There's a significant gap between recognizing a joke and actually getting it, a concept that has been illustrated in exhaustive detail to me over the past several years through references to The Simpsons. I wasn't allowed to watch it as a child—it was rude, a terrible sin—and it never piqued my interest enough to risk sneak-watching it.
Because The Simpsons has been around for so long and beloved by so many, I reached a point where I could identify a Simpsons reference and at least extrapolate how it might be funny. These scenarios made me feel like a culturally illiterate robot, able to identify a catchphrase or reference but completely useless at trying to connect with it.
My first full-episode exposure to The Simpsons was "Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish," screened in a recitation section for a mandatory political science class in my second year of college. I watched Lisa's famed "I am the lizard queen!" proclamation and the rest of "Selma's Choice" on a lazy summer afternoon with friends several months later. On a date last spring, I got a heavy dose of Bart antics with "Bart of Darkness," "Bart's Inner Child," and "Bart vs. Australia." A year later, I watched "Bart on the Road" after taking a trip to Knoxville, because my friends kept joking about a wig outlet and I had no clue what they were talking about.
In late June, after being shamed about my non-viewing by several friends all in the same week, I started watching The Simpsons from the very beginning. Peer pressure works, y'all. Around the same time, my job changed with a sudden intensity, and The Simpsons became a wonderful remedy to long workdays coupled with twentysomething existential malaise. What started off as casual enjoyment quickly slipped into binging behavior.
I started The Simpsons expecting to be moderately amused, but the show revealed itself as hilarious, sly, weird, and brilliant in no time. Some moments have stuck with me for weeks—the "Quoth the raven, 'Eat my shorts!'" interjection from the first Halloween special still has me giggling. I've found a kindred cartoon spirit in little Lisa, just trying to be bold and stay true to herself in a world that constantly tries to extinguish her shine. There's a warm charm to the Simpsons family unit—they're a bunch of uncouth weirdos, but they love each other anyway. And yeah, the show's colorful cast isn't always on its best behavior, but its damns and hells aren't out of line with anything I already heard at public school.
And all of a sudden, oh my god, years of jokes and references and "HA-ha!"s finally bloomed! A light has been flipped on, retroactively illuminating countless missed moments. There are infinite little pieces to love in each episode, and they add up to one fantastic program. It reminds me of the Wizard of Oz scene where Dorothy goes from her sepia-toned farmhouse into Technicolor Munchkinland, where everything is bright and intricate, a little disorienting but ultimately intoxicating. It's only now, six seasons in, that I've begun to understand how much the show has affected the vernacular of American pop culture.
My life was totally fine without The Simpsons, and it's not like my entire understanding of the world has a whole new meaning because I started watching a cartoon. Maybe it's not all that important, but it sure is a lot of fun.
This article appeared in print with the headline "D'ohverwhelmed"