The real first family

If life were a journey -- oh, wait, life is a journey. OK, start over. In the journey that we call life, it would be swell to be able to take two or three steps without tripping over a certain animated show that -- ouch! -- has embedded itself so deeply into popular culture that -- ouch! -- all of us are expected to get every conversational reference its fans throw at us.

You know what I'm talking about: Homer and Marge and their kids and his evil boss and her hostile sisters and the pious next-door neighbor and the four dozen others. Don't you get tired of the assumption that you should know these characters? Aren't you sick of the way so many people use a moment from "The Simpsons" as a metaphor for real life? Isn't it like living in a society that adopted Esperanto without letting you vote? Have we lost so many vestiges of mass culture that a TV show -- a cartoon! -- has to be the glue that holds postmodern society together? And whom should we blame?

Follow me.

Let's go, first, to Wisconsin, to Public Enemy No. 1. His name is Jonathan Suttin, a 34-year-old disc jockey in Madison, a university town, the kind of "Simpsons"-acculturated place where Homer might as well be the dean.

Suttin, who became addicted to the show from the instant it debuted on Fox in 1989, is the kind of guy who has a "Simpsons" anecdote for any situation. Suppose a buddy tells him he's courting a woman who brushes him off -- until he hooks up with another woman. "That reminds me," Suttin will tell his friend, "of the episode when Lisa is trying to explain to Bart that people want what they can't have. So Maggie is in her playpen, and Lisa says to Bart, 'Maggie is playing with her little stuffed animal and not interested in that red ball. But the moment I take the red ball out, Maggie will want it.' Then Lisa holds the ball up, and Bart starts saying, 'Gimme the ball! Gimme the ball!' "

You're supposed to know that Lisa is the gifted second-grader and Bart is the bratty fourth-grader and Maggie is the toddler. You're supposed to know this even if you're not one of the 14 million people who tune in every Sunday night. Look at them, smugly preparing their celebrations for tonight as "The Simpsons" airs its 300th episode, relentlessly marching toward overtaking "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet" as America's longest-running TV comedy. Did anybody's cultural literacy in the '50s depend on knowing what Ricky said to David in Episode 8 from Year 9?

You don't get it, says Charlene Dellinger-Pate, a communications professor at Southern Connecticut State University, who is preparing a class on "The Simpsons" for the fall. She's Public Enemy No. 2 for her belief that moments like the one Suttin described are deep and special: examples of "symbolic relational culture" -- moments when two people's appreciation of a shard of television fuses them in an intimate way. Dellinger-Pate, who was not a "Simpsons" fan until she married one, volunteers a line she continually shares with her husband, from an episode in which Homer befriended a lobster that, by show's end, he cooked and ate.

Experts like Dellinger-Pate contend that no TV show has ever generated as many conversational touchstones (sorry, "Seinfeld"). One thing's for sure: No TV show has ever generated as many excuses for "Simpsons"-loving academics to use the characters as reference points, secure in the belief that most of their students have watched the show since elementary school.

Which brings us to Public Enemy No. 3: Brad Prager, a professor of German studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia, whose colleague walked into his office the other day looking for ideas on how to introduce philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's ideas in a general-ed course. Prager suggested using Bart's persistently bad behavior. The boy and at times Homer "seem to act in accordance with Nietzsche's position that both society's laws and religion's morality are artificial constructs, better suited to earlier, more barbaric stages of human development," Prager explained.

Of course, the prof had an episode in mind: "Homer has a crayon removed from his brain and finds himself suddenly smart enough to be a member of Mensa and proves to Ned Flanders that God doesn't exist, a proclamation similar to the one 'God is dead,' for which Nietzsche was most famous."

Prager's soul mates are everywhere. A group of philosophy professors published a book in 2001 on the show's representations of great thinkers. ("Marge typically follows the Aristotelian recipe for a happy, moral life.") The same year, a newspaper's religion writer published a book on the many ways the show incorporates religion into its withering view of society. Another academic has written a book due this summer about "The Simpsons" as "oppositional culture."

Literary scholars probe Homer as a classic Shakespearean clown in the model of Falstaff in "Henry IV, Part I." Psychologists can show you where Homer practices "impression management." (Homer takes a new job and his boss says: "Having a place like this has always been my dream, Homer. What's your dream?" Homer answers: "Uh, to work for you?")

Even the purity of mathematics has been compromised, most notably by Public Enemy No. 4, Andrew Nestler of Santa Monica College, and Public Enemy No. 5, Sarah Greenwald of Appalachian State University in North Carolina, who for years have been giving presentations on using "The Simpsons" to teach math lessons. They say they have charted more than 100 "mathematical moments" in the show. Greenwald's favorite: When Marge and Homer visit a school for gifted children, they pass two girls playing patty-cake while chanting digits of pi:

Cross my heart and hope to die
Here's the digits that make pi

A national institution

Kimberly Blessing, who co-taught a course on philosophy and religion at Siena Heights University in Michigan that employed "Simpsons" characters, doesn't want to come off as a kids-don't-read-anymore curmudgeon but says it's simply harder these days to find literary references that work when you're teaching an abstract subject like philosophy. "What do we talk about? It is a real challenge in the classroom."

And therein lies the secret to the conspiratorial way "The Simpsons" has burrowed into every crevice of so many people's lives, particularly the young. (Nearly two-thirds of its viewers are 34 or younger.) In a fragmented culture, where term limits mean politicians leave every few years and free agency means sports heroes leave town even more frequently, "The Simpsons" has become one of America's most burnished institutions. Not only is the show still here, the characters are frozen in time.

The show is a kind of a Washington tide pool in which visitors see their most cherished, idiosyncratic values reflected. To a young Argentine film student visiting San Francisco for a few months, "The Simpsons" means kinship: When he walks into a supermarket and sees a 64-slice package of American cheese, he laughs because he's seen an episode in which Homer devours all 64 slices. To an organization of skeptics opposed to pseudo-science, "The Simpsons" is desperately needed validation: When the show does a send-up of "The X-Files," the organization publishes an elaborate review in its magazine as though "Nightline" were on its side. To the traditionalist National Review, "The Simpsons' " ability to litter each episode with history, literature and science is evidence that America's intellectual traditions are safe. To some parent groups, the fact that Marge and Homer love each other (Homer most notably almost died working two jobs in a doomed effort to buy Lisa a pony) makes "The Simpsons" a pro-family anthem. To the politically disaffected, it's the only show in which Bill Clinton and Bob Dole would both turn out to be space aliens.

There are so many reruns -- three an evening in Southern California, from the first 13 seasons -- layered with so many levels of meaning that a teenager can watch the same episode once a year and discover something new every time.

"Simpsons" zealot Rosie Parra of Wilmington, a junior at Hamilton High in West Los Angeles, remembers how one funny moment crystallized when she learned the word "irony." "It's the episode where a toy company takes over the school and Lisa has to write on the blackboard over and over, 'I will not do math in class.' [Normally Bart is the one disciplined at the blackboard.] And Bart is saying, 'The ironing is delicious.' "

Matt Rose, a 25-year-old musician from Wisconsin, says the show's consistent disrespect for authority shaped his sensibilities as a teenager: "They don't trust anybody ... all the politicians are crooked, the cops, the pastor, the entertainers. It's probably gone too far because now I look at everybody that way."

Fortunately, Rose found a young woman, Tammy Hocking, who feels the same way. He found her on a "Simpsons" Web site. She lived in Australia. They chatted online for three years, then she came to the U.S., and they flew to L.A. to successfully plead for a tour of the show's creative facilities. They settled Down Under, married in a ceremony in which the cake had "Simpsons" figurines, and bride and groom danced their first dance to Randy Newman's "I Love to See You Smile," sung by Homer and Marge's voices from "The Simpsons Sing the Blues" CD.

There are hundreds of thousands (almost) like them: The guy in Seattle who took the NCAA's 64-team basketball tournament structure and created a playoff between 64 "Simpsons" characters. The Ohio columnist who argued in 1,500 words of disturbing detail that the Simpsons' hometown of Springfield (no state is ever designated) was modeled after Akron. The actor who tours the country performing "Hamlet" as "MacHomer" in the voices of 50 "Simpsons" characters. ("Is this a dagger which I see before me, or a pizza? Mmmm, pizzaaa.")

It's hard to know how harshly to judge these public enemies, since they can always claim to have been the victims of historical forces. "The Simpsons" caught America at a vulnerable moment. Cable was making television more competitive. The formation of new networks such as Fox made programmers, especially those courting the young, willing to gamble. The fact that an animated series hadn't been in prime time since "The Flintstones," which went off the network during the Johnson administration, made the concept even more novel.

The nation's very sense of humor was changing, entering an era in which wry observation was replacing a tradition of more direct communication. A key moment was David Letterman's shift to late night in 1982, said Robert Thompson, director Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television in New York. Letterman's success spread his style of ironic comedy into the mainstream, preparing the audience for a "Simpsons" worldview.

"Remember, in 1980 the state-of-the-art cop show was 'CHiPs' and the state-of-the-art doctor show was 'Trapper John,' " Thompson said. To have introduced "The Simpsons" in that climate "would have been like hanging up the 'Mona Lisa' in a kindergarten class with all the kids' other paintings."

It helped that the material was brilliant. Thompson, past president of the International Popular Culture Assn., says that "three centuries from now, English professors are going to be regarding Homer Simpson as one of the greatest creations in human storytelling....Like Job, the world keeps delivering blows to him and all he needs is the promise of another doughnut."

Director-producer James L. Brooks ("Broadcast News"), who along with writer-director Sam Simon ("Taxi") and cartoonist Matt Groening created the show, laughs off the idea that anyone could have predicted what happened.

"You'd want to shoot the guy who 'planned' this" because to predict such a level of success was unfathomable, Brooks said. "None of the plans kept on being the game plan. It became its own little beast ... it took its own shape and we were following rather than leading." Talk about the way the show has seeped into pop culture and Brooks shakes you off, determined to avoid any sense of self-importance. He likes the idea of a happy accident: "There's a lot that we can't explain."

Some longtime fans have been complaining for years that the show is going downhill, that it has become too Homercentric, too reliant on his irrational behavior and appearances by celebrities. The show tweaks these fans by occasionally showing a character, Comic Book Guy, getting irked at one of Homer and Bart's favorite cartoon shows, "Itchy and Scratchy," curtly dismissing it as the "worst episode ever."

For every older fan who bails, there seem to be newer ones discovering the show. It's the best-rated regularly scheduled network series among teens (70% of those "Simpsons" viewers are boys) and men 18 to 34, and ranks in the top 20 among total viewers. Last month, Fox signed a two-year deal that will allow "The Simpsons" to pass "Ozzie & Harriet" in its 16th season. The network and the show's creators have profited not only from residuals, but also from scores of marketing deals that flooded us with everything from a Simpsons chess set to a talking-Homer beer-bottle opener. Plaudits cascade: "D'oh" is in the Oxford English Dictionary, and Time magazine has declared the series the best TV show ever. Most improbably, the pretentious James Lipton played host to six of "The Simpsons" actors on the Bravo channel's "Inside the Actors Studio" last week.

The ties that bind

Mark Pinsky, the Florida journalist whose book on the show's myriad religious allusions has sold 100,000 copies, was going to be the final public enemy, but I used to work with Pinsky at The Times, and it turns out he's one of these fans who started out suspicious of the show. Determined to protect his kids from its rude overtones, he sat down to monitor it and became hooked.

What he eventually realized he was watching, Pinsky said, was "a show that makes cynicism and skepticism safe" for masses of Americans who feel betrayed by various institutions and need a way to vent. The Simpsons are trapped in the web of consumerism that traps most middle-class families -- often suckered by it -- yet recognize their plight. What binds them, Pinsky says, is their commitment to being a family. "The viewer can't write them off because they're just like the viewer."

I thought about that, about how much more complex that is than anything else on TV. And then I thought about that special moment from the show that the Connecticut professor, Charlene Dellinger-Pate, told me about, when Homer -- perpetually torn between id and responsibility and unfailingly choosing id -- is eating the lobster, Pinchy, who'd become his friend.

"Homer's crying," Dellinger-Pate said. "He's saying, 'You know who would love this? Pinchy!' So, sometimes when my husband and I are out and we're so happy to be having some private time away from our daughter, one of us will say, 'You know who would love this? Gracie!' "

I laughed, and I thought about a moment from the old "Rocky and Bullwinkle" Saturday-morning cartoon series that my wife and I have been tossing back and forth forever. (In certain moments of celebration, we remember the way a suddenly muscular Dudley Do-Right looked in a mirror and realized, "I'm not puny.") A wave of symbolic-relational-culture compassion washed over me, and I released Dellinger-Pate and the other public enemies from censure, knowing that were I ever to change my mind, I could round them up tonight at 8.

Times researcher Penny Love contributed to this story.

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