The year was 1989 and possibly the most famous family in the world was about to make their debut on the Tracey Ulman Show. Within three years the show was pulling in 13.4 million viewers in its first proper series on prime time television. In the intervening years the Simpsons has become one of the greatest cultural tropes of our time with Duff Beer now actually on sale in many shops and everything available from coasters through to duvet covers emblazoned with the Simpsons’ logo. The brand truly has become a juggernaut.
There are many, including certain members of the production team itself, who claim that there has been in decline of late. This is unsurprising; comedy, like anything else, changes over time and the Simpsons has struggled to adapt, shifting away from story driven comedy to bizarre cameos and ‘zany’ antics, neither of which have worked too well. The audience figures speak for themselves, from the 1st season to the 21st the Simpsons has experienced a decline in audience of over 5 million in the US alone.
Many suggest that the show has lost its relevance and that edgier shows such as Family Guy or various other Seth MacFarlane creations have eclipsed it. But to quote Seth himself: “The Simpsons created an audience for prime time animation that had not been there for many years…as far as I’m concerned they basically reinvented the wheel”. Therein lies the Simpsons’ modern relevance. Without them there would be no Family Guy, King of the Hill, or any of the brilliant new slew of animated shows such as Archer, Adventure Time and the hilarious Adult Swim programs (which LSi would thoroughly recommend to any television fan, cartoon fanatic or otherwise).
This is not to discredit the role that other cartoons have had in developing modern animated television. It is undeniable that South Park’s masterful use of surrealist humour, serious themes and biting satire have done great things to advance the cause of cartoons. The same can be said for Family Guy. One can clearly see their influences in the more surreal turn that cartoons both for adults and children have taken in the last decade. Nonetheless, it is debatable whether either of these cartoons would ever have reached such varied and appreciative audiences without The Simpsons.
Although The Simpsons may not be as funny as it was or anywhere near as cutting, until you stop watching adult cartoons, stop knowing who ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ are and never hear anyone say “D’oh”, you certainly can’t say it’s irrelevant.