One night, I found myself unable to sleep. No reason in particular; just regular, nondescript anxiety that I couldn’t peg. I took to the cable box and within moments I stumbled upon an old, tried and true, syndicated Simpsons episode. You know the one where they do a Behind The Music-esque parody, and we learn that The Simpsons aren’t really “The Simpsons” but rather a successful family facing problems behind the cameras? I remember seeing it before and not thinking much about it, but like the appeal of Kate Mara, I gave it a second chance, and found myself laughing hard; even in the short clip where they buy MC Hammer’s old mansion and Bart finds a room full of old parachute pants.
After my late night rediscovery of The Simpsons, I started watching some of the more recent episodes as a comparison point to the show I remembered. Like many people, I abandoned ship on the show as the series started taking itself into the depths of its 20th season. Yet upon re-watching one of the new episodes – a plot line involving Bart faking an on-land apocalypse as the family enjoys a cruise line getaway – I could understand the problem wasn’t so much the show, but more so a “it’s not you, it’s me” type of situation.
Every episode I watched still embodied the same spirit of The Simpsons from seasons ago, but the weight of my nostalgia kept making me compare each punchline or joke to another more triumphant gem from its “glory days.” Such as Lenny being punched in the back of the head, or the iconic “stupid sexy Flanders.” I realized I loved those jokes so much because, like a recipe for Roast Pumpkin Soup I found on Goop, I let them simmer and boil for a while, not realizing the impact they had or would have until years later when I watched the episode again.
Now, here I was, re-watching episodes from the show’s 21st season – episodes I remember viewing the first time around as a sign that the show was losing its touch – now laughing as if I was still that teenage boy in my parents’ home catching the back-to-back syndicated hour of The Simpsons that would play every weeknight at 6pm. I was wrong to expect the same gratification from these new episodes the first time around when I realized a show like The Simpsons is a show built for syndication; to be reviewed, re-watched, and reaccessed, rather than to be taken for its face value the first time around. I couldn’t expect to know if a joke would stand the test of time when I wasn’t giving it what it needed – time itself. Have you watched I Love Lucy lately? Yep, it just gets funnier sixty years later.
But I’m not the only one. Despite being the longest-running animated series on television, and already having accomplished so much in TV, I feel like we still expect so much from The Simpsons. I’ll admit, during my “research” there were some episodes that made me laugh harder than others, and a rare few that even Nelson wouldn’t “ha ha” about. But like any television show, you’re going to have some season episodes you favor over others. And when it’s a television show that’s been on the air for close to 25 years, shouldn’t there be a point where we ease the pressure a little bit?
As a pop culture enthusiast, The Simpsons stands as not only one of America’s biggest contributions to pop culture around the world, but also our best regulator of it; parodying everything that has made an impact on our news or celebrity zeitgeist in some way, and already satirizing the likes of Britney Spears, The Rolling Stones, and even Lady Gaga. Yet unlike other legendary television shows like Cheers, Friends, or Seinfeld, why does it sometimes feel like The Simpsons doesn’t get the respect we usually set aside for iconic pop culture fixtures that shows longevity and innovation? Are we such a culture that believes all good things need to come to an end that, when they don’t, we start to get a bit hostile?
As the show that provided the groundwork for fresh and exciting comedy and parody, inspiring and producing many great comedians and comedy writers today such as Conan O’Brien, Mike Scully and Greg Daniels, The Simpsons is our best reminder of the smart comedy we’re capable of in television. The Simpsons stands at a point in our present culture where it isn’t taking away or giving us anything new or prominent, but it is giving us something familiar; something that still works for us – and what’s wrong with that?
As the news that The Simpsons‘ would be getting a 26th season emerged, many people rolled their eyes or made the easy joke of saying “will it ever end?” But really, if the press release revealed that the current 25th season of The Simpsons would be its last, it would be a sad day. It would be the end of an era that doesn’t truly need to end. The show reveals no signs of slowing down, with its most recent Treehouse of Horror episode still pulling in a nice number of 6.3 million viewers; plus, when watching the 25th season premiere of the show, the material felt fresh and rewarding.
While sometimes feeling as stagnant as its characters who never age, The Simpsons is still our greatest pop culture artifact, and with the uneasiness that your most beloved new TV comedies can be cancelled before you know it (I’m still mourning the loss of Happy Endings), I’m happy to know that we still have – and might always have – Homer, Bart, Lisa, Marge, and even Maggie, to keep us laughing. Aren’t you?