In Which I Discuss Pop Culture References and The Simpsons

Like a lot of people, I’m a fan of The Simpsons. Actually, “fan” isn’t quite the right term. Aficionado, maybe. Or devotee. Or maybe I’m a crazed, drooling Simpsons addict. Any of those would work.

And, like many crazed, drooling Simpsons addicts are prone to do, I haven’t watched the show in years.

Intrigued? I know I am. Let’s continue on, shall we?

Alas, I no longer turn my TV to FOX every Sunday night at eight. And the reason is simple- The Simpsons is terrible. Awful. Unfunny and sad (alcoholic clown-sad, not Bambi’s mom-sad).

It wasn’t always this way, of course- back in the early to mid nineties, The Simpsons was the smartest, fastest, funniest show on television, and a monstrously huge pop culture phenomenon to boot. Nowadays it’s a shell of its former self.

But that’s neither here nor there, because what I’m here to talk about is how The Simpsons makes reference to pop culture. Referencing popular TV shows and movies has long been a hallmark of The Simpsons’ signature style of humor, but what I’ve noticed recently is a marked change in how The Simpsons uses these references.

Allow me to demonstrate.

Last Exit To Springfield, where Homer becomes the head of a labor union (this is considered in most circles to be one of the all-time greatest episodes of The Simpsons ever made- USA Today, Entertainment Weekly and BBC News all list it as the number one episode in the show’s run) is an episode chock full of pop culture references. Take, for example, the scene where Mr. Burns abducts Homer and brings him to the aviary in his unbelievably lush mansion. The very first shot we see in the aviary is this:

And then the bird flies off as Burns attempts to negotiate with Homer about various union wheelings and dealings.

Or take Homer’s fantasy about using his newfound position as head of the union to dabble in organized crime- he imagines himself strolling down the streets of some little Italian village, accepting offerings of donut-y goodness from humble villagers. The fantasy looks a little something like this:

Now to the average viewer, these moments just come off as normal jokes. Burns has created a bird that looks exactly like him, and that’s the joke. Mafia Homer would obviously accept payment in donuts (plus, his soft mutterings of “grazie” and “molto bene” always elicit a chuckle out of me) and that’s the joke. Neither of them are extraordinarily funny, but there’s an obvious bit of humor behind each gag.

Those with a keener eye for film, however, get what’s really going on. That image of the Burns-headed bird?

Taken right from Citizen Kane. The same goes for Don Homer…

…who dresses and acts exactly like Don Fanucci from The Godfather, Part II.

Now let’s look at something from a recent Simpsons episode- The Book Job. We open with the Simpson family attending a newfangled animatronic dinosaur show- Sitting with Dinosaurs.

You know, like Walking with Dinosaurs (or, more specifically, the live Walking with Dinosaurs arena show that toured the US a few years ago). Only this one has a different name!

That’s the joke.

Then later, once we actually get inside the stage show, Homer and Lisa run past three dinosaurs lighting up some cigarettes:

Which is an image from Gary Larson’s The Far Side.

It’s a little more clever than Sitting with Dinosaurs was, but both of these references are just that- references. There’s no real attempt to do anything creative with them or alter them in any way, and they stick out like a sore thumb in the context of the episode.

Because here’s the thing- references aren’t funny. They can be funny, if used in a funny, clever way, but an obvious, straightforward reference isn’t actually a joke in and of itself.

Parks & Recreation.

See? Me saying that wasn’t a joke. Now, if I had really derided the idea of poorly-used pop-culture references to the point where I was almost foaming at the mouth, then made some underhanded remark about them being almost as bad as Jerry Gergich (from Parks & Rec), then that would be more of a joke. Not exactly a genius joke, mind you, but I’m taking something pop culture related and attempting to spin it some way to make it funny.

With those two examples from The Book Job, there’s no spin. There’s barely any change at all between the source material and what we see on the show. The whole thing reeks of a lack of effort and a lack of creativity.

And there’s one more thing- your average schmuck who sees that Burns-bird will think “hey, that bird kinda looks like Mr. Burns,” for maybe a second or two, and then the episode moves to new territory and the viewer moves with it. It doesn’t work that way with the Far Side gag- we’re in the middle of a chase sequence and everything stops so we can take a really close look at these smoking dinosaurs.

Plus, if you actually think about what’s happening in the Simpsons version, it makes no sense. Sitting with Dinosaurs is an animatronic show, so why are there any guys in suits at all? And why are they smoking out of the dinosaurs’ mouths? No one would actually be able to inhale cigarette smoke from the mouth of a costume that’s several feet above your own head and may or may not actually have a hole to breathe the smoke into.

These are some seriously small nitpicks, but they serve a purpose- this Far Side gag isn’t in the episode to serve the story, or even to be particularly clever. Someone clearly just said, “Hey, let’s put those Far Side dinosaurs in here,” and then inserted them in without any sense of plausibility or humor.

Now if you’ve never read The Far Side, then you’ll never get the reference anyway and those few seconds when the dinosaurs are onscreen suddenly become dead air. It’s a gag that requires previous knowledge of something to be funny, and there’s absolutely no way to realistically guarantee that every single member of the audience will have that previous knowledge.

But if you haven’t seen The Godfather Part II, that Don Fanucci reference won’t lose you because the whole gag doesn’t hinge on one particular piece of pop culture.

What I’m trying to say is that a pop culture reference needs care. It needs to be well-thought out. A great reference should give you a warm feeling of satisfaction because you can understand or identify something that not everyone else can. It should feel like a reward.

I mean, it should be funny, too. But that’s kinda besides the point.

All images are the property of their respective owners (aka not me) and are low-quality reproductions used solely to entertain and inform, with absolutely no commercial benefit going to yours truly, thus falling under Fair Use. 

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51 responses to “In Which I Discuss Pop Culture References and The Simpsons

  1. I’ve been trying to figure out why I lost interest in The Simpsons but I’ve never been able to explain it. Now I know. Thank you.

    You really do need to read, watch, and listen to just about everything to really get the jokes on the show anymore. It’s too complicated and that really does take away most chances of it being funny.

    Excellent post.

      • You are absolutely right about The Simpsons. They’re a load of crap these days!! It was by far one of my favorite shows back in the 90s, and then all of a sudden once season 10 rose around KABOOM! Goes even further downhill from there. I’m even surprised that they’re still around after years of criticisms by long time fans. They should take it off air as they’re simply destroying a pop culture icon!

        I would, however, like to check out this best Simpsons episode you were talking about by USA Today: Last Exit to Springfield. Was it an episode from one of the recent seasons? Because if so I’ll be ‘LOL’ing all night along!

  2. Agree with pretty much everything you say here. I too am a huge Simpson’s fan, of what the Simpsons USED to be. I remember watching the very first episode with my Dad when it aired (at 4 years old) and watched up until Bart joined the Boy band, that was the jump the shark moment for me as a kid.

    I have the first 10 seasons on DVD and have watched the commentary for all the episodes (possible more then once) and the commentary while often inane is sometimes as funny as the episode itself. When the writers are doing it, they will often expound further upon the jokes and it comes across how much they really cared about developing these references so they weren’t just random flashes like the Gary Larson moment you wrote about.

    Having watched the show from such a young age there were several times throughout my life that I would watch a classic movie or an episode of a TV show where a reference had been made on the Simpsons and a whole new layer of the jokes opened up to me as an adult that hadn’t been there as a kid.

    • As someone who also grew up with The Simpsons, I really feel like most of my knowledge of culture and politics started with seeing things referenced on The Simpsons. I’ve also heard that the commentary tracks on the newer episodes are a nightmare- long stretches of silence and the writers and producers chatting about subjects totally unrelated to the actual episode.

  3. I agree with you on the Simpsons. IMO, there are a few shows in the past years that pull off a funny or just an effective Pop Culture reference. One is the other adult animated show, Family Guy. They take those references and plug in one of their characters in them to change the outcome we’re familiar with. Sometimes they will combine pop culture references like characters in the Breakfast Club and icons of our favorite breakfast cereals. It’s funny because of disassociation; they shouldn’t go together, but FG makes it funny by putting them together because of one similar word. That’s a reward, as you say.
    Another one of my all time favorite shows was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. One of the earliest examples of Joss’s use of PCR: “Buffy: “I can’t believe you, of all people, are trying to Scully me!” Anyone at that time and now would know who Scully was. Buffy uses the word as a verb. They used many nouns as verbs on Buffy. But as with FG, you are rewarded for knowing the reference.
    As for the Simpsons, I haven’t watched the show in years. I remember the first shorts on the Tracey Ulman show. Sometimes I think FOX just keeps it on just so they can keep the record of longest running animated show on TV.

    • There are definitely a few shows that can pull off a great pop culture gag- honestly, I’d say that a lot of those shows were probably influenced in some way by The Simpsons. On a lot of the sitcoms that came before it back in the 80′s (and even before that) pop culture jokes just weren’t as commonplace.

      And I sometimes wonder how long Fox will keep running The Simpsons- 600 episodes? 700? who knows.

  4. This is exactly the reason why I loathe those Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg movies (Epic Movie, Date Movie, Scary Movie). They just randomly drop in pop culture references, with no real reason or humor. I remember a scene in Epic Movie, where the fawn from Narnia brings them to his home, and this starts an MTV Cribs sequence. The thing is, it goes on seemingly forever. It is not funny at all. It just comes out of nowhere, and keeps on going, minute after minute of awkward unfunniness. They’ll say it falls under parody, but really it’s just a cheap grab at humor.

    I like your comparisons of the two Simpsons episodes a lot, because it contrasts the two different styles of dropping PCR really well. Good work!

    • Oh wow. On the one hand, that’s a great comparison to the Seltzer and Friedberg movies, but now my brain’s upset because I had to think about the Seltzer and Friedberg movies. Ugh.

      Apparently they have a new 3D film coming out this year. Hopefully the Mayan calendar will destroy civilization before then.

      • You really only need to destroy them. You know, what really disappoints me isn’t the movies they make: it’s the fact that people keep watching the movies that they make, and thus pay for their salaries and the incentive to allow Hollywood studios to fund their next movie.

      • Very true, very true. Or we could just destroy everyone who pays to see those movies. Or, realistically, I could buy a DVD of one of their movies and destroy it with a flamethrower.

        But then I’d be giving money to Seltzer and Friedberg. And then I’d be just as bad as everyone else who saw those movies…

  5. And you have distilled exactly what I dislike so violently about the Simpsons now. I own the first 10 seasons on dvd, and haven’t been able to stomach an episode in at least seven or eight years. And out of everybody I know, I was the person that held out “just in case” it got funny again.

    Also: this is why I don’t like Family Guy. Not only do most of their references require knowledge of the referenced material to be funny at all (or to make any kind of sense), but 90% of the show are referential jokes. Recycled ad nauseum.

      • You sir, are either a masochist or have a higher pain tolerance than I. I also remembered the exact episode, though I had to look it up to figure out what season it was in.

        Season 14, episode 6: “the Great Louse Detective.” That was the last time I turned to Fox at 7 (central) on a Sunday night. After that mess, I never looked back.

        Hm, apparently with that episode they switched to digital inking and paint. Another complaint I have with the show is the new art style. I really miss the messy, but incredibly detailed and stylized art of the first five seasons. The one that always pops in my memory is season 2′s “Three Men and a Comic Book.” I love just looking at that episode.

  6. You’re right about the direction the Simpson’s has taken… it’s lost its verve and turned kind of like pop cultural geek high-fiving.. which is sad. It did used to really be fun to watch. It’s not awful, but it’s not worth going out of your way to see now. Good analysis of why it’s “broken”!

  7. I don’t think the show is terrible now, but compared to the old episodes from the 90s, it is. The shoe can still be good today (The Simpsons Movie, for example), but nothing really compares to those old episodes.

  8. I do agree with the comment by ckckred. I’ve always loved the Simpsons, but the 90′s were when it was the absolute funniest. “I’ve got a rocket in my pocket!” The episode “Blood, Bath & Beyond.” “Nibbles, chew on my ball sack.” and the list goes on…….

    • That’s what I love about The Simpsons- every time I try to think of my favorite quote, I always pick one, and then realize I like another more, and then another, and then another…

  9. Well said. I stopped watching The Simpsons around season 11 or 12, and have only caught random episodes here and there since then. Many have been terrible, but some have been surprisingly decent. They still don’t hold a candle to the old stuff, though.

    I think it would be fun to go through and watch a bunch of the old episodes again just to catch some of these pop culture references. I watched most of them as a kid, so many of the film jokes went over my head. I think that’s a testament to the show’s greatness, in that someone can fall in love with it even while not catching every reference.

    • Absolutely. I’ve seen whole websites devoted just to catching all the little homages in early Simpsons episodes, and it’s so much fun to realize just how many references are crammed in those old episodes.

  10. I think the Simpsons is still good for a laugh every now and then, although I admit I went from watching each new episode religious on air to just catching it when I’m bored and it shows up in a hulu ad. I grew up with the Simpsons and have to agree that what the show is doing now vs. what was done in the past has really taken a turn for the pathetic.

    Early simpsons thrives on intelligent-reference humor which makes since considering it was started by the Harvard comedy club. Now it just feels like the jokes are there to appeal to the slow-witted where references and puns have to be spoon fed to the audience. Then again maybe this is a comment on audiences just as much as the show… It’s something to think about.

    • Even the subject matter of the references feels dumbed down a shade. Besides The Far Side, everything referenced on the new Simpsons episodes is very current and flash in the pan- earlier episodes dug from a much larger well and could make jokes about classic film and television shows as well as current events.

  11. It’s common to see people hate on what The Simpsons is now, but rarely do I actually see people offer legitimate reasons for why the show isn’t as good as it once was, which makes me think it’s mostly nostalgia. You actually provided very good reasons though. I still enjoy the show, but I agree with you. I can’t stand these halfhearted pop culture references. They’re lazy and cringeworthy, and they insult the viewer’s intelligence. I wish the writers would learn subtlety again and stop imitating the geniuses on YouTube.

  12. I do see what you mean. I hope it isn’t the lack of intelligence on my part, but I personally find it easier to relate to the content of The Simpsons now than ever. The humour used to be inclined towards the current affairs and politics (which I have almost no knowledge of because I’m from a continent almost halfway around the globe from the US), and it was difficult to grasp the jokes and the content. US pop culture, on the other hand, is a major source of influence worldwide (or almost, considering some place still lack connectivity and/or have limited knowledge of the language). With The Simpsons borrowing more pop culture references, viewers from outside the US (like me) could connect to the series better. The essence of The Simpsons might have been lost to some ardent fans, but this change in focus does gain them more fans from abroad and from that, a bigger market. The $ churned in would bring us more of the series, which would have been a great loss to many should it be stopped for good. ):
    Your entry is an insightful one, and I’m glad to have set my eyes on it. (:

  13. Like Zee, I also live on the other side of the world from the US, but New Zealand is such a tiny country that the “World” section of our newspapers is larger than the news from our own country. We can choose to be quite well informed about the world. I loved the political references in The Simpsons and enjoyed the fact that here at last were US writers who could laugh at themselves, their country and the rest of the world. It was a joy to watch something that didn’t stop to explain itself. Episodes often included actors from outside the US and they played themselves, often making obscure references to events that were happening in the rest of the world. There were no explanations, watchers either got the references or not … I think I enjoyed the challenge of getting the references more than the humour itself. Which is one of the reasons why I don’t watch it any more.
    Thanks for taking the time to read my blog, because I’ve enjoyed scrolling through some of your posts. It’s a pleasure reading them! Brilliant!

  14. Pingback: Reading Digest: Still Digesting Edition « Dead Homer Society·

  15. Highly interesting subject!
    Congrats again!

    I’ve stopped watching them, but I thought the reason lay on me and on my lack of patience, as well as on my growing allergy towards TV!
    But I’m not going to stop reading you, so… I’ll be right back!

    Um abraço!

    Celeste

  16. Hi there and thanks for signing up for my blog. I have always been intrigued by the hold the Simpsons have on the American audience, and part of it is that the rest of the tv is so cowardly. It seems that only in cartoons can the USA discuss important issues. Which is useful, but also a little sad. So if the Simpsons are not as good, is it the show, or have the issues changed, or maybe the series has just run its natural course?

  17. This was awesome! I relate so many things to the Simpsons sometimes it annoys people! Haha. A lot of the knowledge I have about random stuff comes from this show. I just wish that the newer episodes were half as good as the old one. Anyways, great post! Thanks!

  18. OMG … I couldn’t agree more. I used to be the biggest fan of The Simpsons, and the thousands of dollara I’ve spent on DVD collections and collectibles are testimony to that. There’s was no show on TV (with the possible exception of Seinfeld) that could make me laugh as much as The Simpsons.
    But now it’s just lame. It should have signed off five years ago. The storylines and situations are just ridiculous now, and it’s a shame to see this once awesome show become so, well, lame. I’ll always be a fan, but I stopped watching years ago, just about the time Homer become a hit man, or a rapper, or addicted to Facebook or whatever …

    • What upsets me is that when the show finally goes off the air, the last episode is just going to be another forgettable “new Simpsons” episode. A show that used to be this good shouldn’t have to end that way.

      • … or a lame-o retrospective show in which “celebs” like Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj discuss why they love the Simpsons so much.
        Most depressing is that the show is now nothing more than a cash cow from Fox and Matt Groening … and that’s just plain sad!!!

  19. I have never been a fan of the Simpsons (have had little to no interest in them), but your discussion made me interested in their use of pop culture references. Since I come from more of a literature background (and don’t really watch a whole lot of TV), I would compare your analysis more with the use of literary devices, such as metaphor. I agree that these artistic flourishes need to be used with creativity and care–it’s not enough to just throw them in, otherwise they look cheap and lazy, and reek of someone who has just enough knowledge to look ignorant. Your blog is interesting, even to a non-TV/movie fan! Thanks for the follow!

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