A strange thing about fiction is that it can make you crave what doesn’t exist. I grow hungry when I watch Bob’s Burgers, wishing I could treat myself to Bob Belcher’s lovingly crafted (and inexpensive!) daily specials. I’ve always wanted one of the Everlasting Gobstoppers made in Willy Wonka’s candy factory. And it’s impossible to see Homer Simpson crack open a fresh can of Duff beer without salivating a tiny bit.
Like everything in the universe of The Simpsons, Duff is a satirical analogue for an American reality: in this case, shitty domestic beer. From context we learn that Duff is a watery, over-advertised, mass-produced lager — the swill of common idiots, Homer prime among them. He seems to drink it because it was the first kind of beer he ever had, and he saw no reason to try something else. He’s so loyal to the brand, in fact, that he all but claims Duff as an aspect of his identity. He’s not an alcoholic, he’s a Duff drinker. And why not? Wherever he looks, Duff is aggressively promoting itself. Even their slogan presents a layered joke on how this ubiquity correlates to reckless consumption of a harmful intoxicant: “Can’t get enough of that wonderful Duff!”
One assumes that Duff is most directly lampooning Budweiser. The syllables “Bud” and “Duff” sound as dull and oafish as the guys you expect to drink it; Homer watches the “Duff Bowl” during the Super Bowl, a nod to the Bud Bowl; the mascots Duffman and Suds McDuff have forebears in Budman and Spuds MacKenzie. Most insidiously, there’s Duff Gardens, a theme park named after Busch Gardens, which is owned by Budweiser’s parent company, Anheuser-Busch. It’s here that you see how Duff extends its influence to children, which makes you rethink who Budweiser’s frogs and “Whassup?” commercials were really for. The Simpson kids are treated to the sight of the Seven Duffs, costumed characters representing the emotional range of the permanently soused — including Sleazy, Remorseful and Surly — and later embark on a beer-shilling ride in the style of Disney’s “It’s a Small World,” with animatronic dolls that shriek, “Duff beer for me, Duff beer for you, I’ll have a Duff, you have one too!”
As an inescapable corporation, an indoctrinating force for the youth and adults alike, Duff is the perfect critique of American monoculture, in which nothing improves as long as we don’t realize that better things are possible. We also accept the superficialities and deceptions of marketing as adequate forms of variety. When Homer and his drinking pal Barney visit the Duff brewery, they are led to three vats marked “Duff,” “Duff Lite” and “Duff Dry,” yet all three are fed by the same pipeline. Duff is just one thing, sold under multiple labels, and even a supposed competitor, Fudd beer, is almost indistinguishable from it. Perversely, the few times Homer wants something else, he’s served a different kind of condescension. Moe, his bartender, at various points offers him “Swedish Duff” (regular Duff with an umlaut drawn above the “u” in marker), Tuborg (“the beer of Danish kings”) and Red Tick, which is revealed to be flavored by dogs swimming in the brewery tanks — a premonition of the craft beer craze, you might say.
In such a hellish beerscape, the default to zombie-like Duff dependence is eminently rational — and this, I think, has something to do with why I want one, regardless of its poor quality. Duff represents a kind of balance for Homer, the very back-to-normal feeling you have at the end of a sitcom episode. I couldn’t possibly get that satisfaction from the copyright-violating Duff that fans have brewed over the years, nor from the officially licensed Duff sold in the Simpsons section of Universal Studios, since they convey nothing of the familiarity that quenches Homer’s thirst and comforts his unsophisticated palette. Only a lifetime of drinking real Duff — the unattainable cartoon version — would allow for the kind of stupor that keeps him chugging it day after day.
In the end, Duff surpasses and subsumes its own beverage category. It is so generic that “Duff” and “beer” are interchangeable terms; Homer can order the latter and always expect a mug of Duff. In season four, Marge makes him give up alcohol for a month after he gets booked for drunk driving — but the episode is titled “Duffless,” as though no other form of inebriation holds interest for him.
What would it be like to have your entire worldview colored by a liquid whose sheer mediocrity makes it essential? We may never truly know. I can only buy a sixer of Bud — and dare, once again, to dream.