By Jon Sherfey
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors. View more opinion on ScoonTV.
America’s favorite funny family has been on the airwaves for thirty-three years and a lot has changed in this country since the show’s inception in 1989. While the ages of Bart, Lisa, and Maggie have remained the same, something intangible has changed in Springfield, and that’s the humor of the show itself.
Once biting and rebellious, the show has now become safe and sterile. The Simpsons exemplifies American comedy culture as a whole and is a perfect case study to represent today’s comedy audiences and how their outrage influences our beloved content. To paraphrase Mos Def and his song ‘Fear Not of Man’ he’s asked,
“Yo Mos, what’s gettin ready to happen with [The Simpsons]?
I tell em, ‘You know what’s gonna happen with [The Simpsons]?
Whatever’s happening with us
If we doin alright, [The Simpsons] is gonna be doin alright
So, the next time you ask yourself where [The Simpsons] is going
Ask yourself: where am I going? How am I doing?’”
I hate to say it, but we are not doing alright.
Today’s comedy landscape is in dire straits as shown by the increased use of the term ‘comedy landscape.’ Famed comedians Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle have been assaulted on stage and many a comedian has been ‘canceled’ or, more realistically, have had opportunities taken away from them for jokes or old tweets like Kevin Hart and Shane Gillis.
Even The Simpsons had a run-in with the ‘woke mob’ after comedian Hari Kondabolu’s 2017 documentary ‘The Problem with Apu’ criticized the famed Kwik-E-Mart owner’s depiction as a racist Indian stereotype voiced by a white man.
Since the documentary, Apu is no longer being voiced by the original voice actor. Neither are other characters of color (COC) on the show. Audiences have more power than ever. Whether they represent the majority of Americans or just the loudest, they influence what is acceptable to talk about, or more importantly, joke about.
‘Cancel Culture’ is a blanket term and does not acknowledge the nuance of each situation. Apu did not commit any crimes similar to Bill Cosby as far as anyone knows, but there is merit to Kondabolu’s documentary. That being said, the issues with The Simpsons aren’t because they are now “woke,” but rather because the show is simply not funny. The show’s writers believe the morals they hold dear must also be held by the characters.
This goes against the very fiber of The Simpsons. Contrary to popular belief, it was not morally acceptable to strangle your son in 1989. Nowadays, irony is dead, and the once-dysfunctional family understood to be the laughing stock of Springfield is now meant to be our moral compass.
Take an episode from this latest season for example. In “Pretty Whittle Liar,” Lisa is faced with the difficult decision of whether she should hide her intelligence to spare herself from school bullies or flaunt it at the cost of her pride and safety. That’s a fine premise, but the show’s current iteration doesn’t understand that while Lisa is technically smart, she’s also an annoying know-it-all. When Lisa corrects a minor grammar mistake from Principal Skinner in front of the entire school, her inept ability to act in social situations is not played for laughs, but instead as a triumphant moment of bravery.
The characters are no longer the butt of the joke, but rather tools to shed light on current hypocrisy and injustice. This marks a shift in The Simpsons and comedy culture.
From Archie Bunker to Homer Simpson, it was understood that a character could be wrong but funny. In fact, funny because they were wrong. The character’s hypocrisies mirrored the country’s and, although ignorant or stubborn, were still loved by fans because of a good heart and love for family. This country isn’t perfect, so why should the characters be?
The audience is smart enough to see when a character is acting foolish or cruel. When the jokes become only spouting politically correct sentiments, however, the jokes become preachy. The Simpsons came from making fun of everyone, including Marge and Lisa, to being written by Marge and Lisa, ensuring nothing will offend.
This extends beyond The Simpsons. Punching down is a phrase commonly used to describe offensive jokes towards those in a vulnerable position. Dave Chappelle has been in hot water for his last special after “punching down” with jokes about the trans community. While boycotting jokes which “punch down” may seem to come from a kind place, it’s actually patronizing to the very same groups it tries to defend. It deems the target of the gag as lesser than the teller and removes their agency to take a joke.
The worst part is the number of audience members advocating for this to continue. When the audience is against ‘punching down,’ it continues the trend of unfunny, self-affirming comedy.
When jokes can be made about everybody, then everyone is equal. The Simpsons is scared. They’ve taken down episodes with Michael Jackson, removed voice actors, and made sure Lisa and Marge are not the butt of the joke. They don’t want to get in trouble anymore. This does not make Lisa and Marge equal. We love Homer and Bart not despite their shortcomings but because of them. It makes them human, relatable, and funny. If you want to be truly equal, don’t focus on making Lisa right, focus on making her funny.
The Simpsons is a comedy institution. Since 1989, no matter what happened in the world, The Simpsons has been there. It has grown and changed as American culture has, not only with pop culture references but with attitudes and points of view. The current state of comedy culture can be overwhelming and for a clearer view it may help to step back and look to the iconic town of Springfield.
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