Time is the mortal enemy of comedy. That, and repetition. The longer and more frequently a joke is used, the quicker its humor fades.
So what does that mean for a show as long-running as the Simpsons?
The once beloved American comedy has been squeezed so dry there’s not a drop of life left in it. Every story it could tell has been told, sometimes multiple times. Every character has run out of jokes to tell, and now their gags have either become stagnant and repetitive or cheap and brain-dead.
And in a character driven comedy, that is an especially big problem. It’s like watching someone you love get addicted to cocaine. Only instead of becoming a wreck in desperate need of help, they just become horribly unfunny and embarrassing to spend any time with.
Enter the titular family. Each Simpson used to be a very well defined character. They weren’t just a collection of funny character traits. Each one had a heart at the center of the joke. They could make you smile or cry just as easily as they made you laugh. That’s what made them special.
Take Homer. His character was arguably among the simplest in the show. He’s the bumbling dad with a big stomach and bigger mouth. He can be gruff and stupid, but he loves his family and always puts their needs above his own. A lovable moron.
As an example, let’s look at “And Maggie Makes Three”. In this flashback episode, we see Homer discover a job that he truly loves at the bowling alley. However, as the circumstances of the episode unfold, he needs to give up that job and go back to the work he hates at the power plant in order to support his family.
The closing scene of this episode perfectly encapsulates why people truly loved Homer. As the baby is being delivered, he continues to complain and complain, his worries piling on and overflowing. But the instant he actually gets a look at Maggie, his tune changes completely. He lights up, all of his worries and annoyances disappearing in the face of sheer brilliant joy.
And to top it all off, we have the final shot. You know the one.
It was scenes like this that made Homer such a great character. Sure, it was funny to watch him torment Flanders or get himself into trouble or allow his gluttony to get him in trouble with the Devil. But it was these smaller moments where Homer showed genuine love for his family that made him so lovable.
But Homer was also a deeply flawed character. From his short-sighted decision making skills to his sometimes poor treatment of his wife and kids, Homer had some pretty deep issues. Exploring these flaws was another of the show’s strengths.
Take the episode “The Last Temptation of Homer” as an example. In this episode, Homer meets a new worker at the plant, a beautiful woman named Mindy Simmons. As the episode progresses, and we and Homer both learn more about Mindy, Homer’s attraction towards her grows while his attraction for Marge diminishes.
This story tests Homer’s faithfulness to Marge and his family. And it doesn’t pull its punches, either. Homer literally bursts into tears because he’s afraid he’s about to make a mistake and cheat on his wife. For a show that so frequently dips into the absurd, this scene is discomfortingly realistic.
Which makes it all the more heartwarming when Homer doesn’t do it. When he rejects Mindy and goes back to Marge, it’s more than just a relief from the narrative’s tension. It’s a character defining moment for Homer. One that cements his love and loyalty to his family.
For all his flaws, Homer was still a loving husband and father just trying his best. Some of the series’ best moments are built on moments that highlight that.
Moments such as these don’t exist anymore. Not really. Modern Simpsons is more focused on Homer’s two surface level comedic traits: his gluttony and his stupidity.
That, or his entire character will be set aside to deliver a punchline. Look, Homer is flossing! Does he understand what that is? Does he even have a single thought on it whatsoever? Nah, but it was funny, right? Look, Homer did a thing you know from the internet, that’s funny! Right?
Calling that shit lazy would be an insult to procrastinators…
Sad thing is, those character traits used to actually be funny. Not because “Ha ha, fat man say dumb thing!” but because Homer was still an actual person. It wasn’t just that he said something stupid, it was usually either him misunderstanding something, going through a situation without thinking and letting luck do all the work, or him simply being too slow to get what’s actually going on.
A strange example that I notice every time I watch the show now is Homer’s literacy. Back in the early seasons, Homer was perfectly functional in this regard. We saw him read books fairly frequently as a means to find solutions to his problems. The comedy didn’t come from his being unable to read, it came from how he reacted to what he read or how he misinterpreted it.
Nowadays, the writers just made him illiterate because that’s ‘funny’. That’s totally hilarious, right guys?
Homer is one of the more obvious examples of how the Simpsons changed over the decades. Where once he was rich with character and depth, now he’s just a lifeless machine trying to make you laugh. Whatever depth he had has been so far gone and forgotten that it’s doubtful it will ever return.
How could it? Homer was written as a satire of American sitcom dad clichés back in the 90s. Now he’s become the new clichés. How’s he supposed to satirize himself?
Especially when you’re starring in a show that uses satire the same way Mike Tyson used his fists.