How The Simpsons became extremely online
While the quality of later seasons is regularly accused of sliding downhill, iconic moments from early episodes of 'The Simpsons' have found a new, nostalgic lease of life on the internet.
One of 2019’s most ubiquitous internet jokes is not new. In fact it’s around 23 years old. It’s a clip from “22 short films about Springfield”, an episode from the seventh season of The Simpsons that was first shown all the way back in 1996. You know the one, it’s when Principal Skinner accidentally ruins the meal he’s cooked for Superintendent Chalmers and has to bluff his way through the dinner instead, talking about “steamed hams”. You’ve probably seen it at some point this year, because it’s one of the most well-loved memes featured in a wave of new millennial and gen Z Facebook groups and Twitter accounts dedicated to the decidedly solely to 80s/90s, gen X era of the show.
One of the most thriving examples of The Simpsons’s online re-emergence is Ireland Simpsons Fans. Since its inception in 2016 the account has gained over 50,000 Twitter followers and become a community on Facebook, where it has over 100,000 members. The premise is simple enough: the group takes iconic screenshots from The Simpsons, exclusively from the first few series of the show, and uses them to shine light -- or throw shade -- on whatever political issue everyone on social media is currently bitterly fighting about.
Jack Leahy, one of ISF’s 14 admins and original creators, tells me that it lives and dies by the absurdity of our current politics. “It started off as political satire during the 2016 election, but after Trump was elected and that died down it became quite unpopular." Brexit has added a new dimension to it entirely. “One of the things The Simpsons did really well was slapstick characters in positions of power and influence (police, clergy, doctors, lawyers, parents). I think that’s given people a simplified language in which to undermine influential people and to satirise them.”
Ireland Simpsons Fans might stand out in its popularity, but it’s not the first forum to use The Simpsons to lampoon pop culture or to comment on modern life. It seems that every three months there are a deluge of news articles and think pieces on how the show predicted some or other aspect of our current political era, whether that’s a Trump presidency, the popularity of Fortnite or Disney’s buyout of FOX. Clearly, 30 years after it first aired, Simpsons-iconography is still immensely popular. Instagram accounts like @scenic_simpsons celebrate the show’s artful frames, while iconic images of the show’s dayglo yellow characters even appeared as the stars of Virgil Abloh’s spring/summer 19 Off-White collection. “I find it hard to imagine a point that you couldn’t make using a Simpsons scene,” Jack says, explaining the show’s enduring cultural clout. “They dealt with everything, made every joke, and undermined every authority.”
“The Simpsons is a universal TV show; everyone understands something about the show even if they’re not fanatics,” he continues. “The humour has such a timeless relevance and it’s so easy to remember and rehash nuggets of jokes without having to situate them within the overall narrative context of the episode.”
If nostalgia and the universal relevance of The Simpsons for millennials and gen Z teens who grew up watching it explains one facet of ISF’s success, then the increasing ‘wackiness’ of current events explains another. More and more, memes have become a dominant mode of discourse for explaining and digesting the absurdity of global politics. Some critics have even called it a resurgence of the dadaism movement -- literally, the world is so ridiculous that now we can only respond to it with more ridiculousness. When President Donald Trump is serving Big Macs on silver platters in the White House, sitting down to digest the events of the day through the medium of Simpsons memes doesn’t seem that weird by comparison.
But it’s not just the political commentary from early seasons of the show that’s experiencing love on the TL. Following on from the artful lead of @scenic_simpsons, the Twitter account @simpsonsfilms celebrates the cartoon’s most inventive scenes and cinematic moments. “Even three decades on, it’s barely aged,” says the creator of the account, which has almost 110,000 followers. “I think that comes down to a number of things -- mainly because it’s just so funny and well-written, but it’s also got such re-watchability to it. You can discover a new joke or piece of animation with each viewing.”
It’s interesting though, that young audiences aren’t embracing the show itself, just its early seasons. It’s pretty much accepted that everything past 2007, when creator Matt Groening released an ill-advised feature length Simpsons movie, is evidence of the show going downhill. New audiences find that the show’s writing and its attempts to keep up with a cultural landscape that’s completely unrecognisable from that of its premiere in 1989, are increasingly hackneyed and unfunny. And recent controversies, like the re-evaluation of the character of Apu and the show’s lacklustre response to the racial insensitivity he conveys, haven’t helped its reputation among gen Z. On the internet, though, it’s easy to curate through screencaps, reaction gifs and memes. Much like every series of Riverdale apart from its first one, fans can simply pretend the show’s later airings simply never existed. While its on-air popularity has waned, The Simpsons’ more tongue-in-cheek, politically-aware and self-effacing earlier work has never been more in demand.
Or perhaps the warm fuzzy nostalgia we draw from The Simpsons is where we find refuge in an online world that’s increasingly divisive, loud and stressful. If we can find empathy in a cartoon reaction gif, maybe that proves that things are never truly that bad. It’s like the admin of Ireland Simpsons Fans says: “There's enough hate on the internet.”