The Enduring Memetic Appeal of The Simpsons


In retrospect, It’s hard to imagine in today’s multiverse of multiplatform media how easily sequenced my school dining hall chat could be. By the year 2000, the watercooler Monday morning data dump from the evening’s telly was well established, and for certain thirtysomething British men, finding out your patter was almost always unwittingly borrowed from The Office or Alan Partridge has been a shared trauma in the decades since. But from being plagiarised by a teacher in assembly to the student’s biggest common cultural denominator, nothing quite matched The Simpsons in terms of sheer omnipotence over teenage suburbia.

In our great undertaking of overthinking the Simpsons, we’ve got company. It was practically the pilot concept for Cosmo Landesman, Toby Young and Julie Burchill’s Modern Review – a coked up high brow reaction to 1990s mass media, splashing cover star Bart Simpson in a cultural conversation with Roland Barthes. Our R.E. teacher would frequently use his rotating assembly slot to promote what he understood and enjoyed about the Simpsons. The most subversive material in the show was religious, and the eccentricities of America’s conservatism frequently foibled. We recall devoted churchgoer Ned Flanders in his hour of doubt – I’ve done everything the Bible says! Even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff! – quietly radical satire smuggled into a 20-minute family meal, and our cool Reverend wanted us to know he was down with it, chucking in his own bits on top of the Simpsons material for his big ticket assembly.

Before our era when anything can now be instantly summoned from YouTube, you would often experience television second hand; a fake artist’s impression living in your imagination for sometimes years before seeing the real thing. The memory of telly you actually saw could be equally faulty. In 2005 Mark Fisher visited the trauma of rewatching old Doctor Who episodes, the gruellingly slow plot lines and primitive 60s production values exposed years later on DVD. The green robots in sequins were hideously lame when revisited, but thrived in children’s nightmares during the ‘cultural rationing’ of a blink-and-you-missed-it TV sighting. Thus with The Simpsons, you either caught the gag, or you didn’t, and it would be retrieved with varying reliability at school the next day. What’s more, they knew this – playing with funny shop signs that gave you just enough time to read them before they were snatched away. David Foster Wallace cited The Simpsons when he referred to television as the self-aware medium. We now know our present day world of internet content that Foster Wallace anticipated is fundamentally built on talking back to yourself.

It was all very well then, if you actually had Sky. Like premium football, the Simpsons was gatekept by a satellite subscription, and this played out in hierarchies across school dining tables. One kid in our year, both good at sports as well as academically, naturally had both The Premiership and The Simpsons to come home to. After the premiere went out on the Sunday, myself and some others listened to him describe prosaically what happened in the episode the next day, largely failing to decant any of the humour but enough for us to scrounge the essential information to avoid haemorrhaging our cultural credit scores. You were aware Homer had acquired a new work colleague Frank Grimes, or a pet lobster, but you had extracted absolutely no enjoyment from it whatsoever. Good At Sports and Academically Kid once claimed that he had seen every single Simpsons episode ever made. Such was the infinity of its cultural universe, I literally thought that was impossible.

Whilst The Simpsons was started the same year as the World Wide Web, for the 90s the internet was restricted to the home or school computer; goading each other to open a browser of pornography on a primitive html browser in the I.T. room. In fact, The Simpsons was an internet to us all of itself and a forerunner to the real thing – vacuum-packed micro-encyclopedias of inside references from the only cultural superpower left standing. Only through it did I know who Carter-era Vice-President Walter Mondale was, simply because of a newspaper cutting from a flashback episode set in the 1980s – Mondale to Hart: Where’s the beef? That knowledge in of itself had no application or educational constituency beyond the whim of the TV writer, but it was our entire world.

The controlled scarcity of The Simpsons created a desire that exceeded that of those who could actually watch it. I remember visiting the same kid’s house and being stunned at his utter indifference to new Simpsons being on, whereas I had started taping older episodes when they were now finally on BBC Two and watched them again immediately after they’d aired. ‘We used to get localised power cuts at 7.45pm because everyone put their kettle on during the ad break of Coronation Street,’ Alfie Bown, author of Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism and The Playstation Dreamworld tells me. ‘For our generation, everyone watched The Simpsons at 6pm, and likely therefore had dinner at 6.30pm. That might all seem rather parochial, but in fact it allowed a universal community, even solidarity, to exist. What Sky, and then streaming, introduces is a fracturing of this universal experience – separating from each other via demographics and behaviour patterns, which is precisely what capitalism needs to sustain itself.’

Years later, I realised my rationing meant I had experienced multicolour junkie highs upon a hit, and an obsessive familiarity with the material, whilst my poor, rich and smart friend could barely get a squelch of dopamine anymore. By the time our family finally got Sky in the 2000s, I’d missed the boat. The Simpsons‘ rounded family unit had become just a starting point for more extreme successors such as Family Guy and South Park in the burgeoning heydey of ‘equal opportunity offence’ comedy.

Today, The Simpsons, like Partridge or The Office, lives on in the hands of its fan base hitting middle age, remixed and remade into user-generated content. In his 2023 iteration, Homer Simpson has found new life as an AI rockstar, able to cover anyone within human imagination, including Nirvana, Muse and Underworld. ‘I read Simpsons memes as a nostalgia for this exact lost culture of universality,’ says Bown. ‘The yellow – like an emoji – is appealing. They create distance from real humans, and therefore they can be used to be ruder or wackier without fear of being divisive. They allow us a space to play and so in some way they give us what the originals did in the 90s – something to have in common.’ So, whilst handing over our fragile worldview to a group of wisecracking Californians perhaps shows how narrowly influence was held back in the 1990s, maybe you’d be forgiven for remembering what a comforting place that could be to grow up in.