Tuesday, June 15, 2021

contextual disintegration supplement: MAD and The Simpsons

The last post was originally going to be more generalized, examining the "contextual disintegration" of media artifacts (for lack of a better term) across a few different fields. It ended up being too broad a topic for a short blog post, so I settled for focusing on the particular case of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which had anyway inspired the idea. I did jot down some notes regarding a couple of other specific instances, which I'll expand upon here. Just for fun.

I.

My father bought me my first copy of MAD in 1993. For the next several years, I'd greedily seize new issues and specials off the magazine rack whenever they appeared. I was hooked. Even though I'd seen almost none of the movies or TV shows satirized in each issue, I could spend hours studying Mort Drucker's illustrations; the man was a virtuoso. Just looking at Tom Bunk and Rick Tulka's illustrations was enough to make me burst out laughing. Don "Duck" Edwing wasn't exactly Don Martin (Duck's mentor/collaborator, and my father's favorite MAD artist, whom I wouldn't discover until picking up a few reprints and specials), but his idiosyncratic themes and macabre vaudeville were always good for a chuckle. I wasn't sure whether I should find Bill Wray's "Monroe" relatable or appalling, but when it became a monthly feature in 1997 it was one of the first things I'd look for when opening a new issue. And, yeah, I became a little more informed about the way the world works from articles like "A MAD Look at the Real 'Clinton Coalition,'" "MAD's 1993 Washington Lobbyist All Stars," and "The Republican Party's 'Contract with America' (TRUTHFUL Post-Election Version!)" were much more educational than the Darkwing Duck and Goof Troop comics I was reading in Disney Adventures.

Cover of MAD #319 (June 1993)

Only much later did I understand that the 1990s were the beginning of MAD's slow decline after four decades of publication. Even though MAD's cultural influence had long since peaked, it remained as spry and incisive as ever through most of the 1990s. But the media ecosystem in which it was able to thrive was on the verge of a cataclysmic transformation.

The internet decimated the newspaper and magazine industry; MAD held out for as long as it could, and finally succumbed in 2018, after seven decades of publication. No surprise there. The march of MAD lifers who'd regularly contributed to the magazine since its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s finally calling it quits hadn't helped matters much, and the diminished stature of the MAD name wasn't pulling in young talent of the same caliber as Mort Drucker, Al Jaffee, Don Martin, or Jack Davis. 

But how does MAD's back catalogue hold up?

Like Mystery Science Theater 3000, MAD is full of topical humor and pop-culture references whose effectiveness as joke-matter is inversely proportional to the to the age of the reader. Somebody born this century probably won't get much amusement out of a black-and-white comic satire of Welcome Back Kotter, a fake consumer report about TV remote controls, or an article about the contents of Tuesday Weld's wallet. There's something else, though.

Pope's The Rape of the Lock (1712) is a whole lot of fun if your eye is already accustomed to scanning epic poetry written in rhyming couplets (as were Chapman and Dryden's translations of Homer), and you're able to appreciate the juxtaposition of highfalutin heroic verse and the veritable non-event of dainty aristocrats squabbling at a party. Frog Fractions (2012) will either come across as a lot of absurd nonsense or an inspired bricolage composed from the deconstruction of video game conventions, depending on how many video games you've played. Satire depends not only on the viewer's familiarity with the figures, institutions, or events being sent up, but also their fluency in the compositional "language" of a medium. MAD began as a comic book spoofing other comic books (and sometimes radio and film), but reformatted itself as a magazine with issue #24 in 1955.

It was called a "magazine" because there wasn't really any other word for it. Actually, it was a hybrid of the magazine and the comic book: divided into "features" of differing formats with varying degrees of emphasis upon text and illustration. Especially early on, an issue would contain a feature consisting almost entirely of text, followed by a six-page comic strip or two pages of captioned illustrations. Its visual language was a pidgin understandable to both people who read comic books and people who read general audience magazines; as Marshal McLuhan noticed, the overall scheme of its non-comic features bore a great deal of resemblance to the standard format of mid-twentieth-century advertising pages: motley, heterogenous grids of text and imagery.

Although MAD spoofed television and film with illustrated spoofs, and took aim at institutions by comic-strip "interviews" with executives and politicians, a lot of its satirical bite was delivered through imitations of "legitimate" print media: fake advertisements, silly infographics, phony newspaper clippings, excerpts from ersatz special interest magazines and catalogues, fabricated letters of correspondence to and from celebrities, warped imitations of rhyming educational books for children, and so on. It "spoke" in the language of a society for whom print ephemera was a major component of its information diet (in spite of television), mocking The Establishment through the same formal "language" with which it communicated to the public. MAD's Usual Gang of Idiots were the O.G. culture jammers. 

From "Little Known Organizations," MAD #48 (July 1959)

From "Obituaries for Comic Strip Characters,"
MAD #106 (Oct. 1966)

From "Those Wonderful Sixties!"
MAD #138 (1970) 

From "Disaster Magazine," MAD #184 (July 1976)

"The Mess Commission Report on Pornography,"
MAD #269 (March 1987)

I tried to get Shirley into Mystery Science Theater 3000; it would be pointless to attempt to warm her up to MAD's back catalogue. Not only will the topical humor fly right over her head (though it's not her fault if Nixon jokes fall flat), but it's all too...textual. Shirley was on the internet as a preteen, grew up in a household where both parents worked late, and read books to make her teachers happy—not for her own pleasure. The only reading she really learned to enjoy were Harry Potter books, manga, and internet message boards. Putting wordy print media in front of her is like putting celery in the cat's food dish. She just doesn't know what to do with it. It doesn't speak to her. I see no reason to believe why hundreds of thousands of kids who grew up with iPads won't feel the same way: though MAD is printed in modern English, its overall "message," bound up in the idioms of magazine and catalogue culture, will seems like a statement rendered in a hoary hieroglyphic language. Probably the Zoomers and Gen-Alphas capable of appreciating old-school MAD are as aberrant as Millennials who really truly dig silent film.

What about latter-day MAD? Say, the issues published after 2001, several years after it had been subsumed into DC Comics and right when it began printing paid advertisements for the first time in almost fifty years. (Can you believe there was once a time when a magazine could cover operating costs and earn a profit through newsstand sales alone? It's getting harder and harder.)

MAD held on for nearly two decades into the twenty-first century, but after the 1990s it cemented its dismal status as a legacy property. The Onion had already ousted it from its position as the United States' premiere satirical publication, and the faux-journalistic format made it much more adaptable to the digital ecosystem. Cynical political commentary belonged to the Daily Show. Thanks to The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park, adult humor in the benign guise of cartoons had leapt from print to television. But the elephant in the room is obviously the internet. Print media imploded on itself. Information went digital and took on formats optimized to the technical dimensions of the new medium. MAD spoke to the twenty-first century about the twenty-first century in the media language of the twentieth century. Maintaining its relevance, let alone expanding its audience, was impossible.

From "President Obama: The Promise Vs. Reality,"
MAD #499 (April 2009)

From "Planet Tad," MAD #512 (December 2011)

From "The Fundalini Pages," MAD #544 (April 2017)

In the mid aughts, when the internet's encroachment had passed its inflection point, what did MAD have to offer anymore?
 
Comic strips? Free on the internet. Besides, the comic strip is no longer what it once was to the irreverent youth intent on lashing out at authority with pith and style. The formula of "image + caption  → vicious takedown" is now more widely practiced and disseminated in memes—free to view on the internet, and in anyone's power to make and share.

A monthly feature spoofing cringey adolescent bloggers? Redundant: plenty of internet diarists are perfectly willing to caricature themselves.

Cynical content about American politics and business? Superfluous: not only is that material no longer too controversial for television, we've got at least two generations of witty doomers who can perfectly competently mock the hypocrisy of elected officials and the ridiculousness and avarice of consumer culture on any number of platforms—and again, they do it for free.

Spoofs of digital journalism (see above)? The Onion does it with more panache and updates more often than once a month...and gives it away for free.

Television and film parody? With animated .gifs and YouTube, visual media can now be mocked in a format closer (or nearly identical) to that of the original. To the younger reader, acclimated to reaction stills and .gifs from The Shining, who's hit Like on the funniest comments on the YouTube clips, and who's listened to podcast hosts joke about it, a lavishly illustrated five-page comic parody registers in his sensibilities as overdone.

Parodies of full-page mail-order forms in print magazines and operating instructions for home appliances? Community Chest cards for off-color versions of Monopoly? Oh, please.

So MAD has little to offer the digital native in either its pre- or post-internet versions. There's a strange footnote, though: of the score of second-rate imitators MAD inspired early on, the only one that clung to life was Cracked. The only kids who read Cracked were MAD fans who got impatient waiting a month for a new issue. Nobody would dare call it an indispensable publication.

But in the mid-aughts, something happened: Cracked ceased its print publication, went online, and rebranded itself as a site that published infotainment listicles. When they hear "Cracked," pretty much nobody thinks "MAD clone"—they think "The 5 Most Insane Improvised Weapons (That Were Animals)." After five decades of trembling in MAD's shadow like a rodent skittering around a dinosaur's ankles, Cracked responded to the signal crisis of print media by evolving into something that could not only survive in the new environment, but briefly dominate it. In 2010, cracked.com was the most-viewed humor site in the world. That same year, MAD was printing two-page spreads of True Blood stills with funny dialogue balloons, excerpts from the memoirs of the Obamas' dog, and a four-panel comic strip called "Calvin and Jobs," where Calvin talks to Apple's CEO instead of a stuffed tiger.

II.

I had a startling, sobering thought about The Simpsons not long ago. Before I relate it, I'd like to mention a few observations made in its wake.

During its early years, The Simpsons shocked faint-hearted viewers accustomed to anodyne children's television cartoons and smarmy sitcoms. Its hook was that it held a truer mirror up to the "average" American family than did its live-action counterparts. But the image in that mirror is of a specific version of the average American family during a very specific moment. Since The Simpsons treated its characters like people—mitigating its unflattering portrait of an American family by taking somewhat seriously their pains, aspirations, and quiddities—it lacked from the start the potential lability of South Park and Family Guy, whose characters were never meant to be anything but ventriloquist dummies spouting jokes and the occasional political opinion of the shows' creators. This isn't a bad thing in and of itself—but it meant that the main cast and their world took on less definite dimensions.

The Simpsons made for excellent satire of the American suburbs and its discontents in the years immediately following the Cold War because the titular family and the people in its social orbit were eminently recognizable to viewers watching the show in the early 1990s.

I keep thinking about school bullies Dolph, Jimbo, and Kearney. They dress and wear their hair like dirtbag kids who listen to a lot of metal—common enough to be a suburban stereotype in the early 1990s, but not quite so frequently encountered lately. Having attended elementary school in the early 1990s myself, I know that a kid could beat the crap out of another kid in the hallway and suffer no consequences; it wouldn't be reported, and nobody was watching. Nowadays I'm not so sure that would be the case.

Grampa Simpson's comportment and worldview can't be abstracted from his status as a straight white World War II veteran who lived most of his adult life in a society built and controlled by people like him, and who now finds himself utterly baffled by the technological and cultural changes that have transformed the world since the 1970s because he never had any incentive to keep up until he was already left behind. He doesn't make much sense if he wasn't born in the 1920s: his crankiness is a very certain kind of crankiness. It is not the crankiness of an aged Baby Boomer.

Marge? Would she be such a naïve square in her mid-thirties if she'd had a smartphone and social media to keep her company while the kids are at school and Homer is at work?

You see where this is going.

Nobody in The Simpsons ages: Bart and Lisa are always ten and eight years old; Homer and Marge are always in their mid-thirties, no matter what year in which an episode is produced and aired. At first, this caused no glaring discrepancies. Season two's "The Way We Was" showed Homer and Marge as high school seniors in 1974. Either we guess that the date of their graduation gets bumped up by two years between seasons two and four, or we remind ourselves not to overthink it: what's two years added to their ages, so long as they still settled down and had kids in the eighties? What's three years? Four? Five?

...Six? Seven? Ten? Fifteen?

Then came the episode "That '90s Show" in season nineteen (2007–8), which flashes back to Marge's college years—in the early 1990s. Despite longtime fans' howls accusing the The Simpsons of blasphemy, there was no denying that it was realistic by dint of the sliding timescale's warped logical exigencies. If Marge graduated from high school in 1974 at the age of seventeen, she'd be, what, fifty-one years old in an episode airing in 2008? 

The shock and consternation I experienced when skipping through "That '90s Show" for the first time a decade ago was nothing compared to a realization I had a few weeks ago: because of the sliding timescale, Homer Simpson is now a Millennial.


It's true! His official age is thirty-nine. In 2021, that would make his year of birth 1982—placing him decisively in the Millennial age bracket. Sure, he might be better categorized as a Xennial—but look at the man in the picture above this paragraph. Recall everything you know about him from back when you still watched The Simpsons. As of season 32(!!), that same man was probably on MySpace in his twenties, has cracked himself up at least once by saying "I'm Rick James, bitch!" or "mah waiif," had his political sensibilities shaped by the internet, was raised by Boomers, once owned Green Day's Dookie album and now probably enjoys listening to at least a few rap artists...and managed to become a homeowner supporting a stay-at-home wife, without learning a craft or earning a college degree, during the Great Recession. 

No wonder Homer's role has been that of a two-dimensional clown for so many years now. He and his entire premise have become so increasingly divorced from reality that there's little alternative but to render him as the television version of Dagwood or Beetle Bailey.


Maybe the better comparison would be to the cast of Archie comics: perfectly legible teen stereotypes of the 1940s who became more anachronistic with every decade of publication. (Yeah, the Riverdale crew was revamped for the 2010s—but before that, the publisher went on printing new comics exclusively featuring the "classic" versions well into the twenty-first century.) Jughead was first drawn wearing a whoopee cap because teenagers actually wore them when he debuted in 1941. Years later, he went on wearing it because he'd always wore it. People call it a "Jughead" cap now because nobody else, real or fictional, has worn one in like half a century. No longer resembling a teenager in the context of any contemporary teen culture, Jughead became a wholly self-referential creature unto himself.

The Simpsons has lost its ability to satirize with any bite not only because it was already played out as early as twenty years ago, not only because of its entrenchment in the pop culture Establishment, but because the necessity of maintaining continuity between the Homer and Bart of seasons 1–5 with the Homer and Bart of seasons 27–32(!!!) results in anachronism and hyperreality. The same is true for the whole extended cast. If we imagine an alternate universe where Matt Groening was born in 1994 instead of 1954, got his start making a viral YouTube cartoon called Life In Hell, and was tapped by Netflix to create an animated series satirizing middle America in 2021—do we think the Simpson family and the Springfield this version of Groening comes up with will much resemble the ones we recognize?

The Simpsons' writers can put a smartphone in his hand as often as they want, but Bart is no longer believable as a ten-year-old boy living in the present day. The best he can do is try to maintain his consistency as a simulacrum of popular 1990s cartoon character Bart Simpson.

5 comments:

  1. I'd say they should just end the show already but I realized...it would only be a few years before Disney would spit out a" Neo" Simpsons to attract" nostalgic" fans, just like what they are doing with Rugrats, Animaniacs, and other shows right now...on god damn streaming networks.

    I'm curious...do you think those like the X-Men, Batman and other fictional" Legends" also no really make sense in today's age and are outdated relics reflecting a time that does not exist? I guess a man out of time is Captain America's whole thing.

    In any case if Simpsons started now then I don't know, maybe it would be more like Rick and Morty...or Modern Family or something of a mix of that.

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    1. (1) "Neo" Simpsons is probably less a question of "if" than "when." It's too potentially valuable a property to leave fallow. Most likely scenario: the show FINALLY gets cancelled, then rebooted a few years later with a different voice cast, new character designs, etc. Somewhat less likely: Disney pushes the voice cast into retirement and announces that Season 38 or whatever will be the beginning of All-New All-Different Simpsons.

      (2) Superheroes are much more adaptable because they mundane period-dependent particulars aren't as important. The thing about Cyclops is that he's a tightly-wound hardass who shoots lasers from his eyes. Everything else can be flexible. There's always going to be a little fraying around the edges (is Professor X still a Korean War veteran?), but comic book heroes are always more concerned with the fantastic than the mundane. Some characters carry the imprint of the period in which they were conceived and introduced, but almost none need be period-specific.

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    2. True enough about superhero's I suppose. We are already having a preview of such reboots with things such as the" New" Rugrats or this Bevis and Butthead revival...to me that seems like that's a thing that's going to look even more aged then the Simpsons without a lot of changes to put it lightly.

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  2. 1. I read Mad magazine a few times when I was younger. Sometimes, I would check out an issue from the library, and I thought it was fine, I guess? The magazine didn't leave much of an impact on me, and I recall enjoying their sketch TV show more. Possibly, I was a little too young for the magazine, as I didn't turn 13 until the year 2000, by which point Mad was falling past its prime, from what I gather from you. It's a shame they got decimated by the internet, the same as so many other magazines; I kind of miss some of the old gaming magazines I used to read, even if played a part in their demise by ending my subscription and moving to the internet, like so many others.

    2. The absence of aging really has become a problem in the Simpsons, as far as I'm concerned. I find it difficult to divorce the characters from their late-80s, early-90s origins, since that era informs the characters so much. Bart is very much a kid from that time, while many of the character-building flashback episodes in the early seasons put a clear date on the events (like how Grandpa Simpson was in World War II, or the numerous Homer and Marge flashbacks). It just seems wrong to me to pretend like those episodes never happened and that Bart is a 10-year old born in 2011. This dissonance is just another reason to pretend the series ended decades ago, as the lack of aging isn't as much of an issue in the first 10 or so seasons, in my opinion.

    And I've thought about the Simpsons not aging and why the characters staying forever young (or forever middle-aged) bothers me more in the Simpsons than in other series. I considered manga by Rumiko Takahashi, since she does the same thing in series like Ranma 1/2. In this case, the length of time makes a big difference. Ranma ended its serialization after 9 years while the Simpsons is still going at 32 years and counting. That's over three times as long. Unsurprisingly, it gets harder to ignore characters not aging as more time passes, but I'd say Ranma does a good job of showing that non-aging characters can be easy to ignore for up to around 10 years, real-time (at least for me).

    I think a more interesting comparison with non-aging characters is with South Park (although I should note that the characters have aged slightly in South Park, when they went up one grade). South Park has been going on for over 20 years now, yet I think it handles the lack of aging better than the Simpsons. It helps South Park, in this regard, that it has never taken itself as seriously as the Simpsons. So much of what happens in South Park is absurd that characters staying the same age doesn't register as much (on the other hand, this lack of grounding in South Park has prevented the show from ever reaching the peaks of early Simpsons, in my view, so I wouldn't really call it an advantage). Another thing that interests me in South Park is how Matt Stone and Trey Parker focus far more on the children than the Simpsons (which lately focuses most on Homer), and South Park's creators write off the lack of aging by emphasizing how Stan et al. are constantly moving on to the next fad. The South Park kids have been doing this from almost the beginning of the series, so it's not that jarring to see Cartman with a smartphone because he's always wanted the newest technology.

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    1. (1) MAD, like MST3K, is very much an IP you had to pick up at a certain time (and at a certain age) to get much of anything out of it. And even in the late nineties, it began to slip a little. It was at the top of its game in the sixties and seventies. The amount and degree of talent in the regular writing/illustration staff back then was unbelievable, and ultimately irreplaceable.

      (2) You hit the nail on the head there. South Park's two-dimensionality and absurdity are responsible for its having a longer shelf-life than The Simpsons. Bart, as you say, is very much a child shaped by the influences of the early 1990s. Cartman was always just a little shithead; he's timeless, whereas Bart could only become self-referential as the decades went by. But we also never care about Cartman the same way we cared about Bart.

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