The Simpsons never quite managed the feat of getting a US president, sitting or otherwise, to appear on the show.
That’s an important fact to remember because from its early mega hit popularity onwards, the series has gotten close. The UK’s then-Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared in 2003, Nixon, Reagan, Carter, and Ford turned down Krusty Gets Cancelled (though only Reagan responded), and in 1992 George H.W Bush claimed during a Washington speech that “we need a nation closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons.”
The series was a cultural juggernaut at the height of its popularity. In the decades since its relevance has waned, The Simpsons has become perhaps the only thing more powerful than a phenomenon. With 684 episodes, 34 Emmys, and Time Magazine’s deserved title of the 20th century’s greatest TV series, The Simpsons is an institution.
So, who needs the president?
Well, The Simpsons certainly didn’t in its golden age, whatever about its current incarnation.
At the height of its popularity and what critical and fan consensus agree was the show’s golden age (seasons two through twelve, give or take), the animated family sitcom was a force to be reckoned with.
Subversive, warm-hearted, silly, sharp, ingeniously clever, gleefully dumb, and always preternaturally original, the show was best described by critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz in TV: The Book (shout out to YouTuber Patrick Willems’ superb Simpsons video for sourcing this quote): “The Simpsons is… ambitious, intimate, classical, experimental, hip, corny, and altogether free in its conviction that the imagination should go where it wants.”
Wherever there was an established norm, whether it was in comedy, storytelling, or character, The Simpsons were there to subvert it. The episode Homer’s Phobia, controversial in its day, provides an example of this.
This episode depicted homophobia not from the perspective of a gay character affected by it (something American mainstream prime time television was far from offering), but instead from our loveable American everyman. The protagonist of the show, the audience insertion persona, was depicted as an unapologetic homophobe, and viewers were expected to follow Homer’s journey to acceptance via the episode’s always charming guest star John Waters.
In the nineties, the aftermath of the AIDS crisis cast a long shadow over American culture, and few shows even attempted to discuss LGBT themes. Those that did mostly offered “don’t discriminate” platitudes.
In contrast, The Simpsons expected viewers to interrogate their unconscious prejudices by showing that even the absurd hero of a surreal cartoon needed to learn, grow, and change sometimes. It’s a hilarious episode which masks a poignant message in genuinely inventive and funny comedy, something viewers haven’t seen from the show in a long, long time.
So what happened?
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