The Simpsons, a television and cultural phenomenon, turns 25 this week

Few shows have influenceda generation - and television - more profoundly thanThe Simpsons. As the series prepares to celebrate its 25th anniversary, Paul Kay examines the rise and rise of a cultural phenomenon

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 December, 2014, 10:37pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 December, 2014, 10:37pm

Whether as a TV show, cultural phenomenon or commercial juggernaut, it's hard to overstate the importance of The Simpsons. The series, which marks 25 years since its first episode on December 17, has virtually defined comedy, satire and the Fox network that produces it during that time.

Take a moment to imagine a pop culture landscape without The Simpsons and you'll understand its impact. The show not only convinced America (and the world) that animation could be for adults, it could be commercially lucrative at primetime. This opened the door for the likes of Beavis & Butt-head, South Park, Family Guy and countless imitators - and also set the tone for a new kind of self-aware, hyper-referential form of satirical comedy that has influenced everything from The Office and Spaced to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

As Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane put it in an interview with Vanity Fair: " The Simpsons created an audience for primetime animation that had not been there for many, many years … As far as I'm concerned, they basically re-invented the wheel. They created what is in many ways - you could classify it as - a wholly new medium."

That medium was driven by an anarchic brand of comedy that encompassed satire, slapstick and often a touch of the surreal, and to which nothing was sacred - even itself. Ever keen on the meta-gag and unafraid to bite the hand that feeds it, The Simpsons has mercilessly mocked Fox on numerous occasions, as well as media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, the network's owner, who has gamely appeared as a guest star in two episodes.

Crucially, due to a clause in the contract negotiated by executive producer James L. Brooks, Fox can't interfere with the show's content.

The Simpsons also marked the dawn of a new age of shows that were as TV-literate as the audience that was coming of age, and it's easy to forget just how groundbreaking it was. The genius of The Simpsons in those early days was the mischievous glee with which it subverted expectations and turned genre clichés on their head to comedic effect.

Powered by a razor-sharp writing team, including future Late Night host Conan O'Brien, The Simpsons often turned its spotlight on the absurdities and shortcomings of the medium and the sitcom format, skilfully vaulting those same limitations in the process.

Take the episode in season five where Bart - who originally became famous in the real world for catchphrases such as "Eat my shorts" and "Don't have a cow man" - becomes famous in Springfield for saying "I didn't do it!", thus setting the scene for all manner of jokes at the show's own expense.

Or season eight's The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show, which deftly lampoons the predicament of an animation serial that has run out of steam and resorts to the desperate measure of including a designed-by-committee new character to reinvigorate itself under pressure from executives. It's a masterclass in self-referential satire that is widely considered to be among the best of the show's entire run.

But The Simpsons' influence stretches beyond the confines of the TV schedule. The show's commercial success, and the multibillion-dollar merchandise empire that grew up around it, had a huge effect on the popularity of then-fledgling Fox network, whose trajectory would surely have been quite different without the presence of everyone's favourite dysfunctional family.

Elsewhere, the show has spawned a hugely successful movie, a double-platinum album, a theme park ride and at least one university course, as well as countless video games, books, comics, fan sites and academic papers, walking the line between mainstream and subversive, kid-friendly and adult humour, and high and low culture all the way.

The show has also won 31 Primetime Emmy Awards, earned The Simpsons a star on Hollywood Boulevard (as well as one for its creator, Matt Groening) and was named best television series of the 20th century by Time magazine in 1999. Time also named Bart Simpson one of the century's 100 most influential people, while Homer's catchphrase, "D'oh!" has made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. To say it has come a long way from the crude sketches hastily scribbled by Groening on the way to a pitch meeting for The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987 is the mother of all understatements.

The genius of The Simpsons in those early days was the mischievous glee with which it subverted expectations and turned genre clichés on their head to comedic effect

Even taking into account such influence and accolades, it is still astounding that The Simpsons has lasted quite so long - longer than any other American sitcom, animated programme or scripted show ever has. After 25 and a half seasons and 561 episodes, what is it that keeps the show chugging along?

In his book Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Documented an Era and Defined a Generation, Chris Turner dissects the show from a number of different perspectives and charts its two-way relationship with popular culture. On the phone from his home in Canada, he tries to explain The Simpsons' longevity and persistent appeal.

"I think one of the factors in its success and in how it's endured is that it has created characters and a universe that people continue to relate to, so even though it's obviously satire and some of the characters are pretty broadly drawn, The Simpsons is enough of a reflection of who we are in this day and age that it continues to resonate and invites us to relate to it on a level other than just whether it's funny or not," Turner says.

But, as he goes on to point out, money probably has a lot to do with it, too. "You can never discount the fact that there is probably a handful of Fox executives that show up every time they start getting serious about quitting and say, 'Have you any idea how much money we make off this?' So you can understand that it's this cash cow and no one wants to kill it."

Yes, greatest TV show of all time though it may be, even the most ardent of Simpsons fans will likely agree its best days are behind it. Most commentators - including Turner - are in agreement that the golden age of The Simpsons ended with or during its ninth season, in 1997. It's an opinion backed by the many online lists ranking the best Simpsons episodes of all time, with an overwhelming majority of the top picks coming from seasons two to eight. One of the more recent, and complete, attempts to establish The Simpsons canon was by Rolling Stone magazine, which counted down its top 150 episodes in August this year. Of the top 100, only nine episodes were from season 10 or later, and only two of those came from seasons later than 12.

Critics have cited the show's increasing reliance on excessively zany plots, gratuitous celebrity cameos, and gimmicks (such as last season's episode in which all the characters became Lego pieces, and recent crossovers with Family Guy and Futurama) as evidence of its decline, although it's probably more accurate to say the show has become a victim of its own success and longevity.

As Groening once said: "The problem with doing a sitcom which has lasted more than 300 episodes is you're trying not to repeat yourself, you're trying to surprise the audience, and you're trying to keep everybody who works on the show surprised. As a result, the show has gone off in some very peculiar directions."

Despite grumblings from fans that the show has become too peculiar (or peculiar for peculiar's sake, perhaps) there appears to be no end in sight. The series has already been renewed for a 27th season and, according to executive producer Brooks, Fox is keen on a second movie.

"There is still some very solid writing, it's still head and shoulders above a lot of what else is on TV," Turner says. The real problem is that the show set the standard so high during its heyday that it made itself an impossible act to follow, he says.

"The bar that they're held up against is always their own peak, which is as good as TV comedy has ever been. From an aesthetic point of view, it might have been better if it hadn't kept going, in that there's a certain amount of value in leaving people wanting more," he says.

Fittingly, the scenario is something The Simpsons predicted - and self-parodied - as far back as 1995, in the seventh season's The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular. Wrapping up a "best of" clip show that lampoons "best of" clip shows, the episode's host, Troy McClure, wryly ponders: "Who knows what adventures [ The Simpsons] will have between now and the time the show becomes unprofitable."

As always with The Simpsons, many a true word is spoken in jest.

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The top five Simpsons celebrity cameos

Thomas Pynchon

The notoriously reclusive and revered cult novelist guest-starred on The Simpsons twice in 2004 - with a bag over his head, naturally.

Michael Jackson

The tragic former king of pop made an uncredited appearance in the season-three opener, playing an overweight mental patient who thinks he is, well, Michael Jackson.

Johnny Cash

In season eight, The Man in Black appeared as the Space Coyote in one of the cartoon series' weirdest and best episodes that sees Homer Simpson taking a psychedelic trip in the desert after eating a batch of Guatemalan insanity peppers.

Julian Assange

The show needed an extra-special guest star for its 500th episode in 2012, and it duly delivered in typically subversive style with a cameo from the WikiLeaks founder.

Stephen Hawking

The world's most famous astrophysicist has appeared on the show four times, most memorably in a season 10 episode in which Lisa Simpson joins the high IQ society, Mensa. The episode ends with Moe asking who's paying the tab at his bar, to which Homer replies (in Hawking's computerised voice), "I am." Hawking protests that "I didn't say that" to which Homer (in the astrophysicist's voice) replies, "Yes I did."

Now that's genius.