There are another five days left in FXX’s great rerunning of every episode of The Simpsons in recorded history. Now, we don’t want to distract you – there are still at least 100 hours to go, and shifting your eyes away from the TV for any reason could ruin that perfect butt-shaped indent that’s this close to being a permanent part of the couch – but just in case you need a break (a break that still involves The Simpsons, of course, we’re not monsters), here’s a momentary distraction.
We all know the myriad of reasons why The Simpsons remain so popular. Revolutionize this, landmark that, longest-running yadda yadda yadda and so forth. But an exemplary trait of The Simpsons that tends to get short shrift (or shorter shrift, anyway), is its relationship with cinema.
The Simpsons overflows with a love for film. Little homages to the classics. Grand spoofings of whatever’s current. Whole episodes based around Cape Fear or Mary Poppins. Throwaway puns on movie theater marquees. Story. Music. Cinematography. All will be parodied by this crudely-drawn family with wildly inaccurate skin color and haircuts that extend out of their face-skin.
Here’s a great starting point: NextMovie’s compilation of every single (for the most part) film reference in the first ten seasons of Simpsons. If you have 40 minutes to kill, watch the whole thing. If not, just skip through until you get bored.
Satisifed? Then let’s dive into how The Simpsons spoofed the movies, from the series’ beginnings to the most recent finale. And hopefully in a short enough time that you can chew through this during a commercial break.
“The Way We Was” (Or, The Early Years)
Conveniently for us, The Simpsons’ first film parody was contained in its first full-length episode, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire.”
Bart gets himself a tattoo for Christmas, but Marge interrupts him halfway through for a quickie visit to the dermatologist. The dermatologist’s tattoo removal method? The giant laser from Goldfinger (the video above labels it as Moonraker, but we’ll assume that’s a brainfart). Bart’s shackled to the table and there’s a giant laser death monstrosity pointed directly at him – total Goldfinger material.
And that’s it. No winking, no nodding, no Sean Connery lookalike who darts in from the background, panics, then darts away. If you’re thinking Bond, you’ll see Bond, but not getting the joke doesn’t mean you’re missing much.
That was The Simpsons’ modus operandi in its early stages: soft, subtle spoofs, mostly limited to a single shot or a line of dialogue. Sometimes, an episode would be packed. “Bart the General,” the series’ fifth episode, is loaded down with snippets of Patton and Full Metal Jacket. And then the next few might be a little film-light.
But that strategy didn’t last long; the next few years would see The Simpsons grow more audacious in its spoofings. Because parodying a movie is nothing new, but The Simpsons had a clever trump card: it’s a cartoon. Live-action TV has those pesky limiting factors like “actors” and “cameras” and “blocking.” The Simpsons never did.
So if The Simpsons wants to do a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho’s shower scene, all it has to do is pass the word down to the animators (not that a team of animators pulling off Hitchcock is an easy feat, but pushing boundaries is way easier when those boundaries aren’t actually in real physical space). Something like Saturday Night Live simply can’t compete the same way.
In its second season, The Simpsons began lifting scenes from films outright, giving them a slight cartoon twist, and then plopping them into the middle of an episode, best exemplified by that time Maggie briefly transformed into Norman Bates.
And if you don’t feel like sifting through the twenty-minute video above to find the clip, here’s a poor-quality rip from a most likely German-dubbed Youtube upload.
A near shot-for-shot remake, only instead of inciting terror, it incites us to laugh at the fat bald man and his cowardly screaming.
“Homerpalooza” (Or, The Wonder Years)
By the third season, The Simpsons had hit its parody stride. Nearly every episode contained some kind of movie spoof, and those spoofs kept growing. With “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington,” the show had its first full-episode parody.
Lisa, ever the wide-eyed innocent, travels to our nation’s capital for an essay contest. Her patriotism takes a beating when she discovers D.C. is plagued by corruption (clearly this is a work of fiction), but she soldiers on and speaks her extremely-similar-to-Jimmy-Stewart mind, eventually convincing those around her to do the right thing and put a stop to all bad politicking forever.
It’s not as 1:1 accurate as Maggie’s Norman Bates, but it’s an entire episode based around a single film – a first for the Simpson clan.
For the next few years, The Simpsons held the spotlight as a gleaming beacon of how to do parody right, be it full-episode parody (“Cape Feare” and Cape Fear; “Bart of Darkness” and Rear Window), or shot-for-shot remakes:
Turning a one-off scene from A Streetcar Named Desire into a show-stopping musical number:
Or inserting a reasonably obscure shot from Citizen Kane into the audience of that same “Oh, Streetcar!” musical.
(Note: anyone interested in this kind of stuff should spend an hour or two with Actualidad Simpsons, a site that categorizes every classic film shot The Simpsons has ever snagged. It might be a little tough if you don’t speak Spanish (hence the “Actualidad”) but for something as specific as Simpsons Classic Movie Side-by-Side Comparisons, it’s the greatest database in the known universe.)
At this point in time, The Simpsons was (mostly) exclusive for connoisseurs of the classics. It’s why all the references we’ve covered have been stuff like Goldfinger or Psycho or Citizen Kane. Yet around the fifth season, The Simpsons’ (again, mostly) hardline stance on NOTHING COOL FOR TODAY’S YOUTH started to erode.
Which, to some teeny tiny extent, made The Simpsons a tad less unique. Like we stated previously, “parodying a movie is nothing new.” But a series that would rather take aim at Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? than whatever was popular in the early ’90s (what was popular in the early ‘90s? The Simpsons, mostly) is a rare and unique unicorn we must cherish forever. Spoofing what everyone else is spoofing isn’t quite The Simpsons’ bag.
But spoofing the current stuff also gave The Simpsons more material to work with, so we’ll take it. And besides, for every shot at Jurassic Park or Terminator 2, Homer would still find the time for a glaring critique of Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance.
That this show exists at all is a minor miracle.
“Bart Sells His Soul” (Or, The Later Years)
The Simpsons may be ageless deities (our children and our children’s children will wither and die long before Bart hits his 11th birthday), but The Simpsons hasn’t aged quite as well. By the seventh season, the show’s lightspeed parody chops had slowed. The old guarantee still stood: turn on The Simpsons, see at least one movie get spoofed. But the thoughtfulness was slowly seeping away.
That classic film devotee who hid within the show and snickered at North by Northwest jokes? With each passing year, he or she shrank a size. And what remained in his or her stead were the bits and pieces The Simpsons would run in between longer and more complex sequences. Sign gags, quickie references, name-drops, that kind of stuff (The Simpsons’ talent for sign gags is legendary, but sitcoms cannot survive on sign gags alone).
Our national nightmare had come true: The Simpsons was past its prime.
This wasn’t a sheer drop in quality as much as a gentle downward slope. Simpsons fans may generally agree that the “Golden Age” stops around the eighth season, and the “At Least It’s Watchable Age” around season 12, but when venturing into the nuclear wastelands of later seasons, there’s merit to be found.
“The Wandering Juvie” is a broad parody of The Defiant Ones, and “The Regina Monologues” features an extended take on Trainspotting, and both episodes come from (brace yourselves, people)… season 15. They may not have the wit of an early ’90s ep, but you can’t deny their hearts are in the right place.
But even those episodes aired a decade ago. Today, The Simpsons’ parody skills are just abhorrent. Example: a Paranormal Activity spoof from a “Treehouse of Horror” two years back.
The bit, entitled “Unnormal Activity” (we won’t hold a stupid title against you, The Simpsons (ahem, “The Shinning”), but at least have the common courtesy to mock your own laziness) is given a full five minutes to hammer an unbelievably easy target, yet only graces the bare bones of why Paranormal Activity is a stupid thing we should point and laugh at.
In its five minute run-time, “Unnormal Activity” covers this much of Paranormal Activity:
- People sleeping on camera
- Doors slamming open without anyone opening them
- A possessed woman gets out of bed in the middle of the night and stares at her partner for hours
- Luring a demon into something powdery to prove he’s there.
That’s it. No attempts to do something unique with Paranormal Activity. No desire to poke fun at found footage in general. “Unnormal Activity” is the equivalent of Homer Simpson reading a Wikipedia summary and then falling down the stairs.
“Unnormal Activity” brings up another issue with The Simpsons’ recent spoofery: it’s painfully out of date. That Paranormal Activity parody aired in 2012. Paranormal Activity came out in 2007. The Simpsons took on High School Musical in 2010, a good four years after High School Musical was on TV. Their The Social Network episode aired two years after The Social Network was in theaters.
Here’s a secret unwritten rule for parodying something: if you’re going after a target that’s relevant right now, it’s best to deliver your parody right now. And not in 2018.
Yes, it takes six to eight months for Fox to put one of these things out, but a six-month wait period doesn’t excuse the five-year gap between The Simpsons spoofing Paranormal Activity and Paranormal Activity being a thing anyone cared about.
It’s a sorry state of affairs. But it doesn’t make The Simpsons any less special. It just means The Simpsons that’s currently airing might not be as worthy of your time as the golden oldies. The Simpsons we love – the ones with the film know-how of a Roger Ebert and the joke know-how of a Mel Brooks – they’ll always live on in our hearts. Also, in the near-permanent craters our asses have left in the couch.
Alright, enough of this. That commercial break’s long over by now, and there’s still another week of Simpsons to watch. Let’s get back to it.