Paul Rouse: Sport and 'The Simpsons': What better way to cast an eye on America

It is not just the playing of the sports, but the manner in which they have colonised so much of American popular culture that matters.
Paul Rouse: Sport and 'The Simpsons': What better way to cast an eye on America

Homer Simpson and daughter Lisa

Some of the very best episodes of The Simpsons are centred on sport. And that means some of Homer’s finest lines are sporting ones, including: “But this might be my last chance to win one!”, issued after he was caught trying to steal the Super Bowl trophy in 1999.

Homer is — of course — the father of the Simpson family, married to Marge, with Bart, Lisa, and Maggie as their children. Their home is set in the fictional town of Springfield, where Homer is a safety inspector at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant; it is fair to say that this is a job to which he is particularly ill-suited.

The attempted theft of the trophy took place when Homer had headed in a bus with other men from Springfield to Miami for the Super Bowl. Having made their way into the stadium — overcoming the disability of having originally bought counterfeit tickets — they see no football and even miss the half-time show.

But as if to underline the meaning of the day, they feast on burgers and chicken drumsticks, and guzzle bottles of beer with a formidable commitment.

The men on the bus — and it is all men, itself a pointed joke in the script — get roaring drunk, but are then advised by the agent who is organising the trip: “Well, sports fans, I see you’ve located the beer supply. So, let’s all enjoy it in moderation.” Moderation being the last thing on anyone’s mind.

All-in-all, it’s a rollercoaster of a day, with Homer at one point being locked in a cell at the stadium before being freed by the singer Dolly Parton, whom he mistook for a cleaner:

“Psst, cleaning lady. Would you let us out of here?”

“Me? I’m Dolly Parton.”

“I didn’t ask for your life story. Just give me the key.”

In season after season, it is not just American football that features in The Simpsons, but also boxing, baseball, ice hockey, golf, and tennis.

And always Homer’s insights into sport and into broader social attitudes and prejudices are epic. For example, he tells his daughter when she plays ice hockey: “Lisa, if the Bible has taught us nothing else, and it hasn’t, it’s that girls should stick to girls’ sports, such as hot-oil wrestling, foxy boxing, and such-and-such...”

And his advice to his son on the value of taking part in a mini-golf tournament is clear: “Come on, Bart! Remember what Vince Lombardi said: ‘If you lose, you’re out of the family!’”

That The Simpsons is a parody of American culture and society, its media and celebrity obsession, and ultimately of the way people think and behave in general, means that it could never have been made without episodes on sport.

It has run for more than 30 seasons, beginning in 1989, and the centrality of sport to American society during these years is undeniable: Middle America without the vast commercialised behemoths of football, basketball, ice hockey, and baseball is unrecognisable.

It is not just the playing of the sports, but the manner in which they have colonised so much of American popular culture that matters. That this is captured so vividly by The Simpsons has happened despite the fact that it was at one time considered that animated programming had reached the end of the line.

The golden age of animated films was considered to have run from the 1920s through to the late 1940s. There was, for example, Warner Brothers’ Merry Melodies and Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies. In general, cartoons spawned a range of popular culture icons such as Popeye, Tom and Jerry, and Mickey Mouse.

But by 1958, after watching a series of cat-and-mouse and cat-and-dog set-ups, Bernard Orna wrote that American cartoons were “cheap and mass-produced affairs without regard to ideas” that had “reached a dead end”.

Orna asked a simple question: “Are animated film script and character ideas exhausted; must cartoons disappear in an ever tighter circle of repetitions?”

As we know, this was absolutely not the case. Instead, the form was reinvented; indeed, it was already being reinvented in the year that Arno asked if cartoons had reached their artistic endpoint. It was in 1958 that The Huckleberry Hound Show arrived on screens. It was on that show that Yogi Bear made his debut and in 1961, Yogi (proving that he was already smarter than the average bear) got his own show.

Decade after decade, there were new developments, including the Wacky Races spin-off, Dastardly and Muttley, from 1969, and the longrunning Scooby Doo, Where are You?

The idea of an animated sitcom took off in the 1960s with the arrival of The Flintstones. But if The Flintstones offered much by way of a critique of modern America, it was only mild in form.

This was fundamentally changed in the 1990s by King of the Hill, South Park, Beavis and Butt-Head, and The Simpsons. As well as being great fun to watch, these cartoons worked because of the manner in which animation was used as a vehicle to offer a sustained satire on American society.

They were also controversial. For example, there were claims that a child set his home on fire after an episode of Beavis and Butt-Head, leading to the death of a sibling.

The Simpsons also caused consternation with some parents considering Bart to be crass and Homer idiotic — the complete opposite of the family values that prevailed in traditional 1950s-style sitcoms with the heroic father, the idealised stay-at-home mom, and the near-perfect children.

Mostly, though, the programme was relentlessly popular, something that is emphasised by its longevity. The quality of the show has declined and unsurprisingly there have been criticisms and controversies as wider societal changes have occurred, but it is now the longest-running American sitcom, the longest-running American animation series, and sits at the heart of a multi-billion dollar merchandising operation.

Throughout the lifetime of The Simpsons, the Super Bowl was ordinarily the most-watched television programme of the year. But it was also something that had been refashioned to appeal even to those who had no interest in American football.

The half-time shows and the discourse around the cost of buying advertisement space in the course of the game gathered an importance that lived outside the game.

All of this is in that 1999 Super Bowl episode when Homer tried to steal the trophy. There’s a very funny line in the background of the episode where a mock commercial during half-time says through voiceover: “The Church — we’ve made a few changes…”.

There are also prescient asides on head injuries, ticket touts, police violence, and Rupert Murdoch

As if to emphasise just what the episode did not actually feature, when he stands in the stadium in Miami, on the cusp of actually seeing the game, Homer throws his two arms in the air and exclaims: “Football!”

- Paul Rouse is professor of history at University College Dublin

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