The Simpsons 500th Episode: At Long Last, Mr. Groening

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Cheers, all you Hannah readers! You cats also know I love my animation and I was thrilled to see nestled snuggly in my HuluPlus queue The Simpsons 500th episode: At Long Last Leave, S23E14. Five-hundred episodes, in this flighty and fickle culture? Mitt ’em, kids! What a feat!

There’s a simple reason The Simpsons has surpassed just about every comedic expectation and mile marker unwittingly set during its twenty-three seasons. To date, it’s a triple threat as the longest-running cartoon, sitcom and scripted prime-time production in American television history. Creator Matt Groening clearly achieved his “vague idea of invading pop culture” when he set about inventing a jaundiced version of his real-life nuclear plant father in the fairy tale burg of Springfield, U.S.A.. Only Groening and the writers know the true secret of the show; but I, purely as a fan, have my own theory. What a shock, Hannah has a theory. Well, here it is, babies … it’s timing!

The animation wunderkind-cum-wunderkonig remains relevant and relative after decades of the pop culture pendulum swinging this way and that, actor/producer negotiations, competing animation and the never ending need for a new couch gag. Still, the show sallies forth gallantly not merely because of an endless string of puns, zingers, quips, gambols, japes and jibes but because of the flawless delivery of said-craft. Comedy isn’t just the writing.

Writing is a talent, performing comedy is a talent: few posses both. True comedy is about relativity and what must appear to be an effortless gift. Woody Allen, Tina Fey, Steve Martin, Conan O’Brien, Ricky Gervais and Jerry Seinfeld can deliver their own jokes, without equal. The delivery has to be lightning-quick like a snap of Indy’s bullwhip: no stutters, no stammers, no pauses and no hesitation.

Check comedy through the ages. I’m sure there was a dingy Neanderthal, or an Australopithecus who knew naturally what to do with the termite stick to bring the rest of the clan to a howling good time. To that end, give Will Arnett a termite stick and just wait for the yuks! The Greeks were funny, I’m pretty sure; but, I don’t know about the Egyptians. They seem like a tough crowd, even today.  Shakespeare’s comedic lines were ribald and blue and they were handed over lickety-split to the rowdy audiences without a break or a beat, lest they received a rotten tomato upside the backside of their pumpkin pants. In my day, Vaudeville was king and, similar to an Elizabethan crowd, those rowdies were neither forgiving nor patient. They wanted a hard pratfall, a smart jive or, if the jokes were bad and music off-key, boobies. In the 1920s and ’30s the likes of  Red Skelton, Laurel and Hardy, Joe Marks, The Three Stooges and Groucho Marx delivered it all, minus the boobies, on a silver platter … tripping à la Dick Van Dyke over the ottoman in the process.

Even in the television age, from its dawn to the present, take a gander at your finest examples; the older ones still resonate and the contemporaries have all the hallmarks that will carry them through to comedy eternity: I Love Lucy, M*A*S*H*, All in the Family, Cheers, Seinfeld, Family Guy, American Dad, Frasier, Arrested Development, 30 Rock … all deliver a joke about every ten seconds, all without missing a beat. Quality and successful comedy is not only knowing your audience, but hitting a high note about every other line. Like a game of Whack-a-Mole, just keep up the pace. Nobody cracks a one-liner out of the park like Homer, Lucy, Hawkeye, Archie, Woody, Jerry, Stewie, Roger, Niles, Gob or Liz.

San Diego Comic-Con 2010, The Simpsons panel: Mike Anderson, Matt Selman, Al Jean, Matt Groening  photo: Ewen & Donabel

The Simpsons has it all, in spades: preternatural writing, talent and timing. The writers and artists clearly have a comfort level with and amongst each other that has gelled into a sublime and facile pulchritude over the years, like Raquel Welch or the narrative fiction of Steve Martin. The Simpsons‘ writing is pithy, witty, sharp, topical, blessedly geek-oriented and simply superb; but it’s the easy flow that elicits the elusive belly laugh. Whilst flipping through comic book boxes at The Android’s Dungeon or attending one of Professor Frink’s symposia, the jokes bring a time signature of hoots and guffaws in perfect 2/4 tempo and snappy, unrelenting duple quavers of hilarity.

Even in the much-hyped 500th episode, that laugh quotient shines through, although more like beats of intermittent sunlight on an overcast beach day, rather than the blazing summer sun we’d greased ourselves up for so eagerly. Yes, the 500th episode was good if not excellent; and the Julian Assange tease left many wanting, like a busty and bodacious burlesque stripper with her damned, huge, feather fans. To the end, similar to a first car or grade-school puppy love, we shall always feel a warm fondness for Lisa, Homer, Bart, Marge, Maggie, Comic Book Guy and the rest of the Springfield citizenry. They don’t have to be knee-slapping funny every time we meet and we’re okay with that.

Think about the zaniest egg you know. Do they work at it, or do the one-liners just lurch up at regular intervals, like waves on the beach or heart palpitations at a 1912 Coney Island Bathing Beauty Brigade? Do they “tell jokes”, or are their organic responses to the environment of everyday conversation quick and brutal snaps, like a frog on a fly? For my money, it’s that precious timing and the no sweat, at least to us, delivery. Was there a caveman Afarensis named Bill with a termite stick and, if so, was he funny? Probably. There had to be one. Comedy didn’t actually start with The Simpsons … it just feels that way.

Hey! Puns are lazy writing, jerk!     -Krusty the Clown


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