Photo by Kevin Berne
When you enjoy your favorite pop culture items—whether it's RuPaul's Drag Race, Game of Thrones, Empire Records, or Call of Duty—it’s a personal experience. One way or another, your favorite speaks directly to you, whether you feel like it’s yours and yours alone, or if it’s personal because of the joy you’ve experienced sharing it with others.
My favorite TV show is The Simpsons, and my own private viewing of it as well as my encounters with other fans have had an indelible influence on the media I enjoy and what I find funny. Because it’s opened so many comedic eyes, I think it will be around forever—and not just because the producers refuse to stop making new episodes.
In Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, by Anne Washburn, now at the Guthrie, The Simpsons has survived the apocalypse. It’s the main pop culture artifact that the play uses as a lens through which to examine how pop culture affects our lives and shapes our communities. Part of what makes a classic Simpsons episode so memorable is how idiosyncratic each one is, crammed full of tangentially coherent jokes and visual gags that help the episode cruise along at an exuberant clip. For people like me and the characters in the play, quoting Simpsons lines is like its own special language.
So it’s no wonder that a group of survivors post-nationwide nuclear reactor failure would turn to talking Simpsons as they huddle around a campfire, wondering if any of their loved ones made it. Our heroes are particularly interested in “Cape Feare” from season five. Featuring a former TV clown named Sideshow Bob who's intent on murdering 10-year-old rapscallion Bart Simpson, it’s an episode-length parody of/homage to the 1991 Martin Scorsese movie of a similar title. When we first see them, the survivors in Mr. Burns are trying to remember the episode’s every detail just to stay sane, but less than a decade later, they’re one of the lesser Simpsons theatre troupes on the scene, staging episodes as plays along with bizarre commercials of their own invention. A few generations after that and “Cape Feare” is now an operatic morality play with elaborate staging and costumes, and some seriously dark content.
It was enough to make me think, if only for a moment, that the occasional gratuitous violence of The Simpsons (mostly through a show-within-a-show featuring a cartoon cat and mouse), its adult characters who repeatedly threaten the lives of young children, and its pervasive weirdness make it something to be less than celebrated and revered. If this exaggerated version of the show could disturb me so much, why didn't I bat an eyelash at the same kind of elements in the source material?
For starters, The Simpsons has been familiar to me my entire life, and its darker moments are funny in context. Moreover, all pop culture is weird in its own way, and you could spend a lifetime questioning the logic of movie plots, or wondering why every pop song has to have the same verse-chorus-bridge structure. So much of what’s popular can also be seen as strange or niche when we take a step back. By cranking The Simpsons' zaniness up to illogical extremes, Mr. Burns doesn't condemn the show, but instead revels in the glorious weirdness of our culture and lives. The Simpsons is a funhouse mirror of our crazy world, so the spooky heights of the performance in Mr. Burns reflect the desolation of a post-apocalyptic society. The characters in the play, like any humans, can’t live without art and entertainment, and they can’t consume or perform these without adapting them to their own needs in the process.
I couldn’t tell you whether I loved it or hated it, but Mr. Burns was a funny and fresh, visual and visceral experience I wouldn't have missed for anything. I didn’t give it a standing ovation, but I wasn’t saying “boo” either. I was saying “boo-urns.”