The Simpsons: the greatest comedy of the Nineties (and not beyond)

The Simpsons' TV show started out on a wing and a prayer. But now the wing was on fire, and the prayer had been answered by Satan.

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The Simpsons begins and ends in the Nineties. As all die-hard fans know, it started airing just as the year 1990 began. It finished airing in 1999.

At this point it was replaced by a cunning doppelgänger. The fansite Dead Homer Society argues that the quality of The Simpsons drops so dramatically after around season ten, that it becomes a different show.

Zombie Simpsons is a show on the FOX Network that’s been airing on Sundays at 8pm since roughly the year 2000,” they explain. “Like most half-hour comedy shows, it has its ups and downs, but it’s usually blandly forgettable… The only thing that makes Zombie Simpsons exceptional is its illustrious predecessor, The Simpsons.” 

So when I was asked by my editor to write about the best sitcom of the Nineties, I knew it had to be The Simpsons. Often described as the greatest sitcom of all time, its Nineties episodes are far and away its best, with their blend of satire, mischievousness, warmth, pathos, and joyful, ridiculous silliness.

The best comedies aren’t simply funny. Stories rarely stick with us for making us laugh alone. The greatest comedies in television history endure because they are tinged with sadness, and tell us something real about the human experience.

When The Simpsons started, yes, it was a satirical and cartoonish look at American family life, but the Simpsons themselves felt like a real family, with real, sad problems. In the first season alone, Homer almost attempts suicide, the family go into counselling, Marge almost cheats on Homer, and Lisa experiences depression.

In this last episode, “Moaning Lisa”, the writers explore how it’s inauthentic and unproductive to pretend that life is all laughter and no tears. Marge attempts to support her sad daughter. “Take all your bad feelings and push them down, all the way down, past your knees, until you're almost walking on them,” she insists. “Happiness will follow.” But minutes later, after watching Lisa fake a smile through frustrating interactions, she’s changed her mind. “If you want to be sad, honey, be sad. We'll ride it out with you. And when you get finished feeling sad, we'll still be there.”

The first two seasons might be considered too excessively sentimental for die-hard Simpsons fans, made at a point when the writers were yet to tap into the true comedy potential of the show. But for me, many of the most memorable moments of The Simpsons are emotional ones. Homer, convinced he has hours left to live, spending his final moments with his family. Mr Bergstrom handing Lisa a note that reads, “You Are Lisa Simpson”. Homer sat on the trunk of his car after he says goodbye to his mother, staring up at the night’s sky. Bart and Lisa skating on the ice hockey pitch arm in arm. Homer’s collection of pictures of Maggie framing the reminder, “Do It For Her”.

These clips and screenshots have reached an iconic status today. The Simpsons still holds a huge amount of cultural relevance. It's fertile ground for generating memes, its quote accounts continue to grow in popularity, and screencap site Frinkiac made headlines when it emerged online last year. But the episodes with the most contemporary appeal remain restricted to those that first aired in the Nineties.

Even at the time, the show itself seemed hyper-aware of its shelf life, exploring the problem in a series of meta episodes now hailed as classics. In 1997, Season 8’s “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” aired which, as Sean O’Neal at the AV Club notes, showed the creators were feeling the impact of a hyper-attentive audience. “By 1997, The Simpsons wasn’t just facing criticism from professional critic types who were waiting impatiently, like Kent Brockman says here, ‘for cracks to appear in the show’s hilarious façade,’” he explains. “It was also in the early stages of its tense alliance with the internet – primarily through the dedicated denizens of the alt.tv.simpsons newsgroup, whose users had already spent most of the show’s run pointing out errors in consistency and offering hyperbolic, knee-jerk raves or pans.”

The episode sees the makers of The Itchy & Scratchy Show panic about how it can stay relevant, and create a new character voiced by Homer: Poochie, the rockin’ dog! It’s terrible (and yet also, obviously, amazing). “Last night's Itchy & Scratchy was, without a doubt, the worst episode ever,” Comic Book Guy announces. “Rest assured, I was on the internet within minutes, registering my disgust throughout the world.” When Bart asks him why he feels like he has the right to do that, Comic Book Guy insists, “As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe me.”

Bart: What? They've given you thousands of hours of entertainment for free! What could they possibly owe you? If anything, you owe them!

Comic Book Guy: ...Worst. Episode. Ever.

At the end of the episode, when classic Itchy & Scratchy has been reinstated, Lisa says blankly: “We should thank our lucky stars that they're still putting on a programme of this calibre after so many years.” A beat passes, and Bart asks: “What else is on?” When Lisa changes the channel, the screen goes static.

But the end was not yet nigh. One episode, "Behind the Laughter", stands out as a strange, faux-behind the scenes documentary about the making of The Simpsons, featuring Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa as talking heads, discussing the strains of being in such a long-running, high-profile show. “The funniest stuff came right out of real life,” Bart says, as we cut to flashbacks of Homer strangling him. But after drug problems, ego issues and skyrocketing debts, a different picture emerges.

“With the family in disarray,” a voice over narrates, “episodes increasingly resorted...to gimmicky premises and nonsensical plots”. We cut to fan-hated Simpsons episode, “The Principal and The Pauper”. “Trendy guest stars were shamelessly trotted out to grab ratings. Fans reacted to these... slapdash episodes with yawns. The dream was over. The Simpsons’ TV show started out on a wing and a prayer. But now the wing was on fire, and the prayer had been answered by Satan.

This episode aired in 2000, dangling over the precipice where dedicated fans think Simpsons become Zombie Simpsons. The show predicted its own point of no return. The Nineties Simpsons dream was ending.

This is part of the New Statesman's look back at classic comedy. You can find some of our previous pieces on Drop the Dead Donkey here, Ab Fab here, Father Ted here and Frasier here.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.