Change begins with small acts. The title of my blog is taken from Paul Gilroy's powerful slim volume packing a resounding counter-cultural critical punch.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Planet Simpson : Review and Interview with Chris Turner

by Carmen Nge

“Oh, Marge, cartoons don’t have any deep meaning. They’re just stupid drawings that give you a cheap laugh.” - Homer Simpson

Cartoons and caricatures have been courting controversy these past few months. Free speech and free press advocates have watched in horror as Muslims worldwide flagrantly denounced questionable caricatures of their Prophet. Cultural critics and media pundits questioned if Muslims were able to understand and appreciate the subtleties and daring of a brand of humour that held nothing sacred.

Even as these speculations were bandied around, a familiar American animated cartoon series was enjoying its 6-month sojourn into the Arabic-speaking media markets, courtesy of Dubai’s popular satellite network, MBC. No wise-cracking, rebel-rousing cartoon characters are as eponymous with satire as The Simpsons and this iconic TV family—now known in the Arab world as Al Shamshoon—will be a challenge to untested waters.

Dubbed in Arabic, the show’s yellow-hued characters were newly christened with Arab names, and voiced by leading actors from the Muslim world. Key plotlines were changed to accommodate Muslim sensibilities; according to the Wall Street Journal, references to things forbidden by the Koran, for example bacon, beer and bars, have been omitted. Homer, renamed Omar, now guzzles soda instead of beer and gobbles beef sausages instead of pork hotdogs. Some Arab fans of the cartoon have already blogged about how the Arabized version is a disaster and ruins the flavour of the original. Still, it remains to be seen if The Simpsons can incite a whole new socio-cultural milieu to laughter, as it has successfully accomplished elsewhere.

After 17 seasons and recently renewed to its 20th by Fox, The Simpsons is the longest-running sitcom (animated or live action) in United States television history. In fact, Bart Simpson is the only fictional character to appear on Time Magazine’s Top 100 most influential people of the 20th century list. American television’s most enduring cultural icon of a postmodern generation weaned on mass media and rampant consumerism has finally arrived. As proof of its respectability, a weighty book has been written about this wacky family, giving it richly deserved intellectual accolades.

Chris Turner’s book is a veritable Simpsonian magnum opus. With meticulous researched details, Planet Simpson will do any fan proud. From a trivia-filled recounting of the birth of the cartoon series on the Fox channel to spot-on analysis of the major characters and plotlines, Turner is cultural critic extraordinaire. Refusing to label The Simpsons as just another popular TV show, Turner lovingly deconstructs the residents of Springfield and in the process, draws us into a socio-economic, geopolitical, counter-cultural, technological and philosophical history lesson that is riveting for those who are wont to question what the hype is all about.

In an interview with OTE, Turner explains that the far-reaching impact of The Simpsons is largely due to its accessibility as a TV cartoon. “Other shows like it may be critical and anti-authoritarian but they exist at the margins. The amazing thing about The Simpsons is that it is not in the margins. It is as much a voice of dissent as something in the margins, though not coming from it. It also has a huge audience for something so unconventional in its thinking. That’s a great part of its power. [The show] feels like a saboteur that has snuck into the halls of power.”

In countries like Australia or New Zealand, where Turner has visited, the show is popular and well-loved. As he puts it, “Canadians, Brits and Aussies like to see something other than propaganda from the US. It is refreshing to have something outside of the superhero image. [The Simpsons] is where America stumbles along and don’t know what they are doing.”

Blending witty explication with droll humour in his book, Turner is earnest and exhaustive, singularly smart and undeniably obsessive. The footnotes that follow each chapter are marvels unto themselves, often recounting the minutiae of each episode with reverential alacrity.

In the first chapter, Turner give Simpsons fans all the factoids they can ever want and more. Matt Groening, an underground cartoonist with a penchant for the anti-corporate alternative press, and James L. Brooks, an acclaimed Hollywood producer who brought us The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi, are the two men most often credited as creators of The Simpsons, which made its debut as a filler for the The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987. However, few have heard of comedy and zine writer George Meyer, who Turner credits for The Simpsons’ spoofs, parodies and dysfunctional social realism. Together with John Swartzwelder and Jon Vitti, this writing trio have written or co-written more than 90 Simpsons scripts, many of which are widely regarded as among the best. No easy feat indeed, considering that each episode takes about 9 months to produce from first draft to televised finished product.

In a highly organized manner that is antithetical to the Simpsonian ethos, Turner traces not only the show’s history but also extrapolates its ancestors. The Simpsons is not a one-off, isolated pop cultural phenomenon. Turner historicizes the animated series and in so doing, gives it a legacy that is deeply American, and Canadian too!

Excusing his native bias (Turner is himself a Canadian), the author explains that Canadians are known for their irony and self-deprecating humour, satire and self-effacement. Is it a co-incidence then that Jim Carrey, Dan Aykroyd, Mike Myers, John Candy and Martin Short are all Canadians who have made it big in America? Turner doesn’t think so; he believes that Canadian humorists have been central to the development of American satire since the Second World War.

It is this deep-rooted satirical bent that gives The Simpsons’ its staying power. According to Turner, “for satire to work, you need to have it ring true. Even though it may be exaggerated but you need to start from something, an honest portrayal. So, [The Simpsons] is really aimed at a realistic and honest take on Western society.”

Take perpetually lazy, boorish and gut-baring Homer Simpson, the quintessential postmodern patriarch. According to Turner, Homer is the personification of America and the “stand-in for the average self-absorbed, self-important Baby Boomer” which he says is “the most coddled generation in history.” Homer is the American id: insatiable, out of control and greedy for more of the same, without any forethought of its consequence. Need more beef for your burger? Decimate another acre of rainforest for cattle grazing. Need more petrol for your SUV? Invade another country and install a puppet government that will give you all the petrol you desire. This is the Homer generation, Doh!

Turner casts Bart Simpson as the anti-hero in the TV show but one with a decidedly punk sensibility; deeply anti-authority, cynical of the media yet also fully absorbed in it, Bart is the Every-Nihilistic-Teenager of Homer’s Every-American. However, unlike Homer, Bart is no doofus. He only feigns stupidity in order to get away with having to do the hard work of thinking. Yet, Turner deems him an idealist because Bart bows down to no-one and is much loved for this.

If Bart is the offspring of Courteney Love and Johnny Rotten, then his sister, Lisa, must be the love child of Janis Joplin and Bono. She is the moral compass of the Simpsons: precocious at eight years, progressive in her politics, erudite and sagacious. Her over-achiever persona—she plays the saxophone, has a voracious appetite for books, is a Mensa member and a bona fide academic star—makes her much beloved in Japan. On home turf, Lisa Simpson is worshipped less than Bart and Homer but her fanbase eschews blindless mindless devotion in favour of ardent respect based on intellectual admiration.

Turner rounds off his analysis of The Simpsons by dissecting Marge, the blue beehive hairdo super matriarch, and the sniveling, sinister personification of evil corporations, Montgomery Burns, Homer’s boss and owner of the Springfield Nuclear power plant. Marge is as sweet and obliging as Mr Burns is a slimeball and oppressive. Marge allows the Simpsons a measure of familial love; she is the family’s moral, spiritual and psychological compass, emitting warmth and 1950s domestic bliss.

For Turner, however, Mr Burns is by far his favourite character: “He’s great fun and a fantastic villain. He is the symbol of the quintessential evil industrialist and therefore, when the plot focuses on him, the satire goes the deepest. We live in a world where corporate power is the single most important locus of power in society, so the satire goes deepest with him because they are attacking the largest source of power.”

Matt Groening is often quoted as saying that The Simpsons aims to “entertain and subvert” but does television’s ability to entertain far supersede its potential to subvert? Turner doesn’t think so. The fact that The Simpsons is a TV show does not diminish it, he believes. “TV has a power far greater than intellectual media [like print]. The whole world watches TV and you have to accept the fact that the medium is non-intellectual and about images but The Simpsons is unique because you may first watch it and think it is just cartoon but if you watch it closely and you get some of its cultural references, you realize it’s saying something very serious about American society and Western consumer culture in the hopes that people will see it in a different light and not simply endorse it.”

This review+interview was published in Off The Edge magazine, the April issue.