'The Simpsons' Better Than 'Cheers'? It Is To Laugh
For the last couple of weeks, Vulture has been running a "Sitcom Smackdown," a contest between 16 sitcoms of the last 30 years to determine an eventual champion.
From the beginning, it was fairly openly a nonserious exercise in terms of determining actual quality: Murphy Brown was booted for being too topical, Everybody Loves Raymond for not "mov[ing] the sitcom needle" (quality and innovation are different questions, perhaps in sitcoms more than anywhere), and so forth. Furthermore, the bracket structure didn't really make any sense — different writers judged each matchup, meaning that a writer faced with, say, Friends versus Roseanne in the second round might never have picked Friends over The Golden Girls in the first round, and might have picked The Golden Girls over either Friends or Roseanne. So these were nobody's picks from all the choices; they're a series of picks dependent on other picks.
Also, it's a bracket making television shows compete with each other, so.
Suffice it to say, it would be a mistake to take it terribly seriously as a contest — it's much more interesting as a series of conversations about, for instance, how 30 Rock managed to lose to Sex And The City. (!!!) That does not, however, change how quickly my jaw hit the floor when the finals went live today and Vulture's TV writer, Matt Zoller Seitz, crowned The Simpsons as the best sitcom of the last 30 years over Cheers. THIS IS ANARCHY! (Not really.)
I remember sitting on the upper level of a New York bar with a gaggle of friends about seven years ago — some who knew each other, some who were just getting to know each other. Two dudes who had, before that night, never met wound up slumped drunkenly on the couch, getting to know each other the way I have seen dudes get to know each other over and over again in the last 20 years or so: they were reciting Simpsons lines to each other.
"You remember ... yourememember ... 'member where Homer'z all ... Homer'z ... 18 to 49 GUM ha ha ha ha ... " It went on like this for ... I want to say about two hours. It was like watching people platonically fall in love while drunk. Well, no, it was watching people platonically fall in love drunk.
Speaking Simpsons is a lot like being a birding enthusiast or following NASCAR. It gives people something to talk about and quote back and forth to each other. It's an absorbing, complete universe with a very long history. (It must be said, as with Monty Python And The Holy Grail and The Princess Bride, quotability on The Simpsons is a mixed blessing, since there are people for whom quoting lines from movies takes the place of having an actual sense of humor. Not for my two drunk friends, but for some.) In the first round of the Sitcom Smackdown, when Keith Phipps picked The Simpsonsover The Cosby Show, he relied heavily on its ubiquity: "It's crept into our collective consciousness, changed the way we watch TV, rewired our brains."
Similarly, in the final smackdown, Seitz explained that he picked The Simpsons over Cheers in part because his kids know so many Simpsons references — in part because his son knows lots of other parts of culture through Simpsons parodies.
For me, though, that's why The Simpsons has always seemed like less than it appears to others. It's plenty funny, and I get (and agree with) what others have often said about the lovely marriage at its center, Homer's relationship with God, and so forth. I do not in any way deny the show its flashes of brilliance — I enjoy it, and I've found something entertaining in it every one of the hundred thousand times I've seen it at either my best friend's house or my sister's house. But it also contains something I don't always care for, which is a reference that's supposed to be a joke. Picking The Simpsons over Cheers because a kid knows the Simpsons' Cheers parody better than the Cheers song is so odd to me; if you're making your bones on referring to stuff that already exists, you are dependent on that stuff already having been created, and you can't logically be its better.
Moreover — and here is where the controversy is hottest, I think -- The Simpsons very rarely moves me. There are some nice parent-child scenes, and there are some nice husband-wife scenes, but for the most part, I find it sort of slick and ... well, cartoonish. Which is fine! It's very funny! It's fun! It contains many good/great jokes! I like that in a comedy!
But for me, personally, it doesn't resonate anywhere near the way The Cosby Show often did, or Roseanne often did, or Cheers often did. For me, quotability and ubiquity are admirable and say something about a show's mastery of its own universe, but they cannot overcome what are, to me, the limitations of the show's universe to the point where I'd elevate it to this level. For me, the half-hour comedy at its best is a funny story — both funny and a story. I often find The Simpsons satisfying as to the first part; rarely as to the second. Cheers told such satisfying stories for me, not just with Sam and Diane, but with everyone.
Note, by the way, that Seitz and Phipps closed their arguments in favor of The Simpsons with exactly the same reference to exactly the same Simpsons joke: the word "unpossible." It's admirable to create an entire language that fans speak that reliably. It's like Esperanto: the fact that I don't run around speaking it doesn't mean I don't admire the creation of it or the speaking of it.
But when we speak of cultural saturation, we get into tricky questions of saturation where, and for whom, and in what slices of the world. The Simpsons is not, in fact, known and loved by everyone. There are people for whom The Cosby Show and Roseanne were just as formative and important as The Simpsons is for people who love it the most. There's nothing wrong with recognizing the impact a show has had on your own family, but that's not the same thing as the impact it has had across some massive swath of the universe.
My two drunk-faced pals might seem like an example of The Simpsons being something that strangers of all sorts can get together on, something that unites us across ... something. But in fact, both of those guys were very close in age, watch a lot of the same other kinds of shows, and, after all, knew me really well. They were already members of many shared cultural tribes. Within those tribes, in the minds of many, The Simpsons is indeed the most important shared cultural artifact of the last 30 years, not just the greatest sitcom.
But not for me. Just ... not for me. If they'd asked me, The Simpsons would never have made it past The Cosby Showin the first round. (It would still, as it did under Steve Almond, have beaten Community, and it well might, as it did under David Lipsky, have beaten Seinfeld.) (But of course, I would have knocked it out early, meaning it would have been Cosby versus Community and then Cosby versus Seinfeld.) (So either they seeded poorly or I am an outlier.) (End parens.)
Cheers, to me, was such a lovely and grounded piece of work, especially in the first half of its run — and if we're demanding consistency over time, both of these shows will struggle — that it just isn't outweighed by, as Seitz puts it, "overall impact." He claims it's probably quoted "as widely and frequently as The Bible," which I frankly doubt and which is awfully difficult to get one's arms around without making allowances for the kind of people one knows best. But even if that's true, many things are quoted. People sang "Call Me Maybe" last year more than anything anyone probably considered the year's greatest musical performance. While that's worth considering, would I personally make that the tip-over consideration? Probably not.
For people who speak Simpsons, all day every day, of course, yes. Greatest. Sitcom. Ever. (See what I did there?) But for me? Not by a mile.
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