Sociology of Animation: Intertextuality in The Simpsons

Intertextuality in The Simpsons

Björn Erlingur Flóki Björnsson argues that The Simpsons’ comedy rests on ‘intertextuality’. This is a narrative form that involves referencing oneself and/or other popular culture and historical texts as part of its comedy.  The Simpson’s intertextuality is self-reflexive because it often references its creator (Matt Groening) and the show’s producers, as well as past storylines. For example, in one episode The Simpsons children make reference to Marge’s gambling addiction and Comic Book Guy walks past saying ‘Worst episode ever’. 

Björnsson establishes that The Simpsons’ humour rests on the postmodernist concept of pastiche (a form of parody that mimics other works without the satire). The Simpsons superimposes its characters and landscape into other beloved books, iconic films, significant historical events, and other cultural forms of art. The Simpsons achieves pastiche by using celebrities to do voiceovers and by incorporating the likeness of characters, sets and plots from other cult texts.

Björnsson uses the episode Bart of Darkness as an example of pastiche. The title of this episode is an allusion to Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness, and the plot is similar to Hitchcock’s film Rear Window (in which Bart is forced to stay indoors with a broken leg, consequently spying on his neighbours and possibly witnessing a murder). This episode also uses many of the same camera angles from Hitcock’s film.

The Simpsons has referenced several cartoons such as Family Guy, Tom & Jerry, The Flintstones, The Road Runner Show, The Jetsons and Yogi Bear. The Simpsons has also emulated the period scenery and visual styles of films such as Tron; the classic plays The Odyssey and Henry VIII; renowned films such as Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as The Shining. Björnsson writes:

The Simpsons is easily able to represent its borrowed works’ visual styles by taking full advantage of the medium of animation. The endlessly mutable forms of animation allows The Simpsons to mimic particular settings, moods, lighting techniques and camera angles with accuracy, and incorporate it into their story in any way they please. This distinguishes The Simpsons from live-action television shows employing similar intertextual techniques: its possibilities of representation are seemingly infinite.

I use the clip above as an example of intertexuality. The clip comes from The Simpsons’ first Treehouse of Horror special. This episode uses pastiche to represent Edgar Allan Poe’s classic poem The Raven in its entirety, yet with a Simpsons spin. Christopher Maligec argues that Poe’s poem is influenced by a Greek style of poetry known as a ‘love elegy’ (paraclausithyron) used to convey a lover’s ‘sorrow, helplessness, and self-pitying despair…’. Poe’s poem has been referenced in countless popular culture media. (Also see my Raven posts.) The Raven is used as a narrative trope to evoke despair and anguish. Ravens and other corvids are used to establish an ominous sense of gloom in many films and TV shows, but in animation, they have also been used as a comedic device to frustrate hapless characters. In The Simpsons version, the raven reflects both an omen of despair and a trickster persona.

In this pastiche production, Homer plays the haunted man reminiscing over his lost love, Lenore (personified by Marge in a portrait hanging on Homer’s wall). Bart plays his tormentor, the raven. The Simpsons brings Poe’s masterful words into the realm of popular culture by having James Earl Jones recite the poem. Jones has one of the most recognisable voices in English-language popular culture (having voiced Darth Vadar in the original Star Wars trilogy, Episodes IV-VI). The Simpsons have regularly referenced Star Wars, so Jones’ appearance is a reference within a reference. Moreover, this retelling of Poe’s story also references The Simpsons’ own mythology by having Bart-the-raven jovially bringing the narrator/Homer to anger, which is a recurring source of comedy on the show.

It is specifically the medium of animation that makes possible the translation of Poe’s narrative of love and loss into a self-referencing story for a new audience.

(Check out my other Simpsons posts or my other examples of the sociology of animation.)

Video: The Simpsons use of parody to tell Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven.

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