A few weeks ago, I began looking at jokes in writing. A huge problem for some fantasy writers is a dependency on dour seriousness for far too large a stretch of their narratives. Understanding what makes funny writing funny can help a writer immensely. There are few sources a writer could study more profitably than early Simpsons episodes. I confess that I have only sporadically watched The Simpsons since the late nineties, and from what I’ve seen, it’s clear that the show I loved ended a long time ago. With that in mind, any examples I draw from will be from the golden years of the show (pretty much the entire 90s run).
The list below does not represent the five best jokes ever on the show. Rather, today’s category is the too-broadly titled “Language” category. What I mean by this is not that the jokes below feature bad language, but that they play with language in intriguing ways. As such, the list is meant to illustrate five different and stellar examples of how The Simpsons has toyed with language effectively and hilariously in their joking.
So here they are–the top five ways The Simpsons jokes about language (or five things that you should be doing right now as you try to write humorous moments into your manuscripts).
5. Advertising Comedy
One of the things that The Simpsons does best is the casual comedy of signage. Be it fake products or fake store names, if you pay attention to the world of Springfield you will undoubtedly find some hidden brilliance in the way that the companies of this world both name and advertise their products. Some favorites of mine are the sign for the “Springfield Historical Society” which promises to be a place “Where the Dead Come Alive! (Metaphorically).” I also love the “Bort” license plates available at Itchy & Scratchy Land (available instead of Bart plates). And you mustn’t forget the ‘hammock district’ found in Hank Scorpio’s neck of the woods:
Hank Scorpio: Uh, hi, Homer. What can I do for you?
Homer: Sir, I need to know where I can get some business hammocks.
Hank Scorpio: Hammocks? My goodness, what an idea. Why didn’t I think of that? Hammocks! Homer, there’s four places. There’s the Hammock Hut, that’s on third.
Hank Scorpio: There’s Hammocks-R-Us, that’s on third too. You got Put-Your-Butt-There.
Hank Scorpio: That’s on third. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot… Matter of fact, they’re all in the same complex; it’s the hammock complex on third.
Homer: Oh, the hammock district!
Hank Scorpio: That’s right.
I think my favorite product (from the episode Bart’s Friend Falls in Love) is the “Good Morning Burger”:
TV Announcer: We take eighteen ounces of sizzling ground beef, and soak it in rich, creamery butter, then we top it off with bacon, ham, and a fried egg. We call it “The Good Morning Burger”.
[Homer starts gurgling in ecstasy]
This is brilliantly followed up with a later exchange in the show:
Lisa: Dad, what if I told you you could lose weight without dieting or lifting a finger?
Homer: I’d say you’re a lying scumbag, why sweety?
Lisa: Arcording to Eternity Magazine, you can lose weight through subliminal learning. That’s where an idea is subtly implanted in your head without you even knowing it.
Homer: Oh Lisa, that’s a load of rich creamery butter.
Advertising is inherently funny. It’s funny when it’s trying to be funny (for reasons other than the reasons it’s trying for), it’s funny when it’s not trying to be funny, it’s funny when it’s trying to be serious. It’s just a bizarre thing we do in a bizarre way. The Simpsons loves to poke fun at the language of advertising, and no matter what world your characters live in, people will be trying to sell something. Take advice from The Simpsons when poking fun at how people sell things in your world.
4. Interrogating Language
A good deal of jokes are jokes about language in and of itself. Not in the same way that puns are jokes about language (puns are more or less the revelation of enjoyable coincidences in language). Rather, some jokes poke fun at what language really is or means.
Take this example:
Bart: What about his name?
Lisa: His name doesn’t matter. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Bart: Not if you called them stench blossoms.
Homer: Or crapweeds.
Marge: I’d sure hate to get a dozen crapweeds for Valentine’s Day. I’d rather have candy.
Homer: Not if they were called scumdrops!
I think this quote pretty handily refutes Shakespeare’s wisdom (or, more fairly, Juliet’s). Language is a funny thing. What we call something can have an effect on how our mind perceives it–because the mind is an even funnier thing. I hate most kinds of fish. You might tell me that one of the ingredients in a dish I love is fish oil or fish paste or something. From then on, no matter what, I’m going to taste fish paste. Homer and Bart are right: roses might smell sweet, but if we called them something else it could affect how we smelled their sweet smell.
Homer: Are you saying you’re never going to eat any animal again? What about bacon?
Homer: Pork chops?
Lisa: Dad, those all come from the same animal.
Homer: Heh heh heh. Ooh, yeah, right, Lisa. A wonderful, magical animal.
In my mind, I’m totally with Homer. I can’t conceive of pork chops, ham and bacon all being the same essential thing because for so much of my life I’ve compartmentalized them as entirely different experiences. It’s not the same with beef–which I always more or less associate with other types of beef. Meatballs, meatloaf, hamburgers, roast beef, they are all the same, but somehow pork because the words we use for each product are so different and so memorable (how great a word is bacon? ham?), my mind perceives them as totally different things.
This is joke-telling that could easily get turned into academic term papers. As writers, language is our most essential ingredient. There’s nothing more pretentious than examining language in a story, but it can be done–by making a joke of it. Don’t ever let a character wax philosophically on the meanings of words; always make it a joke.
3. High Falutin Vocabulary Usage
One of the greatest pleasures of being a child of the 90s was that I got to be a twice-blessed Simpsons fan. As a child, I watched it as a child. Nothing made my young self laugh more. Remember when Homer runs out of the house naked because he realizes he left Bart at his soccer match alone? And Ned Flanders shouts, offscreen, “Hey Homey? I can see your doodle!” I don’t think my siblings and I ever laughed harder. But then around my teenage years, on repeat viewings, I got to realize just how much I missed as a child. Now as an adult I still get to see what I missed as a teenager. One of these things I missed is just how sophisticated a vocabulary the show employed.
There are many examples of when The Simpsons would use ‘big words’ and the joke was funny on one level because the characters all have funny voices and it’s funny to hear them say things I didn’t understand. Being older, it is even more humorous because I get what they were saying and realize it makes sense. My favorite example of this is when the show showcased their use of strong vocabulary by having Homer inadvertently improve his vocabulary (he intends to lose weight) through subliminal messages provided by audiotapes (in Bart’s Friend Falls in Love):
Marge: I don’t know if that tape is working. You ate three desserts tonight.
Homer: Forbearance is the watchword. That triumvirate of Twinkies merely overwhelmed my resolve.
Marge: Another thing I’ve been wanting to talk to you about…
(On his way to the fridge, Homer spies Bart about to do something cruel to Milhouse)
Homer: Now there’s a Machiavellian countenance. Oo! A sextet of ale.
Every one of these lines went over my head as a child, but now they are even lovelier to hear. That triumvirate of Twinkies merely overwhelmed my resolve. What a brilliant sentence! Strong vocabulary usage can raise the level of your prose in the most serious of scenes, but examples like these prove how useful it can be for comedy as well.
This is a show that has added more to my daily vocabulary of words and phrases than any other cultural creation of the past two decades. “Meh” and “D’oh” are essential parts of twenty-first century English at this point. The Simpsons at its best reveled in the creation of new words, but my favorite two by far come from the same episode (Lisa the Iconoclast): cromulent and embiggen. As in:
Jebediah Springfield [on film] A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.
Edna: Embiggens? I never heard that word before I moved to Springfield.
Ms. Hoover: I don’t know why. It’s a perfectly cromulent word.
The greatest thing about cromulent is that it is such a cromulent word in and of itself. It defines itself it’s such a perfect word. As Sarah Palin taught us this past year or so, people make up words all the time, and she was right, Shakespeare made up tons of new words. But I love the words The Simpsons make up most. Don’t be afraid to make up your own words for comedic effect in your writing. You’re a writer. If you can create stories you can create words.
1. Random Moments of Stream of Consciousness Hilarity
As those of us who detest Family Guy can attest, being random for the sake of being random wears thin. It has its uses and it isn’t exactly easy to get right, but it is far too overused in comedy shows these days. What early Simpsons always got right was when to use random moments to the right effect. In particular, moments when we would hear the stream of consciousness ramblings of the denizens of Springfield. Family Guy is usually visually random–they make quick cuts to unexpected situations–but The Simpsons was linguistically random. You never knew what the brain of one character would burst forth with next. My favorite example comes from the episode titled Lisa’s Rival. In one of the greatest “B Plots” of all time, Homer stumbles upon a not-so-abandoned cache of…sugar, and decides to sell it for all its worth (which isn’t much). At the end of the episode, Marge finally confronts her husband on the worthlessness of his plan to sell the stolen sugar:
Marge: Homer, when are you going to give up this crazy sugar scheme?
Homer: Never, Marge. Never. I can’t live the button-down life like you. I want it all: the terrifying lows, the dizzying highs, the creamy middles. Sure, I might offend a few of the bluenoses with my cocky stride and musky odors – oh, I’ll never be the darling of the so-called “City Fathers” who cluck their tongues, stroke their beards, and talk about “What’s to be done with this Homer Simpson?”
I don’t know how to begin even writing something like that, much less conceiving of the idea. It’s part rambling, part parody (of God knows what–but something familiar), and entirely random. What I take from this, and many examples of this across The Simpsonsgood episode run, is that sometimes its entirely fine to be utterly incomprehensible. Sometimes people are utterly incomprehensible. Homer especially. He’s trying to say something obvious, “I want an adventurous, unconventional life, no matter what others think.” This, in many ways, is deeply true about Homer, and deeply false at the same time. How he goes about saying this, however, combines a number of linguistic gems: (1) Homer’s attempt to replicate language that exalts the high life (“the creamy middles”), (2) Antiquated terms for the “elite”: bluenoses, “City Fathers,” “button-down life.” (3) Homer’s assumption of how the elite speak, “What’s to be done with this Homer Simpson?”
Combine them all and it’s utterly genius. The point of this list is that you should try to learn something from these examples. I’m not sure you can learn from the above; you may only be able to marvel at it, but I think overall when you watch classics Simpsons you’ll see how random bits of linguistic stream of consciousness can be used to outrageously successful comedic effect. Try it out, if you dare.
Are there any other Simpsons Language-Based jokes I’ve missed? What other categories of jokes should I showcase in future posts? Add a comment below!