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Planet Simpson

How a Cartoon Masterpiece Documented an Era and Defined a Generation

by (author) Chris Turner

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Oct 2008
Comedy, Popular Culture, Celebrity & Popular Culture
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2008
    List Price

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A smart, accessible and funny cultural analysis of The Simpsons, its inside stories and the world it reflects.

From Bart Simpson to Monty Burns, the Internet boom to the slow drowning of Tuvalu, Planet Simpson explores how one of the most popular shows in television history has changed the way we look at our bewildering times. Award-winning journalist Chris Turner delves into the most esoteric of Simpsons fansites and on-line subcultures, the show’s inside jokes, its sharpest parodies and its ongoing love-hate relationship with celebrity to reveal a rarity of literary accomplishment and pop-cultural import — something never before achieved by a cartoon.

Complementing its satirical brilliance, The Simpsons boasts a beloved cast of characters, examined here in playful and scrupulous detail: Homer, selfish, tyrannical and not too bright, but always contentedly beholden to his family; Bart, pre-teen nihilist and punk icon; Lisa, junior feminist crusader; and Marge, archetypical middle-American mother, perpetually dragging her family kicking and screaming to higher moral ground. And while the voice actors behind the regular cast have eschewed celebrity, Turner considers why a stunning host of guests — Hollywood icons and has-beens, politicians, professional athletes, poets and pop stars — have submitted themselves to the parodic whims of the Simpsons’ writers.

Intelligent and rambunctious, absorbing and comic, Planet Simpson mines this modern cultural institution for its imaginative, hilarious, but always dead-on, reflections on our world.

Excerpt from Planet Simpson

Three Fun Facts About “D’ oh!”
1. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “d’oh” as “Expressing frustration at the realization that things have turned out badly or not as planned, or that one has just said or done something foolish.”
2. The origins of “D’oh!” A Tracey Ullman– era Simpsons script called for Homer to respond to an unfortunate turn of events thus: “[annoyed grunt].” Dan Castellaneta, the voice-actor who plays Homer, improvised the exclamation, “D’oh!” It stuck.
3. The godfather of “D’oh!” Dan Castellaneta freely admits that he lifted Homer’s famous yelp from James Finlayson, a Scottish actor who played a bald, cross-eyed villain in a number of Laurel & Hardy films in the 1930s. Finlayson’s annoyed grunt was a more drawn-out groan — Doooohhh! Castellaneta sped it up to create Homer’s trademark.

About the author

Chris Turner is one of Canada’s leading writers and speakers on sustainability and the global cleantech industry. He is also the author of the bestseller The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need (Random House), a Globe & Mail Best Book of the Year and a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Nonfiction, the Alberta Literary Award for Nonfiction, and the National Business Book Award. Turner’s first book was the international bestseller Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Documented an Era and Defined a Generation. His feature writing has earned seven National Magazine Awards. He lives in Calgary with his wife, the photographer Ashley Bristowe, and their two children. Connect with him on Twitter @TheTurner.

Chris Turner's profile page

Excerpt: Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Documented an Era and Defined a Generation (by (author) Chris Turner)

INTRODUCTION: The Birth of the Simpsonian Institution

I wish it was the sixties
I wish I could be happy
I wish, I wish, I wish that something would happen
—Radiohead, “The Bends”

Once in a great while, we are privileged to experience a television event so extraordinary, it becomes part of our shared heritage. 1969: Man walks on the moon. 1971: Man walks on the moon . . . again. Then for a long time nothing happened. Until tonight.
—Krusty the Clown, Episode 4f12
(“The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show”)

On Thursday, January 21, 1993, around 8:20 P.M. (Eastern Standard Time), I was standing on the edge of a dance floor at a campus pub called Alfie’s with a glass of cheap draft beer in my hand. The dance floor before me was packed with people, all of them waiting — as I was — for the next mind-blowing riff from the in-house entertainment.

There was no band up on the stage at Alfie’s on this night, though, and no dancers gyrating sweatily out on the dance floor, either. Instead, all the pub’s chairs and tables were jumbled into a kind of auditorium arrangement, covering the stage and half of the dance floor and every other inch of available space. Every seat in the joint was taken, and all eyes were fixed on a big-screen TV set up in the middle of the dance floor itself, where the third and final act of Episode 9F11 of The Simpsons (“Selma’s Choice”) was about to begin.

Now, 9F11 had already had some crowd-pleasing moments. The premise of the episode is that one of Marge’s aunts, Gladys, has died a bitter spinster, setting a panicked Selma (one of Marge’s ghoulish twin sisters) on a quest to have a child before her biological clock runs out. The episode opens with a TV commercial for Duff Gardens — a theme park inspired by Springfield’s favourite brew — that shows the Duff “Beer-quarium,” an enormous mug of beer full of “the happiest fish in the world.” (This joke played especially well with the Alfie’s crowd, with hooting and cheering accompanying the image of one fish, cross-eyed and smiling, bumping repeatedly into the glass.)

As Selma sets about the doomed task of finding a father for her child — via video personals, random passes at assorted minor characters and a visit to the sperm bank, 9F11 fills in with the usual grab bag of great gags: Selma shows her sexy side by tying a lit cigarette in a knot using only her mouth; while on a date with the blind, shrivelled midget Hans Moleman, she imagines a rec room full of sightless children bumping cluelessly into each other; the Sweathog whose sperm is available for purchase turns out, to everyone’s disappointment, not to be Horshack; and, in a stellar example of The Simpsons’ ability to condense note-perfect parody into a few short seconds, another TV commercial for Duff Gardens features a brief snippet of the teen variety act Hooray! for Everything singing a saccharine bastardization of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” in a wonderfully silly send-up of Up with People. All in all, it had been a solid episode so far, and certainly no one nursing their beers through the second commercial break that night had any reason to be disappointed.

By the dawn of 1993, however, the crowds that gathered around North America to watch The Simpsons had come to expect each episode to be not just solid but full-on transcendent. By this time, The Simpsons was what network executives call an “appointment show” — that rare breed of TV program you schedule your evenings around, the kind you want to share with your peers. In the consummate college town of Kingston, Ontario, where I kept my Simpsons appointments each Thursday at 8:00, observance of the show verged on a religious rite: pretty much every pub in town broadcast The Simpsons live every week because otherwise nobody would show up for cocktails until 8:30 at the earliest. Which is to say that for many of us watching that Thursday night — at Alfie’s and elsewhere — the critical bar had been set vertiginously high, and this new episode had only one act left to meet this lofty standard.

The show came back on, and the crowd at the pub went quiet. Because Homer is sick (he’s been picking away at a rotting ten-foot hoagie for weeks) it has fallen to Selma to take Bart and Lisa to Duff Gardens. Chuckles from the crowd as Bart and Lisa point out four of the beer- bottle- costumed Seven Duffs: Tipsy, Queasy, Surly and Remorseful. Somewhat scattered — but deeper — laughter as they enter the Hall of Presidents to watch tacky animatronic former statesmen (including Abraham Lincoln recast as “Rappin’ A.B.”) sing the praises of Duff beer. Cut to the Simpsons’ living room, where Marge and Homer are settling in to watch Yentl. Cut back to Duff Gardens, where Bart, Lisa and Selma are poking around a souvenir stand. Bart approaches a display of clunky sunglasses. He reads the label: “BEER GOGGLES — See the world through the eyes of a drunk!”

All at once, the pub shook with a single great roaring laugh. It was like a force of nature, this laugh, spontaneous and open-mouthed and enormous. It was as if a train was suddenly there in the room, its horn blaring. It nearly drowned out the next line: Bart puts on the beer goggles and turns to Selma, who has morphed fuzzily into a voluptuous babe, striking a seductive pose. “You’re charming the pants off of me,” she says in a sultry voice. The laughter seemed to expand exponentially. People were doubled over, had tears streaming down their faces, were pounding tables with fists. I’m not kidding — the gag just destroyed the crowd. It was as if that single gag were written for precisely this audience, an act of clairvoyance in which some TV-writer wizard had invaded the brains of everyone in the bar, rooted around for just the right common reference and then brought it flawlessly to life.

Editorial Reviews

"Award-winning magazine (Shift) writer and Calgarian Chris Turner has produced and absolutely must-have tome for the many Simpson’s freaks, not just an over-sized fan’ s guide but an absorbing take on why it matters."
Toronto Star

"Apparently, without my knowing, enough time officially passed to lay proper judgement on the 90’s. And here it is: Chris Turner’s Planet Simpson, a brilliant critique of western culture from the mid-‘90’s to the present using his favourite TV show — The Simpsons — as the model, the backdrop, the mirror, the imperfect world-in-miniature….Turner understands pop culture in a way few others of his generation have been able to articulate thus far."
The Record (Kitchener-Waterloo)

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