American families have been going to the front room and turning on the television for roughly sixty years now. The Simpsons have been on the air for well over a third of that time. That’s remarkable. You have to ask what unique quality gives this program such unprecedented staying power. Is it the weird-looking artistry or the buzz phrases? Is it that the characters are so loveable? All of that has to be considered, but there is a key element of The Simpsons to which its cult following can be attributed—something television audiences had not seen before. I know people who don’t watch it, and I know some who say they never got it. The number of folks who don’t get it is considerable, and I contend it is they who have sustained Bart and company for a quarter of a century.
Simpsons creators took a huge risk by including humor only a small percentage of the viewing audience would understand. Mixed in with the slapstick and occasional raunchiness are some rare gems known in comedy circles as sophisticated humor, and that is what keeps viewers tuning in. The target audiences for those quality lines are made to feel special, as if they belong to an exclusive club, or as if they’ve been rewarded for paying attention. Maybe some TV shows had stuck toes in that water before, but no one had jumped in like the writers behind The Simpsons. When only one or two people in a room of five or six will probably get the joke without it being explained, you have to admire the boldness of the staff and producers.
George Harrison is walking down the sidewalk when he looks up and sees Homer’s band rehearsing on the rooftop of a tall building. “It’s been done,” he says, and walks on. The scene shifts before you have time to digest it. What percentage of viewers will even understand that? Not a big one, I’m sure, but that’s what makes the production classy. A famous sports figure guest-starred and was given one line: “It’s like there’s a party in my mouth and everyone’s invited.” I read that the guest had to have someone explain it to him. As would have ninety-percent of America.
But The Simpsons’ raison d’etre is lines like that one, and they’ve made that type of comedy popular. Frasier was one to follow suit. An example: Each scene is given a title. One in particular was called “If at Faust You Don’t Succeed.” Frasier was lured to the hotel room of the agent he’d fired for being too unscrupulous (She has no scruples, no ethics, and NO REFLECTION!) A choir convention was taking place in a banquet hall below, providing haunting music. A red light from a large neon sign shone into the room with an eerie glow. The agent, Bebe, was removing wrinkles from a dress with steam from a hot shower, which filled the room where she stood in flowing black lingerie, beckoning Frasier to return to her with promises of fame and fortune. She, of course, was Mephistopheles, and the whole scene was a Faustian metaphor. But who the hell is going to understand all of that? A small group of keen viewers applauding their asses off, that’s who.
This, the highest form of humor, which I will refer to from now on as HFH, caught on after The Simpsons became such a resounding success. Those same writers went on to create Futurama, another clever HFH production, where the best lines sail by faster than spitballs. HFH programs like these take advantage of modern technology. The viewer has to pause the scene and watch it again in order to read the sign in the background or catch the joke. The Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” has given its audience several HFH classics, such as Aquateen Hunger Force, Squidbillies, and Metalocalypse, to name a few. Family Guy is generally on the crude side, often taking the cheap shot, but every once in awhile they’ll earn their keep with a bold bit of HFH:
Oldest son Chris brings home a girl who looks just like his mother.
Stewie the baby: Looks like somebody’s getting a little Oedipussy.
Brian the dog: Can we say that?
Stewie the baby: I just did.
Wow. I would love to know what miniscule fraction of the audience caught that one, and particularly when they’re only hearing it and not seeing it written as it is above. This was actually two separate jokes pulled off in three sentences. Granted, it took half the show to set it up, but some (I) would say it was worth it, crudeness noted.
I look forward to more years of the HFH that The Simpsons spawned, the life force of shows like My Name Is Earl and King of the Hill. A person could actually categorize the eras of comedy television in a way that would make sense: Before Simpsons and After Simpsons. It was 1987 when the barrier was breached. Before that, there were funny shows, but nothing like in recent years. And because the bar has been set so high, mediocre comedy rarely succeeds anymore. How I Met Your Mother is a glaring exception. And with that, I bring it to a close, leaving you with a dozen or so of my favorite lines from Metalocalypse. Enjoy.
Pickles the drummer, holding a live lobster in a restaurant: Okay, hold on now. So you’re telling me that you put these little guys in boiling water and they shriek and they turn red and they die?
Waiter: Yes sir.
Pickles: That’s the most metal thing I’ve heard in my whole life. High five!
Toki (a Scandinavian guitarist): I…have a confessions to makes. I can’t read music.
Skwisgaar (Another Scandinavian guitarist): Dude, Toki can’t read music. Ha, it’s a laugh.
Toki: Can you?
Skwisgaar:No. I have music dyk…slexia. You know that. I…don’t wish to talk about it.
Nathan (lead singer): Maybe your teeth are falling out because you eat all that candy.
Toki: So what. Teeth grow back.
Nathan: Heh, no they don’t.
Toki: Are you a dentist?
Toki: Then shut up.
Pickles, to the comatose chef: By the power of all that is evil, I command you to awaken and make me a sandwich!
Toki: WOW! What IS this place?
Skwisgaar: This is, I believes, called food libraries.
Toki: Foooood li-brar-eee.
Skwisgaar: Fooood liii-braaarrr-eee.
Pickles: It’s called a grocery store, douche bags! I’m sorry about douche bags. I got low blood sugar.
Toki: I Toki. I slips in and out of diabetic coma. They should make insulin-flavored candy. Whatever. Candy taste like chicken if chicken was a candy.
Murderface (bass player): What do ya mean, booze ain’t food! I’d rather chop off my ding-dong than admit that.
Peripheral character: You’ll go to heaven for that, Murderface.
Murderface: I’d rather die than go to heaven.
Toki: And then from sorrow, far too, he blow he brain in.
Skwisgaar: He blow he brain out.
Toki. It make a great album cover.
Murderface: What are those wooden things? Chairs?
Skwisgaar: They are acoustic instruments.
Toki: What is acoustics? Ah, you mean grandpas guitar.
Skwisgaar: A grandpa’s guitar. That’s for p—-ies and grandpas. I think you know this.
Skwisgaar: Last time I was in Finland, last time I was in Finland I must’ve you-know-what-ed about…mmm, five-hundred girls. Golfpark estimate. Whatever.
Skwisgaar: You know what you are? You are a G-milf. That’s a grandma I’d like to f—.
Nathan, firing the band’s life coach: We, uh, found out that you can just…you know, buy…psychological validation, so…
Pickles: Why do we make it so hard on ourselves? Let’s just solve it like any other problem.
Murderface: Of course. We have them put to sleep.
Manager: You could just give him back.
Nathan: That’s a horrible thing to say…but yeah we tried that already
Pickles (pushing a cart full of liquor bottles) to grocery store clerk: Say chief, this stuff good for soup?
Pickles: Ah ha. That’s a yes.
Nathan: We are here to make coffee metal. We will make everything metal—blacker than the blackest black times infinity.
Skwisgaar, pouring coffee grounds into a toaster: What’s wrong with this dumb dildo thing? They gives us all the free coffees in the worlds and no instructions how to cook it.
Skwisgaar: All of our chefs, they has died a horrible death. What of that’s do you t’ink?
New chef: I would rather have my brains scooped out with a melon baller than to miss the opportunity to deliver the various cheese snacks to my beloved Dethklok.