Hello and welcome to In Too Deep, where I over-analyse a certain section of pop culture.
Well lets get the obvious out of the way first: Humour is subjective and one man’s pun is another man’s punishment. This is more of my view on why The Simpsons is no longer as funny as it use to be and why I can still somehow go back to those past episodes and enjoy them a lot. With that out of the way…
Here in NZ they show Simpsons 11 odd times a week because we do not have a lot of TV in this country. But what’s really interesting are my Friday nights for one simple reason: I get three generations worth of Simpsons in one go. I get the 90s ‘classic’ Simpsons in all its glory, I get the ‘modern’ Simpsons in all its mediocrity and I get the ‘new’ Simpsons in all its crap. But what has changed? Why is something that use to be funny now considered drab and boring? Where has all the laughter gone?
Well lets see what sticks out to me as I’m watching it. First off we have the characters. They’ve… changed. Now I’ve written about it many times before about the concept of Flanderization (that comes from what happened in this very show funnily enough), the idea that a quirk or trait of the character becomes the entire personality of the character. For example Homer went from dim-witted but well-meaning to a complete oaf who by all logic shouldn’t be able to function like a proper human being. Bart went from a mischievous kid to an outright sociopath at times. Small traits that made up part of the character’s personality now became their whole personality. So if you’re watching episodes from completely different decades you quickly notice the difference between the Homer of the 90s and the Homer of the 10s. So is this the writers fault? Did they become lazier over time and just focused on what was easiest to write? Well to be fair a lot of it was our fault as well as viewers. A lot of the funniest stuff from the early Simpsons was Homer saying or doing something incredibly stupid and hurting himself. That was usually what we found the most funny. The best example of this is Homer trying to jump the Springfield Gorge and falling down it, twice. It’s a perfectly executed scene that’s hilarious to watch… but the joke quickly loses all of its appeal when one starts seeing it multiple times in a row. That is to say the joke of Homer hurting himself badly in an act of stupidity gets repeated ad nauseum to the point where it’s no longer funny. But we as an audience are ourselves to blame. We demanded that Homer kept doing stupid stuff since it’s what we found the most funny, so the writers obliged by doing so. They knew Homer getting hurt was the funniest part of Homer’s character so they quickly focused on that above all else. And we encouraged them to the point where we got sick of it. It happens in many TV shows, the audience finds a specific aspect of the character funny and want to see more of it, where it eventually comes their entire personality. So whereas the early Homer was nuanced with a loveable, empathic side, modern Homer only exists to get hurt.
But secondly and more importantly what really becomes clear when watching episodes decades apart is how much of a cartoon it has become at this point. Which sounds like a really odd phrase to say since it’s always been a cartoon, but here me out here. The early series of the Simpsons was most grounded in reality. It didn’t get too fantastical or too over-the-top. It was very much like the average sitcom, but animated. However by being animated the writers could occasionally do a joke or a scene that would be unrealistic in the real world, allowing them greater freedom in their jokes. However this has come back to bite them in the arse since they’re essentially making the show too much like a cartoon. Characters often break the rules of physics and reality for the sake of a joke. If I wanted to watch an over-the-top cartoon full of nonsense and random jokes… well I’d watch Family Guy (which I still like, all things considered, but mostly because it was never serious to begin with). But The Simpsons was one of the first animated sitcoms and one of the first to prove you don’t need a laugh track. But first and foremost it was a sitcom, not an animated show. So when we’ve come to a show that acts more like a cartoon then most Looney Tunes shorts you know you’ve gone too far.
Finally and most subjectively there comes to the individual scenes in the episode and why I hate the new ones: Each scene revolves around a joke and the characters have to be pulled and stretched to fit the joke. My benchmark for fiction tends to be that a good story is how characters believably react to the situation they find themselves in, whereas a bad story is where characters react in the only way to make the story or joke move forward. At this point The Simpsons is nothing more than a string of jokes loosely connected together with a plot. Characters exist to make a joke… and that’s it. Even if it doesn’t make sense for the character to make that joke the writers will stretch the characters to make it work. So characters that are usually kind and nice act mean for the sake of the joke. Characters that are normally smart act stupid. And so on and so forth. The characters exist solely to make the joke work, regardless of how they’ve acted in seasons, episodes or even scenes before. Now some people like this style of humour. I myself think it works well in Family Guy… but The Simpsons prided itself on having good strong characters. Characters that were interesting and believable. All that gone with the new ‘jokes rule all’ philosophy that exists.
But one last point that has just occurred to me: When has the couch gags been the most important part of the episode? It’s damming that the ads in my country are more focused on advertising the couch gag then they are advertising the actual episode. In fact the one sole highlight of the Simpsons still being on the air is that they can experiment and play around with the couch gags and do some really interesting things with them. It’s a shame they can’t put that sort of effort into the actual show itself.
So there you have it. A somewhat brief look at why I don’t find the Simpsons funny any more. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Till next time.