Funnybook Roulette Archive Prelim: The Glory That Was The Simpsons

Posted by on January 10th, 2010 at 10:03 PM

One of the innovative features planned for the new cutting edge online Comics Journal is a load of stuff from the old, stodgy out-of-date Comics Journal under the rubric Funnybook Roulette Archives. The plan is to go back to the antediluvian origins, but events give the following item reason to jump the line. A momentous cultural event like the 20th anniversary of The Simpsons raises many questions. One such question is, “How can it be the 20th anniversary when the first episode was a Christmas special?” Another is, “How can I personally exploit this manufactured media event?” In my case, it provides the opportunity to pull the following chestnut out of the open fire, an article in response to a previous media event manufactured around the 300th episode of the series. It originally appeared in one of the bedsheet issues of the Journal (the one with the Simpsons article in it). The series remains in the same state of equilibrium it was in when I wrote it, reminiscent of Krusty the Clown in the episode where an omnipotent Bart makes him stay on the air 24 hours a day. It still has its moments and I still have yet to be seriously tempted to stop watching it.

The Glory that Was The Simpsons

Historians theorize that Rome and subsequent reasonable and unreasonable facsimiles thereof persisted through centuries of terminal decadence in large part because early Christians assumed it would be the last empire. Once Rome had fallen for good and all, the world would come to an end and the Kingdom of God would arrive, a consummation that was devoutly wished but not just yet. Something of the same sort applies to the people behind The Simpsons, network and creators alike. For a show that was from its second season through its eighth the best comedy in the history of television, it’s now only a question of having more episodes or not having more episodes. It remains a ratings staple for a network that never knows where the next hit is coming from. For the creators, aside from being a regular paycheck, it has been the rare job that allows them to be as smart and as good as they’re capable of, and God knows when the next such opportunity will arise. The anxiety is palpable. When Matt Groening made the guardedly candid remark to a reporter that the series was closer to its end than its beginning, the network frantically pressed him to recant, though he’d been making similar statements for at least five years to my knowledge. One can only imagine the mixed feelings in the Foxhole when so many publications took the bait on their “300th episode” hype only to use the opportunity to “What’s wrong with The Simpsons” articles.

So what’s wrong with The Simpsons? Nothing, really. As often happens in entertainment, it exhausted its creative potential before it had exhausted its commercial potential. It had over the course of eight seasons explored its characters and their milieu so thoroughly that there was simply nothing new to find out about them. Late in his career the highly quotable New York Yankee pitcher Lefty Gomez was asked if he still threw as hard as he used to. “Hell, I throw harder than I used to,” he replied, “It just doesn’t get there as quickly.” The show’s creators labor mightily to keep it fresh (the 2002-2003 season was actually the strongest in years), but it was still a rehashing of old themes. In its prime, however, The Simpsons was not only the best comedy in the history of television, but filled a cultural gap caused by the absence of a national humor magazine in its time.

We now interrupt this article about The Simpsons for an article about humor magazines.

The Descent of the Humor Magazine

In the beginning there was Life and Judge, and through their pages did the Irishman cavort alongside the Jew, and the colored fellow gambol alongside the Chinaman, and so too did the Dago grind his organ and the Dutchman grow his whiskers long, and verily were the columns filled with dialect . . .

And ever and anon did it continue until this material became like unto the shoe that buttons and the headgear that is superannuated, and so did Life and Judge give way to the New Yorker, and verily were the Irishman and the colored fellow banished to the servant’s quarters, and lo the cartoon captions which once sprouted line after line did dwindle down to but one . . .

And verily verily do I find myself unable to continue with this Bible-According-to-Yoda routine, so I’ll do us all a favor and bag it. As the New Yorker found itself no longer able to be so flibbertigibbet under the threat of nuclear annihilation, its identity as a humor magazine (or rather magazine with a significant humorous element) diminished. It’s with Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad that the American humor magazine takes its modern form. The humor magazine in the sense I’m talking about has a number of characteristics. It has a collective identity, and all its contents share a point of view. This point of view will create a frame of reference for commenting on the times. The contents will mostly be created by a closed group of contributors, which will prove difficult to expand. Because of this, and because of the pressures of turning out a humor magazine on a regular basis, the period of peak performance will not last for more than five or six years. Because of the limited lifespan, in turn, humor magazines each fit neatly (not to say glibly) into their own decades. During their peak period, however, they will attract a significant readership, and have an influence beyond it.

From its humble beginnings as a means of padding Harvey Kurtzman’s income, Mad developed into a full scale inquisition into the nature of suspension of disbelief in mass culture. It asked a question that had never been seriously raised before: For instance, why do we take it for granted that Mandrake can fix a flat tire by “gesturing hypnotically”? Up to that time analysis of mass culture, whether indulgent or dismissive, had always come from above. The dismissive analyst would not ask the Mandrake question because he assumed that mass culture was worthless by nature. The indulgent analyst doesn’t ask it first because he’s indulgent and second because more often than not he’s using mass culture to make some point about high culture. When Kurtzman analyzed mass culture he was like a fish that suddenly started to wonder what this clear stuff he’s been swimming around in all his life was. In part his analysis and its depth had its origins in the imperative of generating 30-odd pages of humor a month. In part it grew from his research for his war comics, and the concomitant discovery just about everything that was commonly believed about history was false. What he came to realize was that once you began to suspend disbelief too easily it became a habit which would ultimately put you in a condition to believe anything.

Kurtzman’s Mad ultimately succumbed to its creator’s ambitions and anxieties. He didn’t want to spend his life addressing an audience of adolescents, and he didn’t want his livelihood subject to the whims of a publisher. In a better world Humbug or Trump would have been the humor magazine of the 1960s, and if either one had taken hold it would have been a better world. In the world we live in what we had was Al Feldstein’s Mad, which had its points. Though it retained or regained several of its earlier contributors, Feldstein’s Mad was different enough in style and outlook to be considered a new magazine. While Feldstein took over in the 1950s and the magazine would actually reach its highest circulation in the 1970s, it was in the early 1960s that it made its own. Feldstein’s Mad was a humor magazine for times whose troubles were small. Well, not small, exactly, but in a country that felt invincible every problem seemed to hold within it the promise of a radiant future. True, these times dubbed themselves the Age of Anxiety, but after an age of economic collapse, worldwide war and mass slaughter, anxiety was a relatively good problem to have. The expansion of communism would be checked, the society would be racially integrated, poverty would be abolished, and you would be able to buy dirty magazines at the supermarket. (Sadly only one of these goals would be achieved.) As Kurtzman feared, its core readership remained pegged to early and late adolescents, but the concerns of the magazine were those of the 30-odd year old suburbanites who wrote and drew it. It was an odd juxtaposition, and I recall one of the things I liked about the magazine when I was a kid was that it made me fell grown up. If the frame of reference of the Kurtzman Mad was disingenuous skepticism, the frame of reference of the Feldstein Mad was smartass, and its stance was that of a heckler. Its greatest strength was the absence of advertising, which gave it the freedom to bite the hand that didn’t feed it. As the health consequences of tobacco became more a public concern and both television and the print media were heavily dependent of tobacco advertising, Mad was in a unique position to take the subject on.

Feldstein’s Mad at the end of the 60s was not terribly different from what it was at the beginning, and it maintained the level of its content longer than other humor magazine. The trouble was as the times got harder and the country more polarized Mad stayed soft. In the last half of the 60s the function of the humor magazine had been largely taken over by underground comics, which were essentially Kurtzman’s Mad carried out by other means.

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One Response to “Funnybook Roulette Archive Prelim: The Glory That Was The Simpsons

  1. I’m so glad you posted this. I loved it when it first ran and I was jonesing to reread it recently, but all my magazines are packed away so I can’t get to it.