The Simpsons is Anti-Institutions but Pro-Comedy in “Sideshow Bob Roberts”


The political leanings of The Simpsons are surprisingly hard to pin down. As I discussed with Matt and Robbie on The Simpsons Show Podcast, the natural impulse is to take the series as a left-leaning show. In creator Matt Groening’s Life in Hell comic strip (the primogenitor of The Simpsons) Groening wears his liberal bent on his sleeve. Springfield’s most prominent moment in the “culture wars” of the early 90s culminated in a real life kerfuffle with President George H.W. Bush, which was immortalized in “Two Bad Neighbors”. And the show in general has a propensity to take the stuffing out of anything revered or traditional.

On the other hand, Springfield has a corrupt, sleazy, largely ineffectual mayor who’s a page ripped out of the Kennedy family tome. The show has featured Bill Clinton hitting on Marge and describing himself as “a pretty lousy President.” And The Simpsons is still one of the few shows on television to depict its main characters regularly going to church and emphasizing family values, however fractured the show’s take on those values may be.

The easy answer then, and the one offered by the show’s ambassadors when questioned, is that The Simpsons is an equal opportunity source of satire, plenty willing to get its licks in on both sides of the aisle. While that’s true in a general sense, I believe the show still represents a particular political worldview, at least to the extent that a series which has had so many cooks walk through the doors of its kitchen can be said to have a single perspective.

It’s a perspective that finds an unlikely analogue in The Wire, which creator David Simon describes as optimistic about individuals but skeptical of institutions. There’s a certain belief in the power of the individual evident in The Simpsons, in the idea that people are generally well-meaning, if occasionally misguided, and can grow and change and make a small but meaningful difference in the world.

But there’s also a wariness of the institutions, and the mobs that demand them, which are born when those individuals band together. That gives you a show that expresses cynicism both for the figureheads of government and education like Mayor Quimby and Principal Skinner, but also the standard bearers of big business and religion like Mr. Burns and Reverend Lovejoy. That kind of worldview does not fit neatly on a left-right scale, but it’s palpable and persistent in the series.

 

Though that doesn't stop the show from allowing Bob a series of hilarious variations on the famous "You can't handle the truth" line.

 

That might explain why I was not particularly bothered by the politics of “Sideshow Bob Roberts”, which, in contrast to the show’s generally even-handed satire, is a much more direct skewering of the Republican Party. While I’ve had issues with too much of a slant in other shows, and while this episode takes more direct aim at the conservative establishment than usual, there’s an understanding that it’s only the presence of Sideshow Bob as Springfield’s Republican mayoral candidate that prompts The Simpsons to campaign for his opponent. Lisa sums it up when she resigns herself to handing out Quimby bumper stickers and explaining that “this time he’s the lesser of two evils!”

Make no mistake–while “Sideshow Bob Roberts” is not especially kind to Mayor Quimby, depicting him as growing pot in his office1, swaying with whatever the mob demands, and referring to the Simpson kids as “things”–it reserves its most pointed jabs for the Republican Party writ large. Whether it be the Satanic chants of the Burns-led and vampire-attended meeting of the Springfield Republican party, the electoral fraud perpetrated by Bob, or the calls from conservatives in the episode to “brutalize criminals” or “lock up the homeless” as cold-hearted politicians who mean to “rule you like a king,” there’s clearly no love lost in the writer’s room for the rightward half of the political spectrum.

And yet “Sideshow Bob Roberts” is more interested in satirizing the dog-and-pony show that is politics than pointing the finger at one party or another. To that end, while the episode includes nods to the soft-on-crime charges leveled against Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, it never depicts either Bob or Quimby actually speaking about the issues. Instead, it’s a pure war of showmanship, with Quimby giving into Lisa’s “children are the future”-style pandering, and Bart’s nemesis2 making use of the buffooning skills he picked up on the Krusty show and offering witty puns instead of substance on the debate stage.

That debate, where Quimby looks pale and out of sorts while recovering from an illness, in contrast to the well-coiffed, smiling Bob, is a reference the United States’ first televised debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Nixon was also recovering from the flu and sweating through his pancake makeup, a fact which he feared may have lost him the debate from the beginning as he melted under the bright lights of the nascent visual medium. In fact, radio listeners rated the candidates’ performances much more closely than the television viewers who saw Nixon’s pallid visage contrasted with Kennedy’s matinée idol good looks. Image had mattered in American politics for a long time, but suddenly that importance was magnified thanks to the institution that The Simpsons has been the most interested in satirizing over the years — television.

 

In Nixon's day, the flames were still made out of construction paper.

 

What’s more, even amid the dead pet voters3 and the less-than-flattering ersatz Rush Limbaugh, The Simpsons’s greatest critique in “Sideshow Bob Roberts” is reserved for the American voter. The seniors attending the “Gripe at the Mayor” night couldn’t care less about Quimby’s infrastructure plan until he names an expressway after their favorite T.V. lawyer. The reporters in attendance at a carefully “choreographed media event” are wowed by the empty pablum coming from both Bob and Quimby. And Homer and Krusty are each willing to ignore Bob’s criminal inclinations that have affected both of them personally because it suits their immediate needs. Sure, Sideshow Bob cheated to win, but the crowd was already eating out of his hand long before he enlisted the help of “Humphrey Boa-gart.”

It seems prescient now–the idea that a former TV star and political outsider4 could spit out a bunch of generic slogans and crowd-pleasing lines and enjoy great success at the polls–but it was just as salient in 1994 when this episode aired. At that time, the commander-in-chief was nicknamed “Slick Willie” for the smooth-talking style that helped him to dodge any scandal or other bit of unpleasantness that might emerge. “Morning in America” and “Willie Horton” had transformed the campaign landscape into a rumble among Madison Avenue suits, dwarfing any extent to which it had been a battleground for the issues. “Sideshow Bob Roberts” doesn’t present a world where one party is at fault and the other is blameless; it presents one where the only thing that’s unexpected is how “[one] convicted felon would get so many votes and another convicted felon would get so few.”

And as always seems to get shuffled to the bottom of the pile in these reviews, it’s damn funny in the process! That comedic success is a big part of what makes the episode work, regardless of the political material. When Rainier Wolfcastle approves of Bob over a water cooler with an exclamation of, “I like the human touch,” or Homer worries about the family having to live under a bridge “like common trolls,” or Jimbo talks about how much he loves “Grimby” in order to complete Milhouse’s unfortunate mummy getup, it’s funny no matter how you feel about the state of American politics.

 

I've watched this episode dozens of times, and I swear this was the first time I'd ever heard Jimbo say "Grimby." I'm sure Milhouse is just as pleased.

 

That’s one of the most durably great things about the show — as much as it was a vehicle for satire, it was almost always apt to go for the laugh over making any sort of political statement. The humor rarely, if ever, took a backseat to the message behind an episode. And in the moments in “Sideshow Bob Roberts” where a janitor quickly runs out of Quimby’s election night party with a pair of champagne bottles, or Grampa Simpson prattles on about Thomas Edison reading the alphabet over the radio, and or Bart displays an infectious bit of glee when Lisa reminds him whom the dish ran away with5, it’s clear that the show is as committed to pure comedy as it is to political commentary.

The Simpsons is supremely skeptical of institutions, and some of its greatest successes have featured the show holding up a satirical mirror to the pillars of society we hold so dear. But at the end of the day, even in an episode like “Sideshow Bob Roberts” which is about as overtly political as the series would get in its best years6, the show is as interested in riffing on classic films and wrecking ball-based physical comedy as it is in scoring political points. It’s much easier to enjoy a television show, regardless of whether or not its jabs are even-handed, when you’re laughing too much to care.

Odds and Ends

-  “Attempted murder. Now what is that really? Do they give a Nobel Prize for attempted chemistry?” is a serious contender for the funniest line in Simpsons history. It works because it has just enough of the trappings of logic to mask the unbridled absurdity of the complaint, and because it has the perfect tone of perturbed indignation from Kelsey Grammer’s delivery.

-  In the same vein, the writers clearly enjoy writing for Grammer-as-Bob, differentiating his speech from that of the average Simpsons character with his use of words like “myopic” and “feculent,” delivered in a poison-tipped baritone.

-  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that “Sideshow Bob Roberts” is also near-perfect in how it’s structured. The first act centers on the political movement to release Bob from prison; the second focuses on the mayoral campaign, and the third features Bob’s reign and downfall. It’s a nice build that keeps both the narrative momentum and the comedy humming throughout.

-  I really enjoy the fact that not only does Moe have a box of grenades at the ready, but he also takes advice from Barney about whether or not to use them.

-  Mayor Quimby’s campaign ad is another highlight of the episode, and I once borrowed its tagline–“If you were running for Mayor, he’d vote for you!”–for an unsuccessful student council bid. We’ll get ‘em next time, Diamond Joe.

-  I’m not sure why “I don’t agree with his _____ policy, but I do approve of his _____ policy” has yet to become a meme, but it ought to be.

-  More brilliance from Homer as a side character — his sincere belief both that the rapture is happening and God will soon arrive to pass final judgment on humanity, and also that The Simpsons can trick him simply by getting Bart out of the house.

-  The Springfield Hall of Records sign explaining “Not the good kind of records, historical ones” is up there with the Springfield Library’s banner boasting “We have books about TV!” in terms of elucidating the interests and understanding of the average citizen of Springfield.

-  Homer’s run-in with the gang from Archie Comics is such a random little throw-in, but I can’t help but love it nonetheless. The same goes for the delightful call-back joke with the bats in the Springfield Library’s card catalogue.

-  I also can’t help throwing in one last plug for Matt and Robbie of The Simpsons Show Podcast. The two of them are a hoot, and their episode-by-episode look back at the series is fun, insightful, and full of interesting tidbits and commentary about what made The Simpsons great. It was my distinct pleasure to join them once again to chat about this episode.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. A joke that went completely over my head when I watched this episode as a child.
  2. I’m talking about Bob here, not Dr. Demento.
  3. And I’d love to read that editorial!
  4. With ridiculous hair — awful, awful hair.
  5. Spoiler alert for our younger readers — it was the spoon.
  6. “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington” and “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish” notwithstanding.

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