29 September 2020
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch goes on a Homeric quest.
Some would say that parodying modern American culture and society is like shooting fish in a barrel. Certainly, if any country is sufficiently armed to carry out such an unsporting act of piscicide, it is the United States. However, easy or not, for the past 31 years, the ‘animated sitcom’, The Simpsons, has satirised The Land of the Free, not without controversy or the occasional failure, but often with wit and insight. For example, in 1992 President George HW Bush said in an election speech that he wanted to make American families ‘a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons’. Bart Simpson’s unusually erudite response was: ‘Hey, we’re just like the Waltons, we’re praying for an end to the Depression too’. Still in the Oval Office, an episode in 2000 had the joke that, in the future the then reality TV star, Donald Trump, would be President. In 1999, Time magazine boldly named The Simpsons as the 20th century’s best television series.
Many of the writers of The Simpsons would have been exposed to ‘crew’ as a disproportionate number attended rowing-centric ‘Ivy League’ Universities, particularly Harvard. In 2017, someone with too much time on their hands discovered:
Of the 86 Simpsons writers for whom alma mater data is available, it turns out that exactly half (43) attended an Ivy. Even more striking, however, is the number of writers who have attended Harvard specifically: 35.
One notable omission from the list of Ivy League colleges represented in the Simpsons’ writing room is Harvard’s old rival, Yale. Allegedly, there has never been a Yalie on the staff. Thus, it comes as little surprise that those who created the show made two of its most despicable characters Yale alumni: the psychotic ‘Sideshow Bob’ and the evil ‘Mr Burns’. Yale is often mocked and there are lines such as those uttered by Burns on returning from the annual Harvard – Yale football game: ‘I don’t know why Harvard even bothers to show up. They barely even won’. Later: ‘… let Harvard have its football and academics, Yale will always be first in gentlemanly club life’. Sadly, only Bob rowed ‘crew’ at college.
Sideshow Bob is a former children’s entertainer-turned-criminal mastermind and Bart Simpson’s nemesis. In Sideshow Bob Roberts, he becomes the Republican Mayor of Springfield, his election boosted by the fact that his opponent, Mayor Quimby, had taken extra-drowsy flu medication before their televised debate and appeared ‘sleepy’. However, Lisa and Bart later discover that most of Bob’s votes had come from dead people and their pets. Bob is put on trial for electoral fraud and argues in his defence that, while the people of Springfield may vote Democratic to appease their guilty consciences, they actually want ‘a cold-hearted Republican to cut taxes, brutalise criminals and rule (them) like a king.’ This episode was first aired in 1994, so it may no longer be topical or relevant.
Unrealistically perhaps, Bob is sent to prison, albeit the luxurious ‘Springwood Minimum Security Prison’. Here, his anger against Bart and Lisa is stalled when the coxswain of the prison’s Yale alumni eight hails him from the boat:
Cox: Say, Terwilliger’s a Yalie. Bob, come along! We need an eighth to row against the Princeton alums.
Bob: Princeton! Grrr… (Bob heads for the boat, jumps in the stroke seat and the crew row determinedly off).
‘Mr Burns’ is the callous billionaire owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. With his unquenchable desire to increase his wealth and power, he is a stereotype of Corporate America. He graduated from the Yale class of 1914 and, though he had the build and personality of a good cox, he did not row at college, rather he boxed in the ‘etherweight class’ (there is a running joke about Mr Burns’ frailty) and was a member of Skull and Bones, the Yale undergraduate secret society.
Unfortunately, in the Simpsons episode, The Caper Chase, a nice chance to reference the Yale crew was missed. In this story, Burns returns to his alma mater to endow a department of nuclear plant management. The episode makes fun of the ‘snowflake’ sensitivities and ‘political correctness’ of some students and administrators – even though the Simpsons team usually produce jokes directed against conservatives who oppose such liberal ideas.
The Yale representatives want Burns’ money, but they say ‘we can’t do nuclear…. our students are highly entitled wusses’. They suggest other uses for the endowment including hiring eight new Deans to decide which Halloween costumes are appropriate. Burns is appalled and asks: ‘Is this still a coven of capitalism where evil money can acquire a patina of virtue?’ He gets the reply, ‘Yes, that’s in our charter’. Three foppish young students carrying squash rackets appear and demand ‘a chair of anti-nuclear studies and a nuclear-neutral curricula pathway’. The Yale high-ups agree right away, and Burns is told that the administration runs all decisions past the squash, fencing and water polo teams – and also Handsome Dan, the bulldog mascot. The students tell Burns ‘You’re worse than Hitler’, to which the centenarian Yalie responds, ‘Too late for flattery, I’m not giving this school a dime’.
This is all great stuff but I think that ‘crew’, the embodiment of the ‘Ivy League’, should have been among those sports teams that approve university policy, or even be the group that confronts Burns on campus.
In The D’oh-cial Network, Lisa creates a social networking website called Springface. The episode is a satire of Facebook and parodies The Social Network, the film that purports to tell the story of how Facebook was founded at Harvard, notably the fact that Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss sued Mark Zuckerberg for allegedly stealing the idea. When Lisa is forced by the courts to close Springface, the people of Springfield rediscover the pleasures of ‘real life’ outdoors – including Marge Simpson’s chain smoking twin sisters, Patty and Selma, who, in an homage to The Social Network’s celebrated Henley Royal Regatta scene, row against the Winklevoss boys at that year’s London Olympics – and win.
During the race against Patty and Selma, the brothers become increasingly desperate. Tyler: ‘They’re fat, they smoke, they started training a week ago, why can’t we pull away?’ Cameron: ‘Because we can’t stop concentrating on that $65 million ‘Facebook’ settlement – which somehow wasn’t enough for us, even though we were rich in the first place’.
Finally: Separated at birth?