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.
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