I’ve spent decades obsessively watching The Simpsons, and I’ve lost count of the pieces I’ve written on it. Just in my time at MEL, I’ve argued that Bart might be a queer icon and assessed my craving for Duff, the platonic ideal of bad American beer. I guess the reason I never run out of things to say about the show is that for some, it was more a language than a TV franchise — you can actually think and speak in Simpsonsese, using the dense archive of your trivial knowledge to signal fluency and connect with other diehard fans. (The Onion was bracingly accurate in an article with the headline “Suicide Letter Full of Simpsons References.”)
So no matter what happens in, say, 2019, students of The Simpsons have a ready comparison from their favorite cartoon. Occasionally the series is shown to have “predicted” an unlikely event, but more often than not, parallels emerge because in the early, golden age of The Simpsons, it perfectly satirized everything ridiculous in modern life, returning to a few reliable tropes: People aren’t very bright, especially in mobs; corporations and the upper class profit from everyone else’s misery; familial love is probably the one thing we can salvage from the dysfunctional wreck of western society. This base is broad enough to appeal to viewers outside the United States, which is why we have Ireland Simpsons Fans — the best Simpsons meme group online, and the one that’s done the most to preserve the show’s original spirit.
The genius of ISF — which manifests as both a Facebook page and a Twitter account that curates the best memes found there — is in how it prompts members to deconstruct and recontextualize the moments they’ve quoted a million times. The right spin on a Simpsons frame can freshen up a gag we haven’t truly laughed at in years, or offer a clue to a current event that we don’t quite understand. This has been especially true as the content creators of ISF continue to translate news of Brexit developments (a baffling issue for the majority of Americans) into Simpsons material. Scroll through and you start to understand the European Union a bit better.
Critically, too, ISF emulates the left-leaning politics of The Simpsons rather than succumbing to the alt-right “shitpost” aesthetic of most meme groups dedicated to remixing a given TV show. (See, for example, Seinfeld Shitposting, which devolved into chaos when people started posting insensitive junk regarding the neo-Nazi rallies in Charlottesville.) Provocation, triggering and trolling are not the aim; instead, the accounts push against extremism and whitewashing.
Yet the most surprising posts hark back to the understated, slice-of-life comedy that the best seasons of The Simpsons had in spades. Before it turned into a Flash-animated vehicle for weak jokes without the character work, we were allowed to soak in the realism of the show’s cast, setting and idiosyncratic visuals — and relish the way these captured or defined the oddities of human experience. Fittingly, ISF will leverage the more expressionistic art of peak-era Simpsons for equally small but relatable bits. They also, of course, bring the series’ cutting sensibility to bear on the trials and tribulations of having an internet presence.
Through it all shines The Simpsons’ secret weapon: heart. While plenty of humor comes at the family’s expense — and they always get on each others’ nerves — the bond they share is strong enough to withstand every ridiculous situation they face. That’s what keeps viewers coming back, and imitators from reaching the same comedic heights. ISF has a soft spot for Homer and Marge’s apparently indestructible marriage, the kids’ winning personalities and whatever reminds them of the pleasures and kindnesses to be found in the actual world. Ireland being Ireland, these include bags of beer cans, watching soccer, specific brands of tea or sliced bread and recklessly betting on horse races, but the vein of teasing affection the group mines for laughs is pure Simpsons. They even cultivated a trend of posts on mental health awareness.
Whether starkly political or totally irreverent, ISF never acts like the kind of jerk-ass that populates the greater part of the internet (and which Homer sadly evolved into). It manages, like the legendary 1990s run of The Simpsons before it, to editorialize without controversy, and subvert norms without punching down. I’m reminded of a history book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, in which author Thomas Cahill argues that Ireland was a sanctuary of literacy and learning as the Dark Ages gripped Europe. Many scholars were not convinced of this thesis — but what if it applies to ISF? Could it be that the Irish have rescued The Simpsons from its long slide into sub-mediocrity, simply by reminding us what once made it so funny?
It’s a yes from me, lads.