The Simpsons: Laughing at Ourselves
Jessica French Professor Jean Graybeal The Existential Imagination 16 October, 2003
Comedy gives no better an answer to existential question than any other form of art or literature. It does however, give such a familiar yet ironical response, that the relief attained is often more satisfying than other medium. Jerry Rannow states, “humor is necessary to life.”1 The Simpsons is for many, the quintessence of comedy and offers a wonderful philosophical study and existential response. The beauty of The Simpsons is that every aspect of the show embodies an existential property. The Simpsons can be taken as light-hearted or as seriously as the viewer wishes; such is the nature of existence as well. Each character represents an extreme of someone we know in our
lives, or someone we see in ourselves. It is comforting to see them run into the same practical problems and existential issues as we do. Above all, each episode is over in half an hour, and its existence in relation to everything else in life is miniscule. Just as we must conclude each class period, each philosophical book, each existential question, and eventually each lifetime, The Simpsons ends before any of our questions are ever answered, and as abruptly as they began. There is an important relationship between the fiction and truth of The Simpsons. Because they are animations, we need not see them as realistically threatening; if we want them to go away, we have simply to turn the TV off. However, it is also important to see the characters as more than just fictional cartoons. In his essay, David Vessy asks, “What does it mean to talk about the beliefs, or possible beliefs, of a fictional character?”2 Should we consider the characters as if they were actual people or should we consider their words and actions as personal mere opinions of the writers and animators? Vessy says we should do neither; “we are not seeking hypothetical… conclusions, but a genuine understanding of the possible justification of certain actions. And this justification should hold regardless of whether the actions are performed by a real-life person, or simply depicted by the character.”3 Although this concept may at first be hard to grasp, it becomes easier as one absorbs the characters' familiarity. Think of the family as a reality show; they’re kinda real, but kinda not. The characters in The Simpsons struggle with the same existential questions as we do. Bart and Homer, the more simple minded, semi-moralists have a simple outlook on life and do not have much trouble coping with it. Lisa and Marge, the seemingly more complex characters are much more pensive and concerned with finding answers to their questions. Nevertheless, this is a sitcom and each characters’ dilemma must either be solved or forgotten by the end of the half-hour. This is not exactly a mirror image of life, but it does reflect the time constraints we all feel concerning the need to address problems and questions, both philosophical and practical.
Jerry Rannow, Writing Television Comedy (New York: Allworth Press, 1999) 9. David Vessy, “Hey-diddily-ho, Neighboreenos” The Simpsons and Philosophy 203 3 Vessy, 203.
These characters are familiar versions of people we know and meet in our daily lives. While analyzing their existential philosophies can be difficult, the blunt nature of their existence makes it feasible. We cannot hide behind the fact that they are animated but the hilarity of their existence somehow makes it easier to comprehend. In an essay by Mark Conard, Bart is projected as the anti-Nietzche. Although he appears to be quite individual, that is, he does what he wants when he wants, he is not genuine, as Nietzche would advocate. Nietzche believed being authentic meant being completely based on action. Bart appears to be this, but is actually very reactionary. Everything he does, or doesn’t do, is to piss someone else off. He seeks not to win approval...
Cited: Cater, Douglass, and Richard Adler, eds. Television as a Social Force: New Approaches to TV Criticism. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1975. Irwin, William, Conard, Mark T., and Aeon J. Skoble, eds. The Simpsons and Philosophy. Chicago: Open Court, 2001. Rannow, Jerry. Writing Television Comedy. New York: Allworth Press, 1999. http://www.snpp.com
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