When Art Met Springfield
9 minute read
When it comes to iconic TV shows, there’s nothing quite like The Simpsons. For nearly 30 years, viewers have been captivated by the misadventures of Springfield’s most infamous family (and gotten to know their many chums, cronies, acquaintances, and well wishers).
Since its premiere in December 1989, the show has practically written the rulebook for animated sitcoms — transforming the half-hour cartoon from juvenile diversion into a powerful vehicle for intelligent humor and social commentary. Along the way, it’s only embiggened its reputation, thanks to an impressive 32 Emmy awards, as well as guest appearances from a who’s who of actors, musicians, and even scientists.
Though the series has evolved quite a bit over the past three decades, it’s never stopped being relevant. And it makes sense that a show that reflects our time leans heavily on cultural references. From visual art and music to literature and “legitimate the-ater,” here are our ten favorite moments from when art met The Simpsons.
10. Street Bart-ist
In “Exit Through the Kwik-E-Mart” (2012), Bart Simpson takes up street art as a way to act out against his father.
The image he plasters all over town is an homage to the works of Shepard Fairey, combining elements of his Andre the Giant-inspired Obey series and his more recent Hope portrait of President Barack Obama. The twist? This one features Homer Simpson’s scowling mug, with “DOPE” written across the bottom.
Bart’s work soon draws the attention of respected street artists, including Kenny Scharf, Robbie Conal, and Shepard Fairey himself.
Eventually, Bart’s work is displayed at a chic art show, where he’s finally busted by the Springfield Police — who, in turn, inform him they’ve been tipped off by undercover officer, Shepard Fairey.
When he’s criticized for turning in a fellow street artist, Fairey gets the last laugh.
“Hey, don’t be so surprised,” he says. “I spent twenty years putting up posters that said, ‘obey.’”
9. Mock Me, Amadeus
Season 15’s “Margical History Tour” (2004) features a trio of historical tales told by, Marge Simpson and acted out by many of the show’s characters.
For her grand finale, Marge recounts the bitter feud between composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri (portrayed, respectively, by siblings Bart and Lisa Simpson).
Lisa is astute enough to notice that Marge’s story borrows heavily from the 1984 film, Amadeus, which, she notes, isn’t historically accurate. In their lifetimes, Mozart and Salieri were both respected composers, and the notion that Salieri poisoned Mozart is totally bogus.
Better luck next time, Marge!
8. La D'ohème
In “Homer of Seville” (2007), Springfield everyman Homer Simpson (shown here with his tongue stuck to a lamppost) suddenly develops the ability to sing like an opera star...but only while lying on his back.
While starring in productions of La Bohème and The Barber of Seville at the Springfield Opera House, Homer finds himself an unlikely celebrity, with a coterie of mostly elderly groupies. But the standout among his creepily devoted fans is a beautiful young woman named Julia, who tries to blackmail him into having an affair. This is where the plot begins to resemble an actual opera.
After Homer repeatedly denies her, Julia disguises herself as the conductor at one of his performances, where she fires a poison dart at him from her baton. Luckily, Marge intercepts the dart with a French horn, which sends it hurtling back toward her husband’s would-be murderer.
It’s a fun story. But, in hindsight, Homer probably isn’t even Springfield’s greatest opera singer. Two seasons earlier, Sideshow Bob (the series’ most enduring villain) sang a stirring rendition of “Vesti la giubba,” from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s 1892 opera, Pagliacci.
7. Banksy’s controversial couch gag
Longtime Simpsons fans are well aware that each episode features some minor differences in the show’s opening credits sequence. Chief among these is the ending, popularly dubbed the “couch gag.” Each week, just before the credits end, the Simpson family charges desperately for their living room sofa. And each week, something doesn’t quite go according to plan.
In more recent seasons, some prestigious guest artists — including director Guillermo Del Toro, Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi, and the team behind Rick and Morty — have been tapped to come up with their own custom “couch gags.”
One of the show’s most notorious couch gags appears at the beginning of the 2010 episode “MoneyBart”, where the reins were handed over to the enigmatic street artist, Banksy.
Unlike almost every other entry, there’s nothing lighthearted or fun about Banksy’s couch gag. Instead, it’s a dark commentary on the show, itself. (Warning: contains potentially disturbing animated violence.)
This time, as our protagonists reach their living room sofa, the room’s colorful interior gives way to a drab and dreary sweatshop, where exhausted workers colorize animation cells of the Simpson family — a not-too-subtle acknowledgement that the series outsources much of its post-production to inexpensive studios in South Korea.
From there, things only get more grim. Child workers man the production of Simpsons t-shirts. Somber employees feed kittens into a shredder, which turns them into stuffing for Bart Simpson dolls. The horn of a forlorn unicorn is used to punch holes in Simpsons DVDs.
At the end of the “gag,” an ominous looking 20th Century Fox production logo appears.
"Most of the content was about degrading people from Korea, China, Mexico and Vietnam [...] If Banksy wants to criticize these things...I suggest that he learn more about it first."
6. Thomas Pynchon’s House
When the folks behind The Simpsons nabbed the anonymous Banksy for the aforementioned season 19 couch gag, it was no small feat. But it wasn’t the first time they’d pinned down an artist who refuses to be seen in public.
Though he’s often considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, Thomas Pynchon is famously private, preferring to let his work speak for itself. That’s why it was such a shock when he agreed to voice himself in 2004’s “Diatribe of a Mad Housewife.”
When Marge publishes a romance novel, her agent asks Pynchon to contribute a blurb. His response?
“Here’s your quote. ‘Thomas Pynchon loved this book, almost as much as he loves cameras!’”
To the shock of lit-lovers everywhere, Pynchon even returned the following season. This time, he was on hand to review Marge’s homemade chicken wings — which, unlike her book, he actually enjoyed.
The story gets better. Thomas Pynchon actually revised this second script with some of his own jokes — apparently taking the stance that it needed more Pynchon-related puns. (He added “V-licious,” and “The Frying of Latke 49.”)
Also note how Pynchon refused to mock a certain Simpson for his fuller figure:
“[Sorry, guys. Homer is my role model and I can’t speak ill of him.]”
5. “Soup’s on, fat boy!”
In season 10’s “Mom and Pop Art” (1999), Homer Simpson becomes an accidental outsider artist, after his attempt at badly assembling a grill is mistaken for a cutting edge installation piece.
The episode contains a number of gags that could easily qualify for this list — a museum called Louvre: American Style, Jasper Johns stealing anything that isn’t tied down, and Pablo Picasso’s post-Cubist “crank letters to the editor.”
The pièce de résistance, though, is definitely this bizarre montage, dreamed up by Homer while he naps at the Springfield Art Museum.
If you can’t watch the video right now, we’ll sum it up for you. Homer:
Is licked by Henri Rosseau’s lion (1897’s The Sleeping Gypsy)
Gets kicked by Da Vinci’s Vetruvian Man (1490)
Takes rounds of gunfire from Picasso’s Three Musicians (1921)
Has Salvador Dalí’s clock break over his head (1931’s The Persistence of Memory)
Pleads with Andy Warhol not to crush him with a giant Campbell’s soup can
But, in the end, none of these works that resonates with him. Instead, inspired by the environmental artist Christo — as well as J.M.W. Turner’s paintings of Venetian canals — Homer opens up all of Springfield’s fire hydrants, flooding the town until it becomes a living work of art.
4. Impressionist Bart
From the beginning, the world of visual art has been well represented in The Simpsons. Take the season one episode, “The Crepes of Wrath” (1990).
After getting into trouble at school for the umpteenth time, Bart is sent to France as part of a student exchange program. He’s picked up at the airport by a man on a motorcycle, who takes him to his host family’s house. Once he arrives there, he’s treated like dirt. But whew boy, the route they take there is fabulous!
Since this early art history tour, The Simpsons has made dozens of other allusions to classic paintings. Complex has a comprehensive list from the series’ first 22 seasons.
3. Death of a Jazzman
Ever loved a song so much you wanted to blast it from the hilltops? Lisa Simpson knows the feeling all too well.
In season six’s “‘Round Springfield” (1995), Homer and Marge’s middle child is devastated to learn of the passing of beloved jazzman, Bleeding Gums Murphy — an obscure, yet talented musician, who, in one of the first season’s most memorable episodes, taught Lisa how playing music could cure her blues.
When Lisa finds herself the only attendee at her deceased friend’s funeral, she vows to make sure he isn’t forgotten. With some financial assistance from her brother, she buys an expensive copy of Murphy’s record (Sax on the Beach), which she convinces a DJ at Springfield’s only jazz station to play.
Just one problem: KJAZZ, which sits atop the hill that overlooks Springfield, has a broadcast range of only 23 feet. So, when Lisa tunes in, she only hears static.
But then lightning strikes (literally), and the song plays, loud and clear, on every radio in Springfield — putting smiles on the faces of all who listen.
Suddenly, the image of Bleeding Gums Murphy appears in the Mufasa-like clouds, thanking Lisa for her efforts.
Then, one last time, the two wail away together on their respective saxophones — reminding us of the transcendent power of music, that the wisdom of the old lives on through the passion of the young, and...and...
...I’m not crying. You’re crying!
2. Oh, Streetcar!
As it turns out, Lisa isn’t the only Simpson woman with an artistic side. While we first learned about Marge’s penchant for painting in the season two episode, “Brush With Greatness” (1991), 1992’s “A Streetcar Named Marge” proves she’s also a great actress.
Feeling largely ignored at home, Marge decides to try out for a local production of the Tennessee Williams play, A Streetcar Named Desire — which, for real world copyright reasons, is presented as a musical adaptation called Oh, Streetcar!. Despite being inexperienced, she’s cast in the starring role, as Blanche Dubois.
At first, Marge struggles with the role, before Oh, Streetcar!’s director helps her draw connections between her character's trauma and her own troubled marriage.
She channels the anger she feels at home, and ultimately puts on an incredibly moving performance.
After the play, Homer tells Marge that her performance helped him identify with Blanche, and hints that he might be able to be a better husband, himself. The two leave the theater, hand-in-hand.
1. “...Walt Freakin’ Whitman!”
The number one item on our list is, admittedly, more of a non sequitur than a meaningful plot point. And, for just that reason, it seems like the perfect note to go out on.
In “Mother Simpson” (1995), Homer is told by an employee at the Springfield Hall of Records that his long lost mom — whom he thought was also long dead — is actually still alive. In utter disbelief, he goes to the town cemetery to visit her grave.
After clearing some brush from what he believes is her tombstone, he discovers that the burial site belongs not to his mother, but the great American poet Walt Whitman.
This flips a switch in Homer, who repeatedly kicks at the stone, all the while shouting his disdain for Whitman and his work (“Leaves of Grass, my ass!”).
Homer soon reunites with his mother who, as it turns out, is actually an environmental activist on the lam. She leaves almost as suddenly as she arrives.
The Whitman reference isn’t significant in the grand scheme of this story. But the fact that it’s so random and ridiculous, coming at an extremely tense moment in an emotionally wrought episode, makes it especially memorable.
In the end, that’s another one of those things The Simpsons does so well — casually weaving in little cultural nuggets, which provide an entry point for the artistically uninitiated. Sure, there’s a lot more to Walt Whitman than the notion that Homer hates him, and more to Pablo Neruda than the fact that Lisa quotes him (or that Bart is familiar with his works). But, when these names inevitably come up in “real life,” diehard viewers are likely to say, “Oh yeah! I heard about that guy on The Simpsons.” And that tiny seal of approval, from one of TV’s most enduring shows, goes a lot further than you might think.
[Many thanks to Frinkiac for most of the stills throughout this article.]