aesthetic of quotations’, in other words it collages material from pre-existing works in unlikely ways. And the ‘glue’ that holds the assemblage together is irony, knowing where the references come from and how they have been replaced. I see a lot of that on The Simpsons.”
For all ages? / Generation gap
The show perhaps betrays some of its interests and influences, which definitely seem to stray into the geekier spectrum, says TV writer David Stubbs. “Matt Groening once boasted, ‘The Simpsons is the counterculture.’ I think that’s maybe truer of earlier [seasons] than more recent ones,” he says. “And I think they only go so far. Groening’s favourite ever album is Trout Mask Replica [by Captain Beefheart] but I don’t think he’d feel able to get away with Captain Beefheart references on the show. Sonic Youth, yes…”