If you draw some vertical lines on a blackboard and ask a group of kids who it is, of course they won’t know. But add a horizontal zigzag line at the top and someone will swiftly pipe up “Bart Simpson!”
I know because I’ve done this many times in cartoon workshops at schools. Like all successful cartoon characters, Bart has a very recognisable silhouette—as has Mickey Mouse, the Pink Panther and of course the rest of the Simpsons family.
In this sense cartoon characters work like logos—instantly recognisable in a non-verbal way, just like the Nike tick or McDonald’s arches.
But in a deeper sense cartoons are more like “anti-logos”, because a successful cartoon should be subversive, provoking questions rather than acceptance of the world as it is.
This takes us to the contradiction at the heart of satire, one that helps make it so enjoyable and effective: satire is both of the mainstream and against it. And ever since it began in 1989, The Simpsons has been a prime example of this contradiction.
It pokes fun at the rich and powerful, it undermines faith in authority and the status quo—and yet makes shedloads of cash for its owner Rupert Murdoch. On one level this is a classic case of biting the hand that feeds.
But, of course, on another it is a relationship of mutual interest. The Simpsons was the first big hit for Murdoch’s Fox Broadcasting Company. And its creator Matt Groening has not gone unrewarded.
Nevertheless the subversive nature of the Simpsons is never far from the surface. Conservatives have denounced it as anti-family on numerous
occasions—and still do to this day.
In 1992 the first President Bush infamously declared that American families should be “closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons”. But in truth it’s a lot easier to identify with Bart—“underachiever and proud of it!”—than the squeaky clean Waltons.
The key to the Simpsons’ great originality and endurance lies in its origins in US “slacker” subculture. One of Groening’s earliest creations was the comic strip “Life in Hell” about his experiences of living in Los Angeles.
It is a wonderful piece of youthful rebellion, attacking authority, school, work and even love. In Groening’s own words, it was “every baby boomer idealist’s conception of what adult existence in the 1980s had turned out to be”.
The other powerful aspect of satire is that it can tackle thorny issues in a way that drama or documentary would never be able to do.
The Simpsons and the many shows it has inspired—South Park, Family Guy, American Dad—can take up topics like racism, homophobia, or war. They can go straight to the heart of the matter—and make you laugh.
George Orwell once said that every joke is a tiny revolution. I suppose we’d have to add that some jokes are counter-revolutions. But nevertheless, the very act of laughing at the rich and powerful makes them less daunting and certainly less plausible.
Mr Burns in the Simpsons is everyone’s boss and is awful. But in the context of this satire, he’s also pathetic and weak. We can openly laugh at our bosses—providing it’s on telly.
It has been said that the Simpsons has lost its edge recently. This may well be true—it’s hard to maintain the intensity of its early days, especially when the author clearly is not living the same life as when he started out.
But I think the Simpsons has still got it. Choosing Julian Assange to appear in the 500th episode is a clever and provocative move, given the extraordinary hatred the US establishment holds for Assange. The Simpsons are still irritating the powers that be—and long may it continue to do so.
Episode 500 of The Simpsons airs in the US on 19 February and in Britain later this year