The Simpsons: A Perfectly Cromulent Oral History, Part 1—Inside The Harvard Lampoon

Picture the scene: Homer Simpson is dozing on his couch in a robe and slippers as his living room burns around him. The fire started when a cigar fell from his drooling mouth onto a pile of magazines and cables. Spreading through the power lines, the blaze reaches a large box in the basement, conspicuously labeled “oily rags,” and erupts to consume the house. After vainly attempting to remember the lyrics to a song about surviving such an event (“Something, something, then you’ll see, you’ll avoid catastrophe.”) Homer collapses from smoke inhalation.

Fortunately, Ned Flanders, his pious Protestant neighbor, is passing by outside. Homer has been rudely rejecting Ned’s efforts to sway him back to Christianity after abandoning the faith to start his own religion. Yet Ned kicks the front door down and enters the house, his compassion for Homer undimmed. Placing Homer on his shoulders, he begins to carry him out, but collapsed beams obstruct his path. Improvising, he drags Homer upstairs to his infant daughter’s bedroom, breaks a window, and heaves a mattress through it to the ground below. Lifting Homer up, he utters a prayer: “Dear Lord, may your loving hand guide Homer to the mattress square and true.” He shoves Homer through the window, but the mattress fails to cushion his fall, instead propelling Homer back into the living room as Ned watches exhaustedly.

It’s a perfect moment: hilarious yet unpredictable, informed equally by strong characterization and zany slapstick. And it encapsulates everything brilliant about The Simpsons, the first scene that comes to mind when I think of the show. Since 1989, the antics of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Maggie, and their misfit peers in Springfield have placed middle America in a funhouse mirror, blending social satire with emotional drama to parody the post-Reagan United States. In one regard, “Homer the Heretic,” the episode in which that scene appears, is a sharply observed commentary on faith, institutions, and community. Beyond that, it is an exploration of family and friendship driven by the tensions created by Homer’s blasphemy. Throughout, it features a profusion of inspired gags. But what’s remarkable is that the same could be said of countless other episodes. 

As The Simpsons presses on amid our bizarre cultural moment, defiantly confronting society’s new absurdities, even its oldest seasons continue to hysterically reflect real life. Before the turn of the millennium, more than 10 seasons were produced, each stylistically distinct. This was at the hands of perhaps the finest team of writers ever assembled in comedy, who built upon a foundation laid and subsequently deepened by series creators Matt Groening, Sam Simon, and James L. Brooks. 

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