This month marks the opening of the 25th season of "The Simpsons," which will kick off plenty of retrospectives on how beloved and groundbreaking the show has been.
These observations are of course true, but they do not and will not fully recognize the role "The Simpsons" has had, for good or for ill, in demystifying our political leaders – especially our presidents. When "Game of Thrones" beheaded a character with the visage of George W. Bush, this was unimaginable in the era before "The Simpsons." And when Barack Obama goes on one entertainment show after another – literally dozens in the reelection period in 2012 – to appear to be a regular guy, he owes a debt to "The Simpsons" as well.
Although television is not the newest medium, it remains a relatively new technology, and the etiquette of lampooning the president on TV took time to develop. In television's earliest years, directly mocking a president was off limits. For example, John F. Kennedy, who effectively used television in order to get himself elected in 1960, benefitted from media standards that nowadays would be simply unthinkable. In 1961, NBC executives cut an eight-minute comedic sketch about the Kennedys from "The Art Carney Show" because, according to a network flack, "we thought it would have been improper to have performers actually portraying the president and his wife." According to the spokesman, the "decision was based on a matter of good taste."
After Kennedy's death, standards loosened somewhat as NBC's British-imported parody show "That Was the Week That Was" – starring, among others, the late David Frost – did satirize President Lyndon Johnson, which was unusual at the time. Even so, the producers fought with the network censors over the LBJ jokes, and the censors suspended the satire around the 1964 presidential election.
The next big development in televised presidential satire was Chevy Chase's crude bumbling-and-stumbling performances of an inept Gerald Ford on "Saturday Night Live." The sketches would redefine presidential humor. In a devastating parody of Ford's debates with Jimmy Carter, Chase responded to a question with a plaintive "It was my understanding that there would be no math." The jibes were frequent and unrelenting, and the sketches – which often opened the show – were the subject of Monday water-cooler conversations all across the country. As Mark Leibovich wrote in the New York Times, "No one did more to solidify Mr. Ford's unfortunate, and perhaps unfair, standing as the nation's First Klutz than Mr. Chase." Donald Rumsfeld, who served as Ford's chief of staff, recalled in his memoir that "Chase's popular parody . . . did damage to the president's image throughout his presidency."
After Ford lost the 1976 election in a close race, there was a clear sense that TV had toppled him through ridicule, forever linking Gerald Ford the varsity athlete to Chase's stumblebum head of state. The Ford impersonation, though, was not a physical imitation. Chase did not even put on makeup or don a bald cap to try to look like Ford. It was the sheer novelty (even audacity) of the portrayal that created the power with viewers. In the years ahead, SNL failed to score with sustained comedic insights on Carter or Reagan, even as the imitators made the shift to attempt to look like the presidents they portrayed. The best SNL could do to Reagan was to present him as a closet genius, a public simpleton who became a hard-charging boss behind the scenes; not exactly a devastating portrait. It was left to "The Simpsons" to draw the president into its made up world, taking presidential mockery to a new level.
"The Simpsons" began innocuously enough. It was just a featurette on the "Tracy Ullman Show" in 1987, but became a series in its own right in 1989. Almost immediately, it became a cultural commentary that could vex the White House. After the show's first season, First Lady Barbara Bush told People magazine that the animated sensation was "the dumbest thing I've ever seen." This elicited a written response from "The Simpsons'" animated matriarch, Marge. Mrs. Bush was chastened by Marge's letter and apologized for her "loose tongue." The Bushes, however, didn't learn the lesson of avoiding a fight with someone who, to adapt an old saying, distributes photons by the megapixel. In 1992, President Bush, in a well-publicized speech, pined for an America that was "closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons." Once again, it was on – and the Simpson family returned fire. Commenting on the economic slowdown gripping the nation, Bart Simpson tartly observed, "Hey, man, we're just like the Waltons. Both families are praying for an end to the depression." Bush would go on to lose the 1992 election, but there was no respite: "The Simpsons" then made Bush a character, not just a target. The frustrated former president would spank an exasperatingly annoying Bart, who had shredded Bush's memoirs. (In a humorous turn at the end, Homer would walk off into the distance with former president Ford a la "Casablanca").
Naturally, the liberal Bill Clinton fared better on "The Simpsons" than Bush did. "[T]he show was surprisingly slow to satirize President Bill Clinton," observes Paul Cantor, a literary critic and professor at the University of Virginia. Still, Clinton was mocked over 40 times on the show, often for his wandering eye. More than once, Bart's chalkboard punishment was Clinton-related, including "Nobody cares what my definition of 'is' is…" and "'The president did it' is not an excuse."
"The Simpsons" also pierced Kennedy's protective TV veil. As Cantor wrote, the philandering politician on "The Simpsons," Mayor Diamond Joe Quimby, "speaks with a heavy Kennedy accent, and generally acts like a Democratic urban machine politician." We are now five decades removed from Kennedy's death, and yet, thanks to the powerful and lingering impact of television, the quintessential political image "Simpsons" viewers continue to see is one derived from John Kennedy.
In 25 years, "The Simpsons" has skewered almost every president, and has covered every recent one multiple times. One of their funniest bits was a President's Day pageant song called "The Mediocre Presidents," which covered mostly 19th century presidents that predated the show's existence. "The Simpsons" has also let our current president off relatively light on the mockery front. A cartoon image of Mrs. Obama visited Lisa's school in one episode, with Angela Bassett voicing the first lady. And before the 2012 election, Homer vacillated between voting for Obama and opponent Mitt Romney. Homer chose Romney, and his main objection to Obama was that "I already have one wife telling me to eat healthy."
Despite the show's soft touch on Obama, there remains every expectation that our presidents will remain a regular target for "The Simpsons." More importantly, the presidents themselves know that there are almost no limits to how they can or will be portrayed on TV, all due to the adventures of Springfield's five most famous denizens.