Last night’s milestone 500th episode of The Simpsons had special significance for me: It’s more than just a TV show, more than just a cartoon. I’ve argued that message at length in libraries, bookstores, colleges and the Wisconsin Historical Society. I’ve been interviewed by Milwaukee’s Fox morning show, public radio, and magazines in Wisconsin and South Dakota.
I will speak at the New Lenox Public Library about The Simpsons and my research April 26.
Twice last year I visited Fox, including an orchestral recording, a voice recording and a tour of Film Roman, where I met many of the artists and scene planners who work tirelessly to make my favorite thing.
Although they are the manifestation of much hard work and dedication, I consider my visits to The Simpsons a great honor and privilege; I realize that not many people get to see their favorite thing being made. Lucky for me, my favorite thing isn’t bratwurst.
My relationship with the show started unremarkably; I remember being underwhelmed by the shorts as I watched The Tracey Ullman Show in the family room of my childhood house in St. Michael, Minn., but when their first full-length episode, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” aired in December of 1989, I remember thinking, “This is different. This is going to be good for TV.”
I studied English and earth science at college in Minnesota and South Dakota before moving to Tallahassee where I earned a master’s degree in English at Florida State. For a pedagogy class, I was required to create a writing course based on the special topic of my choice.
The choice was easy as there was no more special a topic than The Simpsons. It's perfect fodder for writing classes as it's rich with satire, political and social commentary, and multiple allusions to literature and film. When my course was accepted for inclusion in the course catalog the following spring, I was jubilant and determined to create a challenging course. There would be no easy A’s. (One of my family members had remarked that classes like mine were the reason why higher education was a “joke.” No one makes such comments anymore.)
I soon began writing academic papers about using The Simpsons in the classroom. With my best friend Karma, who also teaches Simpsons courses (currently at the University of California, Davis), I presented papers at conferences. After one panel in which we both spoke, an acquisitions editor for an academic publisher encouraged us to submit a book proposal.
After years of planning, researching, re-watching episodes, writing, and revising, our book was released in May 2010: The Simpsons in the Classroom: Embiggening the Learning Experience with the Wisdom of Springfield. We are now self-proclaimed Simpsonologists, a title we feel we've earned with years of hard work and dedication. Our Twitter account and a guest blog for USA Today’s Pop Candy brought the book to the attention of people whose work we’d admired for years, including a former showrunner, an animator, and the music editor for the show.
And so, nearly 10 years after teaching my first college Simpsons course, I found myself in the booth with sound engineers, music editor Chris Ledesma and composer Alf Clausen while dozens of musicians on the other side of the glass (who hadn’t seen their sheet music before they arrived for the session) created the music, and thus much of the tone, of the episode that aired just one week later.
On my second visit to Fox Studios, I had the divine pleasure of watching Dan Castellaneta (whose name I no longer have to look up to spell it right) seamlessly conduct a conversation between Homer and Grampa Simpson. Nancy Cartright also had us in stitches as she transitioned between Nelson Muntz and Bart Simpson.
Guest star Bryan Cranston kept us waiting: Although he was on the premises, he wasn’t quite ready on time because he was in make-up. Dan quipped that someone should have told him that the show is animated. (Makeup was actually required; a camera crew recorded Cranston working, probably for the DVD extras and other promotional materials).
Last semester, I taught a literature course for the University of St. Francis in Joliet unofficially called “Simpsons Did It!” (Every item on the reading list was connected in some way to the show). There are countless teachers who use The Simpsons in class, but I let my students know how lucky they are to have their Simpsons taught to them by a Simpsonologist.
These days when I watch The Simpsons, I have a habit that I can only assume is annoying and borderline obnoxious: as the names pop up on the screen, I chatter over the dialogue: “I’ve met him. And him. He’s my Facebook friend. I’ve met him. I’ve had drinks with him. I met her last time. He’s from Naperville...”
Luckily, I’m often alone for this conversation.
Although I’ve been awarded glimpses into how the show is made, the romance of The Simpsons continues to burn brightly. I still feel the same magic I did as a high school or college student, marveling at the layers of jokes, oblique literary references, and blink-and-you-miss-it visual gags. The difference now is that if I don’t understand a joke, I might email or text my question to the writer.
Last night's milestone episode held more significance for me than their previous triumphs because I was able to congratulate personally many of the artists who created the 500th episode. And say "thank you."