Tuesday, February 21, 2017

What I Learned From The Simpsons


Title photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

The Simpsons premiered when I was four years old… and it’s still going.  I saw every episode growing up.  I started taping them for my mom when I was five, since she would be gone on the evenings it aired. The tapes also gave me something to stare at when there was nothing else on TV. So, in other words, I spent a lot of time watching The Simpsons as a kid. (I started to lose touch with the series in high school, around Season 12 or so.)

I wasn’t taught much as a kid (not counting school).  I grew up poor, so there wasn’t time or money for anything enriching like travel or being taught how to read. Luckily(ish), I was a pretty smart kid, so I didn’t have any trouble academically or anything like that.  Nevertheless, I could only learn what I was exposed to, so there were still plenty of things I didn’t know.  That’s where TV came in.

I learned a lot of stuff (for better or worse) from the TV growing up.  Since I saw The Simpsons probably more than anything, the series taught me many things about the world (again, for better or worse).  I definitely picked stuff up from Seinfeld, nature documentaries, and movies, but The Simpsons outstrips them all, and I’m going to try to list what I learned here.  I’ll start with general messages that I absorbed from repeated exposure across multiple episodes, and then I’ll list a bunch of little, specific tidbits that I’m pretty sure I didn’t know of before their appearance or mention in a Simpsons episode.

Christians Are Wimps

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

Hear me out; I’m not trying to say I currently believe this of all Christians, but it certainly seemed true to me back then, based on what I’d seen in The Simpsons, which was my only real source of information on the subject.  I did not grow up in a religious household.  I had only the most basic knowledge of Christianity, like knowing that it has ten commandments and a Hell and such. I didn’t really know any devout Christians, either.

The Simpsons had a lot of blanks to fill in for this subject, which it did… with Ned Flanders.  Let’s face it: The guy is pretty meek. He takes a seemingly endless pile of shit from Homer, rarely showing any real signs of anger or retaliating.  As Homer himself puts it in “Homer Loves Flanders,” Ned has “turned every cheek on his body.”  Beyond that, there are the times beyond counting that Flanders has called Reverend Lovejoy, experiencing a moral crisis over some trivial, little thing. In “Duffless,” he’s shown in Alcoholics Anonymous because he spoke negatively of Ann Landers after drinking a blackberry schnapps.  He described himself as “more animal than man” for that.  He also once felt himself to be a murderer because he overwatered Maude’s plant.

On that note, let’s not forget Ned’s family.  Maude (while she was alive) would let out a scandalized gasp at just about anything (like the aforementioned dissing of Ann Landers).  And then there are Rod and Todd.  These kids have been so sheltered by their God-fearing parents that I don’t know how they manage to leave their house.  The only TV they can (occasionally) watch is some kind of Christian programming.  Maude won’t let them have any sugar, so they can’t handle more than trace amounts of Pixy Stix.  (I could have done lines of the stuff as a kid!)

Also, they’ve been raised to be gullible.  In “Radio Bart,” Bart has a microphone that lets him override any radio in range, allowing him to broadcast to said radios. He does this to Rod and Todd, claiming to be God. One rebuke from Bart for questioning whether they’re hearing God is all it takes for Rod and Todd to obey “His” command to bring cookies to the Simpsons’ front porch.

In writing this, I’m starting to think that Rod and Todd played a big role in cementing my childhood perception of Christians.  I met super-sheltered kids here and there, and like Rod and Todd, they seemed to be afraid of everything and know nothing of the world.  (Their parents wouldn’t even let them watch The Simpsons!)  I feel like a dick admitting it now, but back then, I viewed sheltered kids like this as weak. So then I see Rod and Todd on The Simpsons (not to mention the equally frightenable Ned and Maude), they remind me of those wimpy kids I’ve met, and boom: I think Christians are wimps.  Sorry?

Having No Responsibilities Is The Ultimate Idyllic Existence

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

What does an elementary schooler know about full-time work?  Not much, but it’s not hard to figure out that most adults hate it.  I could certainly see that my mom wasn’t a fan of her job.  And even if I had been living in a bubble every morning as she begrudgingly got ready for work, there was, of course, The Simpsons to educate me.  I can’t even begin to guess how many episodes showed Homer hating his job and wishing he didn’t have to go to work.  On top of that, Homer always seemed happiest when there was precisely nothing that he had to do.  Sitting on the couch with a beer and some potato chips, snoring away in the hammock, or drinking at Moe’s were frequently portrayed as the absolute zenith of Homer’s existence.

My mother always seemed to love any jokes about work sucking or laziness being fun, which I’m sure helped to reinforce the idea of “Work bad; laziness good.”  Of course, it’s not like I would have naturally enjoyed working my ass off had it not been for external influences.  I didn’t mind school that much as a smaller child, but I guarantee you that even by kindergarten or first grade, I enjoyed Friday evening more than Monday morning. 

This “laziness is idyillc” thinking still influences me today, in all honesty.  If I suddenly found myself so rich that neither me nor my wife ever had to work again, no matter how much money we spent, would I even bother with writing, which I do enjoy but is definitely work?  I don’t know.  I’d like to think so, but I feel it’s possible that I’d just end up lifting weights and playing video games all day long.  Maybe I’d do some traveling, or something. 

Having Kids Is Hell

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

The Simpsons seemed to go out of its way at times to make parenthood look like anything but a joy.  Take how much fun Homer and Marge are having when Bart and Lisa are gone in “Kamp Krusty.”  Or the pamphlet titled So You’ve Ruined Your Life that Dr. Hibbert gives Homer and Marge when she’s pregnant with Bart in “I Married Marge.” Or Homer’s horrified reaction to finding out that Marge is pregnant again in “And Maggie Makes Three.”  I’m sure there are tons more examples; the aforementioned three are just what I can think of off the top of my head. In general, I’d say that plenty of episodes make it seem like Homer and Marge (especially Homer) are happier when the kids are somewhere else.

My mother (who I was pretty sure from an early age didn’t want any more kids, as I’ve mentioned before) always seemed to really love any Simpsons jokes about how terrible it is to have kids, which I imagine further gave them weight when it came to unintentionally educating me.  Indeed (as I’ve also mentioned ad nauseum), I don’t intend to ever have kids.  My reasoning for that extends far beyond a bunch of Simpsons episodes, but I’d say it’s arguable that the first inklings I ever got that having kids is a bad idea came from The Simpsons.

Nerds Are Weird, Incomprehensible People

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

The historical irony is strong with this one. I am totally and completely a nerd (or geek, if you prefer), in either common sense of the word.  I’m intelligent and interested in a bunch of intellectual stuff, and I’m also a devoted, overanalyzing follower of several fandoms, most prominently Transformers. 

Despite this, when I was a kid, I didn’t think of myself as a nerd. I would (surprise, surprise) credit The Simpsons with my first real exposure to the concept, and I simply didn’t see anything of myself in characters like Martin or the Comic Book Guy or the nerds Homer befriends in “Homer Goes to College.”  They were just… weird.  I’d known that I wasn’t a “normal kid” since at least age six, but I wasn’t weird like these nerds.  They referenced all sorts of stuff that I’d never heard of.  Their voices sounded weird. And they were randomly saying bizarre things like “ni.”

On top of that, the nerds in The Simpsons seemed downright masochistic at times to elementary-school me.  Everything they say, do, and love makes them a target for bullies, but they never seem to really grasp this.  Martin’s one of the smartest kids in the whole school, but he never learns.  How many times has he openly and proudly done something to essentially turn himself into bully bait?  How many times has he done something similar the very same episode, with the same results? 

An exception to this did appear in “The Last Temptation of Homer.”  Bart needs special glasses, shoes, and scalp medication that basically make him look like a stereotypical nerd.  He’s treated as such by the bullies.  While Bart is fleeing them, Martin grabs him and pulls him into a locker with a tunnel that leads to a dark room where various nerds are doing math, building models of the Enterprise, and so forth.  The room is a place where the nerds can do nerdy things and work on their extra credit projects “without fear of reprisal.”  Apparently, they were more self-aware in that episode.  That self-awareness didn’t last, though.  In “Bart’s Comet,” a group of nerds calling themselves the “Superfriends” are openly meeting in the cafeteria. 

Martin and nerds like him should absolutely be allowed to be openly nerdy without fear of harm.  Their continued open nerdiness in the face of innumerable beatings and humiliations is arguably rather courageous, but back then, I couldn’t believe how stupid they were.  They had no guile!  I was outthinking bullies both in my family and on the playground at a younger age than the eight- to ten-year-old nerds on the show.  I was nothing like them.

I finally figured out that I was/am a nerd in high school.

Other Tidbits

As promised, here is a (by no means exhaustive, despite the title of this post) list of other bits of trivia that I first picked up from watching The Simpsons as a kid:

The Existence Of Dog Racing—“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

I’d never heard of dog racing until I saw this one. I’m pretty sure I knew about horse racing before this, but I didn’t know that dogs got ran around tracks in a similar manner.

Repeating A Year Of School—“Bart Gets an “F” ”

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

I had no inkling that if your grades in school are poor enough, you may have to repeat the grade you’re in next year.  This revelation disturbed me as a kid.  Yes, kindergarten was easy as hell, but it seemed possible to me that in some future grade, the material would finally become too hard, and I’d begin to falter.

Baldness/Hair Regrowth Drugs—“Simpson and Delilah”

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

I don’t think I’d ever really taken notice of peoples’ baldness until this episode highlighted it for me. (Seinfeld would eventually teach me volumes on the subject.)  On top of that, I learned that there were various treatments to fix the problem. 

Giving Blood—“Bart vs. Thanksgiving”

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

People voluntarily get stuck with needles?  That’s madness to a five-year-old.  I never knew that people could give their blood to others for emergency use before this episode.  

Fugu Poisoning—“One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish”

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

I never knew those fish that could inflate themselves were poisonous as hell!  Now I know not to eat one, thanks to The Simpsons.

Mental Institutions—“Stark Raving Dad”

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

I certainly knew about hospitals when this episode aired, but I don’t think I’d ever been exposed to the concept of being imprisoned for essentially acting wrong, even if you’d broken no laws.

The Mafia—“Bart the Murderer”

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

I’d probably seen characters acting like stereotypical “Mafia gangsters” on old Looney Tunes bits or other cartoons plenty of times, but I never really got any sense of what the Mafia is until The Simpsons again gave me a glimpse.  And why would I have had any idea beforehand?  I was six years old.  If I were to have found myself watching The Godfather back then, I’d have pronounced it a boring old movie with boring old people in it and moved on. 

Meltdowns—“Homer Defined”

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

I didn’t know nuclear power plants were so potentially dangerous until I saw how frightened everyone acted in this episode.  I’m not saying that I understood the exact mechanics of nuclear fission and radiation, but I could tell that a meltdown was a major threat to everyone near the plant.  Then I got to hear my mother recall having been evacuated from school the day that the Three Mile Island incident occurred.  (She lived over an hour away, but there was danger of fallout being blown her way.)  That was interesting. 

Zombies—“Treehouse of Horror III”

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

I didn’t really have any interest in horror movies at age seven, so I wasn’t familiar with the idea of the dead rising and attacking the living until this Halloween special.

Beta VCRs—“Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie”

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

Despite being an elementary schooler, I was an expert in the use of VCRs, but I’d only ever known VHS tapes.  So when Snake looks at a VCR he’s stolen and says, “Oh, no! Beta,” I didn’t know what that meant.  I wondered if Beta was a crappy brand of VCR, but then my mother told me there was another kind of tape that once existed.  Wild…

Heart Attacks—“Homer’s Triple Bypass”

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

I figured I’d be some kind of doctor back when this aired, so I was interested in medical stuff and absolutely knew what heart attacks were, but I feel like this episode still helped to shape my perceptions of heart attacks and their correlation with eating piles of unhealthy food and such.

Barbershop—“Homer’s Barbershop Quartet”

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

There was only one definition of “barbershop” when I was eight: a place to get haircuts, which may or may not have a swirly thing out front.  Well, turns out it’s also a genre of weird-sounding music.  Who knew?  (No one born in 1985, that’s who.)

Casinos—“$pringfield (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Legalized Gambling)”

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

I didn’t really know anybody who was big into going to Vegas or Atlantic City back in 1993, so I’d managed to never really hear about these dedicated gambling establishments until then.  I kind of wanted to open my own after seeing the episode. Maybe I just wanted something to do with all the dice from the board games I’d get for my birthday or Christmas that weren’t of much use to an only child.

Geos Are Bad Cars—“Homer Loves Flanders”

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

I wasn’t much of a follower of car brands at eight years old, which might have had something to do with not being able to drive.  Flanders’s “I can’t! It’s a Geo!” taught me that Geos weren’t anything great, though.  Ironically, my first car was a Chevy/Geo Prizm, and it ran great and lasted me a full decade.  Of course, Prizms were rehashed Toyota Corollas. I’m assuming Flanders is driving a Metro, which wasn’t based off a Toyota.

Social Workers Are Bossy Assholes—“Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily”

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

I knew what foster homes were.  I had a mean grandmother who explained them to me once and threatened that I’d end up in one.  I’d never really gotten a sense of social workers until this episode, though.  In it, they’re making a big fuss about the state of the Simpsons’ home.  Yes, it’s a mess, but that’s because Homer gave Marge a surprise trip to a spa when she would have otherwise cleaned the place.  The old newspapers are there for Lisa’s school project.  Yes, those things look bad, but here was the kicker for me:  The list of grievances that one of the social workers gives Marge includes “toilet paper hung in improper overhand fashion.” 

What difference does that make?  The social workers’ portrayal as nitpicking over that only painted them as being like that same mean grandmother I just mentioned.  She was the type to split hairs and raise a stink over things like which side of the plate the fork and spoon are set.  To this day, I hang my toilet paper overhand as a small act of defiance toward her.  The thing is: I never really paid attention to which way she had the toilet paper in her house, but I’ve always assumed it was underhand because of this episode, so I hang it overhand.  I guess that’s pretty silly.

Bowling Leagues—“Team Homer”

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

There’s not much to say here.  I didn’t know that people bowled in teams until this one.

Couriers—“Bart on the Road”

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

I didn’t know people got paid simply to transport things around the world.  It sounded like a damn cool job to ten-year-old me.

Tontines—“Raging Abe Simpson and His Grumbling Grandson in “The Curse of the Flying Hellfish”

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

I’d never heard of tontines before watching this surprisingly action-packed episode, which explained the concept like a dictionary.

Prohibition—“Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment”

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

I didn’t know that alcohol was once temporarily made illegal before seeing this (and I’m really sounding like a broken record at this point).  Any history that the schools had taught by this point in my life was mostly colonial or Revolutionary War stuff.

Military Schools—“The Secret War of Lisa Simpson”

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

By the time this episode aired, I was 11, so there wasn’t much left for The Simpsons to show that I hadn’t already seen somewhere else.  I knew that juvenile detention facilities were a thing, but I’d never specifically heard of military schools.  It seemed like a damn stupid idea, if this episode was any indication.  Sure, take the delinquent asshole kids and give them military training.  Great job.

War Games—“Simpson Tide”

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

…And I was 12 when this one came out, but I’d managed to miss out on the concept of war games.  Of course I knew that military personnel undergo training, but I guess I never saw that they’d engage in mock battles for this purpose.

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