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Cartoon Crystal Ball: How “The Simpsons” Predicts the Future

by Simon Apter

No offense to CNN or MSNBC, or even to SNL, The Daily Show, or Colbert. But my place for politics, as it has been since 1989, is Fox; Springfield, U.S.A.; and, of course, The Simpsons. Because I’ve seen this presidential campaign before, this exercise in quarter-truths, strawmen, and ad hominem attacks. And if you’ve watched any of the episodes in which Homer, Burns, et al. have gotten involved with politics, then you have too.

We’re living in a quintessential laugh-or-cry moment, a time that in its extremism and straight-up ridiculousness resembles the over-the-top satire that The Simpsons utilized to mock the American zeitgeist of the ’90s. Now, I’m not talking about the scathing social commentary that the show continues to make hay with in the 21st century’s second decade. What’s truly mind-blowing to me is how astoundingly accurate the show’s over-the-top spoofs of ’90s politics and culture have become. That is, real life in the ’10s is reprising Springfield life in the ’90s.

Take one of the show’s early foray into politics, “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish,” written by Sam Simon and John Swartzwelder. The show aired on November 1, 1990, just before Election Day. Mr. Burns runs for governor as a Republican candidate, only to be done in on the eve of election night during, naturally, a publicity stunt/media circus. In an effort to appeal to the common man, Burns ostentatiously eats dinner with the Simpsons, who’ve been primed by handlers and fed questions by party hacks. Example: Mr. Burns, your campaign seems to have the momentum of a runaway freight train. Why are you so popular?

Burns’s campaign comes to an ignominious end when Marge serves for dinner the three-eyed fish whose ocular mutation had been caused by pollutants from Burns’s nuclear plant. It’s all captured on TV.

But the most interesting part of the “coverage” of the event is the emphasis given to the visual of Burns’s spitting the fish out of his mouth in disgust. The “camera” slowly traces the ark of the rejected fish, watching it peak, soar, and ultimately plop onto the floor. And there you have it. The small piece of regurgitated fish, and not the candidate’s business practices that led to the disfigured fish, is what’s deemed important. The blatant pandering of the dinner-with-the-common-family event is now ignored, its idiocy replaced by proxy with the piece of fish.

I thought of this episode and its relationship to politics in ’04, immediately after hearing Howard Dean’s infamous Scream after the Iowa Caucus in 2004. Say what you want about his campaign, it was torpedoed by the Scream, which essentially became the metonym for the entire failed bid. In Dean’s cry was Burns’s fish with its sleeves rolled up, neck bulging, showing the wrong enthusiasm at the wrong time.

The Simpsons of course also featured the greatest campaign ad of all time, for Sideshow Bob in his mayoral candidacy against Mayor Quimby. “Sideshow Bob Roberts,” written by Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, aired on October 9, 1994. The ad, which accuses Quimby of operating “revolving door prisons,” intones, “Mayor Quimby even released Sideshow Bob—a man twice convicted of attempted murder. Can you trust a man like Mayor Quimby? Vote Sideshow Bob for mayor.” The last sentence, of course, is ridiculously rushed, lest the naive viewer realize that the man twice convicted of attempted murder is actually the subject of the ad.

Like the three-eyed fish example, the play here is with the naivete that Bob’s handlers assume is native to voters. Surely, if you say “Vote Sideshow Bob for Mayor” quickly enough, people won’t notice that he’s a murderer. Surely, if the contemporary candidate wears the flag lapel pin, we can overlook his lukewarm commitment to upholding the Bill of Rights. Surely, if Mitt Romney throws in a few “y’alls” in Dixie, people will realize he’s actually a Bubba who’s only wearing a Northern square suit.

“Sideshow Bob Roberts” also features The Simpsons’s most prescient and most frightening political pronouncement. After he’s convicted of a “masterpiece of electoral fraud,” he warns the gallery:

Because you need me, Springfield. Your guilty conscience may force you to vote Democratic, but deep down inside you secretly long for a cold-hearted Republican to lower taxes, brutalize criminals, and rule you like a king. That’s why I did this: to protect you from yourselves.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a city to run.

Of course, under similar pretenses, Newt Gingrich et al. were swept into Congress less than a month later in the epochal ’94 midterms.

This is the current GOP platform, this mandate to rule Americans like a king and to somehow protect us—especially women—from ourselves. And it was divined by a group of comedy writers almost twenty years ago. So I couldn’t watch the RNC in Tampa last month; I just didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

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