Every Thursday in LOL Interwebz, Luke T. Harrington explores the quirks and foibles of Internet culture from a Gospel perspective.
From approximately 1989 to 1998, The Simpsons was banned in my home. It was, of course, the height of the so-called “culture wars,” and as evangelical Christians we felt it was our duty to oppose everything from abortion to fart jokes. The Simpsons had plenty of the latter, so there it went.
And so, what seemed the biggest threat to Western Civilization in the early ’90s has come full circle to become its most stalwart vanguard, marked up and cross-referenced like the Bible, ready to be quoted as endlessly and reliably as the works of Shakespeare.It’s hard to explain the sort of controversy the show generated to someone growing up in the age of the Internet. Without even getting up from writing this piece, I could immediately fill the room with snuff videos, midget porn, or Donald Trump’s hair. In the modern age, the sort of people who would wring their hands over some crude jokes in a TV cartoon seem pretty quaint, but in the early ’90s, a single crude cartoon felt like the downfall of civilization to a lot of people.
By the time my mother gave me begrudging permission to watch The Simpsons, I didn’t really think about it, but the show had already been on the air for nearly a decade. By then the local FOX affiliate was showing two episodes a day in the late afternoon, and I had a TV in my bedroom. Watching The Simpsons became my evening ritual—the school day hadn’t officially ended until I had been cordially invited to eat a jaundiced kid’s shorts.
I stuck with this habit throughout high school and college and well into my adult years until the local station finally moved the show to 9 p.m. a few years ago and I realized I had much better things to be doing that late in the evening. By then I had probably seen every episode at least a hundred times and the show had run for a quarter century. (And it’s still going!) The show’s funniest lines had permeated my being, becoming part and parcel of my vocabulary.
There was good reason for this. While the crude jokes may have been the most apparent thing to a Christian mother observing the series in the early ’90s, a careful viewer would quickly realize that they had very little to do with the show’s lasting appeal. Though some were loath to admit it, The Simpsons was one of the smartest shows on TV, with an Ivy League-educated cast of writers who would weave philosophy, theology, mythology, psychology, and a host of other topics into the jokes. It was the sort of show that would make you smarter without your even realizing it.
The jokes in The Simpsons hold up to hundreds of viewing because there’s so much behind them. They’re ten thousand years of Western Civilization distilled into candy. While Seinfeld may have given us “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” nearly every line of The Simpsons has become a catch phrase somewhere. If you say “You don’t win friends with salad” or “I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords,” anyone from the last few generations knows exactly what you mean.
And with that in mind, it kind of makes perfect sense that “Frinkiac” is a thing.
If you’re unfamiliar, Frinkiac (named for the Jerry-Lewis-esque mad scientist character from the show) is an index of three million stills from the entire run (so far!) of The Simpsons, linked to the closed captions. You can type in any Simpsons quote you can think of, and Frinkiac will instantly bring up the scene, and even allow you to make a meme-like graphic out of it. Is it a massive violation of copyright law? Maybe. But then again, as Duffman would say, “What ever happened to…fair use?”
And so, what seemed the biggest threat to Western Civilization in the early ’90s has come full circle to become its most stalwart vanguard, marked up and cross-referenced like the Bible, ready to be quoted as endlessly and reliably as the works of Shakespeare.
Does this mean that the cultural warriors who protested it in the early ’90s were “wrong”? I’d resist that particular label, even if they were a bit shortsighted. Rather I’d argue that what this strange history reveals is the very inadequacy of culture wars themselves. If each of us is a valuable human being made in the Image of God, then constantly trying to shut each other down is going to be counterproductive and ineffective. Very few human endeavors are going to be purely good or purely bad.
The culture warriors weren’t wrong to point out that The Simpsons was some of the crudest TV ever broadcast; they were just too focused on trying to jerk the culture back to where it once was to notice that in many ways they and The Simpsons were cobelligerents in their quest to preserve that culture—and perhaps The Simpsons even knew that culture a bit better than they did and was doing a better job of reaching the masses that the culture warriors had already written off.
And now Frinkiac sits on the web, shining proof that the cultural stones the builders reject can sometimes become the capstones. It’s a reminder that opposition as a platform tends to be a dead end, and that culture is frequently built on risk-taking.