The Golden Era Of The Simpsons / Futurama, Season One, Episode One, “Space Pilot 3000”

The funny thing about the Golden Era of The Simpsons is that it pulled off being two things. It’s a thoughtful and sophisticated exploration of our higher spiritual and emotional needs and an entertaining and accessible work of commercial entertainment. It’s a product of American Boomers living in the Nineties that couldn’t have been made by any other people in any other time and it almost entirely transcends space and time to speak to universal issues. It’s an ambitious work that reinvented both television and sitcoms as we know it, exploring every issue and idea it could get its hands on and a tightly disciplined work based on fundamental principles of storytelling and animation going all the way back to the beginning. Its characters are cartoons, real people, and expressions of our fundamental humanity all at once. It was the product of hundreds of people with competing ideas of what the show was and felt like the product of a single mindset. It was heartfelt, cynical, sincere, bitter, thoughtful, sensual, and funny as fuck. It’s incredible that we got this thing at all, let alone that it was so good for so long. I started this series asking why something so distinctly American could appeal to people worldwide, and the answer is actually pretty simple: it takes fundamental aspects of human existence and uses fundamental principles of comedy to create something very funny and very specific.

Perhaps the central idea of The Simpsons – certainly the one I kept coming back to, over and over – is that human beings are and perpetually will be caught between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ drives. We want fame and fortune, but we want to be loved. We want cable TV, but we want self-respect. I don’t just mean that every-day superficial desires get in the way of real fulfillment either – we want to express our ideals, but we want to make friends. We want to be kind and loving, but we want to be better than everyone else. Hell, it even extends to the show’s understanding of pop culture and high and low art! We want to watch Citizen Kane and The Three Stooges. We want Pablo Neruda and we want Truckasaurus. We want to be up with the gods and down in the muck. The Simpsons understands better than anyone outside Martin Scorsese that you can’t just turn off any of your desires because they’re inconvenient, and you can be surrounded by everything you thought you wanted and still not feel like it’s enough. But I think the show also shows us how to live with that truth, not necessarily in the lessons characters learn or the things they do, but in how the show itself is made. You can’t just be Homer and you can’t just be Bart and you can’t just be Lisa and you can’t just be Marge – you have to be all of them. You have to embrace the totality of existence and honour all of your impulses. From this perspective, it’s not contradictory – it’s complete.

I think this is what lends The Simpsons its depth of understanding of the human condition. This is a show that starts by asking where our emotions come from and then shows us the behaviours that happen as a result. It doesn’t just show Homer or Flanders or Krabappel or Burns doing what they do, but tries to understand the thought process that leads to their actions. It grasps that individual people have individual emotions, expectations, and values that can chain together into a process that’s internally logical but can generate results that are utterly ridiculous. Its heart and its humour come from the same place – it can be absurd and infuriating to see someone acting irrationally and out of petty, superficial feelings, but there does come a point where it’s hard to be offended by somebody being what they are. You can’t turn off other people’s impulses anymore than you can turn off your own. The spirituality of the show comes from the fact that people will generally take the shortest distance between two points – whether their needs are social, emotional, spiritual, financial, sexual, or whatever, people will find the shortest shortcut and the quickest quick-fix, and the problem is that sometimes the fastest solution isn’t always the most appropriate one. Springfield’s angry mobs are both the final expression of all these thoughts as applied to the individual and the first explanation from the show for why the world is the way it is. They are a mass of people gripped by the same emotion and finding the fastest and easiest way to express it. When you see an angry mob on The Simpsons, you see Twitter mobs, Black Friday sales, and morning traffic.

It’s impossible to zoom out this far and not talk about the show’s context. I have long argued that this isn’t so much a leftist show as it is bitter about conservatism; my take is that this is a product of Boomers old enough to remember the Sixties counterculture with real affection, but I also should have said they were old enough to remember the Fifties with real contempt. Springfield is a world with cultural institutions that have been rotting from the inside for a long time. The first central idea that drives it is that of the loving Fifties nuclear family and how it’s an impossible standard to live up to. Homer cannot be wise and eternally patient, Bart cannot be a good kid with good grades. From there, it tackles more and more institutions – schools and governments and retirement homes and churches and businesses and police precincts that exist not to improve the world or enact ideals, but as bureaucratic perpetual motion machines. School is not a place where children learn about the world, it’s a factory in which children are used to generate grades. A church is not a place of spiritual enlightenment that gets you closer to God, it’s a place in which you pay money to enact a simple ritual that doesn’t even bring you joy. This was made in a time when these cultural forces were really considered to have weight to them, and some of them still have weight and some of them seem archaic now, but I can see how The Simpsons came from some people who had seen where they came from and where they went.

Even through this cynicism that made the show so famous, I have never felt that this show was anything less than spiritually uplifting, and there’s a few reasons for that. The first is that the show genuinely believes in personal development and spiritual fulfillment. We might not always be able to change the world, but we can learn, we can grow, and we can find peace. The Simpsons might be a product of the Nineties and it might not be able to dive into serialisation or major changes, but there still is a sense of the show’s perspective always growing and changing. Every time we come back to Homer and Lisa’s relationship, they seem to get through the beats a little faster and a little further. Every time we learn something new about the characters, it matters moving forward. Everything we learned about Skinner factored into an episode that put him front and centre. However bad things get and whatever happens to us, we can learn and we can become more capable of being ourselves and living in the world. That is, ironically I suppose, more affirming to me than the upbeat sitcoms The Simpsons was created to make fun of; that the world can be cruel, antagonistic, and not built for us in any way, and yet we can find happiness and personal satisfaction anyway.

The second reason is that, of course, it was really fucking funny. This is where analysis breaks down and I throw my hands up in the air. Comedy is already nearly impossible to quantify, and The Simpsons accessed a kind of comedy that has often been imitated but never replicated. If I really try to compact it into a sentence, it’s that it had a unique atmosphere that came from specific choices in imagery. We’ve talked a lot about how the show managed to be so funny by picking the exact correct set of words to make a funny concept even funnier, and we’ve talked a lot about how the images chosen seem so precisely selected to highlight absurdity by underscoring them with seriousness, and we’ve talked a lot about how the jokes are so much funnier for having the characters do exactly what they would do. I think you can actually tie it into what I was saying about the show’s take on human nature – just like the characters, the show sets itself some absurd parameters, but unlike the characters, it genuinely tries to square it all together to make sense, and the fact that it comes 99% close but never all the way is what makes it so hilarious.

It would be remiss of me to not write a last word on the title characters we’ve been following all this time. It’s a common observation that The Simpsons started out as being about Bart and ended up being about Homer, and I don’t think that’s completely accurate – even back to the very first short, Homer was as much a protagonist as Bart – but I get why people say that because if any one character embodies The Simpsons in the public eye, it’s Homer. He’s been elevated beyond ordinary flawed human being and beyond fictional character right into an icon, entering the same pantheon as Batman, Robin Hood, Captain Kirk, Han Solo, and others; an abstraction. Family Guy didn’t just rip off The Simpsons, it reached for the very idea of what Homer represents. I believe he fully deserves this position in the cultural consciousness and that he’s one of the greatest comic creations of all time. The mistake his imitators made was that they thought he was a creature of self-indulgence, but the reality is that he’s a creature of pure heart. He feels emotion with an intensity that some of us can only dream of, and it makes him very fun to empathise with and very prone to big actions that are fun to watch. Despite how it looks, he’s not driven by impulsive action – it’s action that comes from a special place in his heart. Homer is an absurd expression of our capacity to create love, and sometimes that’s expressed as self-indulgence and sometimes it’s expressed as hurt feelings, but it’s often expressed as joy.

Marge is often the Forgotten Simpson, to the point that I think even well-meaning people trying to elevate her character often miss the reality of her. She’s not Lisa and she’s certainly not Betty Draper – she’s warm and empathetic and she’s a total square. For some reason, people often forget how temperamentally conservative she is – not in the sense of being Republican or anything, but in that she has a rigid, habit-driven mindset. It’s a little fair to call her a wet blanket, but that’s where the show drew the best comedy out of her (“I just think they’re neat!”), and The Simpsons managed to empathise with her wet blanketness and take it 100% seriously. There are women out there who are just like Marge; do they not deserve to have their story told by The Simpsons? Bart is interesting, too, in the way he’s been flattened by the collective consciousness. South Park made hay out of the fact that he wasn’t as bad a bad boy as his reputation suggested, and that he became far eclipsed for this quality by those who came after him. But that rather misses the point, which was that Bart isn’t just a bad boy, he’s a clever kid whose particular cleverness does not serve and is not served by the system he resides in. He’s not evil, just chaotic. Whereas Homer is impulsiveness with a heart, Bart is impulsiveness with a brain, and there should be a place in the world for someone like that.

Finally, there’s Lisa. She is the character that casual fans (especially male casual fans) tend to dislike, which I think comes from projecting her post-Golden character onto the good part of the show. I think it’s fair to say she was always the mouthpiece of the show, but during the Golden Era, this meant that she had the job of trying to put into practice what the show stood for and often found herself wanting. She balanced sincere idealism and an ability to read the principles that drive things with a sincere interest in the happiness of other people, and both sides of her character tripped her up as much as they helped her. What I can’t get past, as well, is how few characters like Lisa even exist. Not just in terms of her being idealistic yet pragmatic, empathetic yet self-assured, and dreamy-eyed yet hardworking, but that they applied these traits to a female character; her influence on women cannot be denied or ignored. 

(I have nothing interesting to say about the baby)

I don’t think there is any single work of fiction that has influenced me so strongly or so conclusively as The Simpsons; only a few other stories come close, and only real human beings I have known and loved have eclipsed it. I see so many of the ideals I aspire to within it; that sense of understanding why things happen and why things work, and that joy in knowledge for its own sake, that skepticism towards mob rule, and that precise sense of humour that depends on going the extra mile to make something really land with a thud. I’ve now spent five years and over 230,000 words going over every episode important to me with a fine-toothed comb, and I’ve learned so much more from it. It’s hard to be too bitter about the show dropping in quality from this point because, like I said, it’s astounding that we were given so much for so long! It would have been nice if the show had been allowed to peacefully end at its height, although you have to admit that it is kind of funny that a Boomer show would go on to lose all its edge and become another institution pointlessly perpetuating itself after the spirit of the thing long died. But I don’t want to end on a bad note; I love this show and I want to give it a real graceful goodbye. One of the gags that separated The Simpsons from other shows was that it didn’t just show pop culture parodies that the characters watched on TV, it showed the characters reacting to it. Homer enthusiastically cheering on the heroes of bad college comedies, Homer being astounded by an orange juicer, Homer being horrified by a news segment on a man who saved his reputation. One of the ways you can define a Simpsons character is the way they respond to television; The Simpsons itself is responsible for the way I think about television and the way I think about the world. It’s something I’ve found enormously helpful, and I’m grateful for that.

So let’s talk about Futurama.

Written by: David X Cohen and Matt Groening
Directed By: Rich Moore and Gregg Vanzo

Futurama is not The Simpsons in space. They are both American, leftist, pop culture obsessed, and bear the distinct character designs of Matt Groening, and there is a Groening-esque spirit that’s impossible to pin down but definitely present, but they work on some very different premises. It’s kind of like a sibling relationship between the shows, where they share DNA and cultural expectations but have distinct impulses and distinct strengths and weaknesses. One major part of it is that, if The Simpsons is the product of Boomers in the early Nineties, Futurama is the product of Gen Xers in the 00’s. The Simpsons is about a small-town couple heading towards middle age who have 2.5 kids; Futurama is about a group of platonic-ish friends in their twenties living in the big city. The cultural institutions of Springfield might have ossified and even become toxic, but the townies can still fall back on them – at the end of the day, Homer and Marge will still be married and still sleeping in the same bed, and Homer will be Lisa’s father, and Bart and Lisa will still be siblings, etc etc etc. Fry, Leela, and Bender do not have that same stability; many episodes end with them alone, frightened, and contemplating their smallness in the size of a large and incomprehensible universe. The flipside is that their universe is a lot bigger; with time, the characters discover people and objects that they can fashion into their own versions of institutions and values. I find this oddly resonant with things I’ve heard Gen Xers say and things I’ve observed about them; I’ve read that of all generation groups, Xers have the best work/life balance and the best relationship with their kids, neither too distant nor too hands-on, because they’ve learned from the mistakes of the past (both their own and the previous generations). I’ve seen how so-called ‘broken families’ have evolved into clear, straightforward ecosystems, childless couples turning into pillars of their community, and single people embracing their later-in-life freedom. I’ve seen the punks of the Nineties – your Tarantinos, Nirvanas, and Fight Clubs – turn into stable cultural institutions. And I’ve seen people say that Fry goes from a fish out of water to almost too comfortable in the future, and I see the similarities.

The other aspect is how what is a subtextual process on The Simpsons becomes text in Futurama, and vice versa. The Simpsons is funny because a tremendous amount of thought has been put into it; the writers have debated for hours about the exact right action and phrase to use, considering who is in the room and what they want. It shoots for philosophical consistency and allows a wide range of tones to emerge – “I call him Gamblor!” is an expression of Homer’s viewpoint that’s allowed to be both funny and sweet, and the sweetness even makes it funnier. I think of Futurama as the other way around; it’s shooting for a specific emotion and allows a wide range of ideas to be expressed to get there. I think the best way to explain this is through the way both shows are plotted – The Simpsons asks “Given the absurd premise we’ve set ourselves, what would most plausibly happen?” while Futurama asks “What is the funniest, dumbest way we can justify doing these plot points in this order?” This does, of course, come partly from the fact that Futurama is a scifi comedy, which invites opportunity to make up stupid fake science (“That’s why scientists raised the speed of light!”), but it’s also something they bring to their characters. The Professor can inexplicably have a gang tattoo in a way that Mr Burns can’t. I think even Fry’s particular stupid statements reflect this – when he says “No I’m… doesn’t!”, it doesn’t reflect on his character the way a Skinner joke reflects on his stiff authoritarianism, it’s just what would be the funniest way to end that sentence. I believe this is what leads to the flaws, virtues, and dastardly neutrals of the series. On the one hand, I always found the show less consistent than The Simpsons. The beautiful thing about the Golden Era is that there are maybe two or three episodes I don’t like over seasons four to eight, which is an astounding achievement, especially given the ambition, while Futurama has both one or two utterly brilliant episodes a season and at least one or two absolute clunkers that come from not having thought through the premise all that well.

But conversely, the show is much more tonally consistent and has a workmanlike competence even when the ideas are bad, so not only do I appreciate it still being funny, I find that vibe to it compulsively watchable. The Simpsons puts a level of thought into itself that would be intimidating if it didn’t sweat the details of hiding that it sweats the details, but Futurama has a casual, off-the-cuff feel to it that only becomes more casual and confident as it goes along, even as its ambitions climb and the comedy becomes so much more complicated and clever. The effect of Futurama is watching somebody very clever and with a very large database of pop culture in their head improvise out loud, and it’s enormous fun to watch them go. It’ll be interesting to see how my particular style of analysis will interact with the show, too, because my approach of overthinking action and trying to make sense of the action I see and the subtext thereof is very rewarded by The Simpsons, and I feel like my essays got worse over season nine as I had little to say beyond how I felt about the episode. The analysis I usually provide is all on the surface of Futurama. I suspect I’m going to learn a lot doing this; the wider and more obvious range of references is something I’m going to have to live up to, and perhaps I’ll end up building on the ideas the show presents in ways nobody expected. One of the central shared pieces of morality between Futurama and The Simpsons is valuing the viewer thinking for themselves, with the difference being that the latter hides its thoughts from the audience while the former expresses itself but forgoes choosing an interpretation for the viewer, and I don’t know how I’ll respond to that critically.

Anyway, I wrote all of that before watching “Space Pilot 3000”. It’s a truism that the pilot is usually the worst episode of a comedy show, moreso than in dramatic works, because we’re not at the point where everyone knows what they’re doing, but I feel like this holds up pretty well as both a comedy and as a Futurama episode; Groening and Cohen were working on the series concept for a couple of years before production got underway, so while there’s still polish that needs to be done and rhythms to fall into, I think they have enough of a sense of what they’re trying to accomplish to deliver some funny lines and make me care about what’s happening. I like that it powers through into the premise of the series very fast – we’re barely three minutes in before Fry is in the future – and even more, I love that there is a clear thematic idea they’re shooting for. Fry is introduced as an unhappy loser defined by his crappy job and cheating girlfriend, and not only does he see being frozen and thrown into the future as the chance to redefine himself, he tries to share that idea with both Bender and Leela. Futurama trades on the same fantasy as a lot of escapist fiction, one in which we get to escape a miserable mundane world for a much more exciting and interesting one, and in this it specifically offers the idea of redefining what we represent with the joke being, you know, he’s still a delivery boy.

Interestingly, it’s Leela who lands in the series fully-formed. Bender has some of his elements – drinking, stealing, swearing – but he still feels too low-key and relatively unemotional (John DiMaggio uses the same voice he used to audition for the Professor, and ironically he sounds more like an aged drunk than he’d settle on). To me, Leela is one of the best Straight Men ever conceived (or, to be more politically correct, the Comic Foil). She’s practical-minded, businesslike, and has a strong sense of responsibility, all of which makes her excellent at moving the plot forward and cracking jokes at the expense of Fry and Bender. But she also has a part of her that gets their irresponsibility – that would love to throw off what she’s supposed to do and do what she wants. It’s really great to me that she hears Fry out and joins him. Partly because it sells Fry and Leela as equals rather than her a ‘nagging’ responsible one and him a childish buffoon – something the series will wobble on – and partly because it points to the soul-searching that I’ll find so sympathetic about her.

Title Card: In color.
Cartoon Billboard: “Little Buck Cheeser”, 1937

Leonard Nimoy and Dick Clark guest star as themselves. Another consistent quality between this show and The Simpsons is that both make great comedy out of Nimoy’s inherent gravitas and dignity.

Another way of thinking of it: The Simpsons finds the smartest way to do something dumb, and Futurama finds the dumbest way of doing something smart. Bender isn’t all the way there yet, but they do basically lock into the relationship between him and Fry; one of unconditional love meeting unconditional tolerance. Astoundingly, we get our first appearance of Richard Nixon; strange to think he entered the series before Zoidberg did.

In an attempt to avoid ripping off Blade Runner and The Jetsons, the show rips both of them off, which I find works quite well in making it distinct. The footage of buildings rising and being destroyed is a reference to the film The Time Machine, based on the book of the same name by HG Wells. Both the name of the show and the phrase “Welcome to the world of tomorrow!” are lifted from a ride at the 1939 World’s Fair. The sliding doors are a reference to Star Trek, and the lightsaber sticks are a reference to Star Wars. Blinky from The Simpsons makes a cameo appearance.

Iconic Moments: 2. “Bite my shiny metal ass!” | “I am already in my pyjamas.” That’s a failed attempt at one, trying to create a catchphrase for the Professor, but it never caught on.
Biggest Laugh:

As a heads up, JGoo will be continuing through the tenth season of The Simpsons, uploading his essays every Monday, 1pm EST, starting with “Lard Of The Dance”. I wish him well, in that I don’t wish him any specific harm.