Taking a cultural odyssey with Homer

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I'M ASHAMED TO ADMIT IT, BUT it's true: The guiding hand that introduced me to the classics of theater, film and even some literature was yellow, with four fingers.

No, it wasn't a jaundiced and digit-deprived English teacher, but dozens of episodes of The Simpsons. Yes, I learned of the highbrow from those with no brows. It was the animated farce that introduced me to HMS Pinafore, Citizen Kane, A Streetcar Named Desire and even the works of Ayn Rand.

Gullible do-gooder Ned Flanders, not Marlon Brando, was my first Stanley Kowalski. And the frail tycoon Mr. Burns and his childhood teddy-bear, Boo-Boo, were my initial Charles Foster Kane and Rosebud.

Bizarrely, not unlike a storied cultural center, The Simpsons is an institution. Most Americans can name more than one member of the animated clan. And the show, which made its debut way back in 1989 (I was 10 then), has even outgrown its original medium with a splashy feature-length film that opened Friday.

Part of me is grateful to the sitcom for expanding my horizons, but another part feels cheated: Did seeing parodies first ruin "the experience" of the originals?

When Jack Nicholson's hotel caretaker breaks through a door in the iconic scene from The Shining, I grinned instead of grimaced because Homer -- for me at least -- had already poked his head through that splintered lumber.

I lost some of the emotional jolt, but I recouped some cultural capital. Would most primetime shows ever read a classic poem such as Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven in its entirety, as The Simpsons did?

"A lot of young people have grown up with The Simpsons and have used it as a lesson in irony and culture," says John Alberti, a pop culture professor at Northern Kentucky University who wrote Leaving Springfield: The Simpsons and the Possibility of Oppositional Culture. Shows like The Simpsons, he says, are "how many of us in the TV age experience culture. It's kind of like an alternate education system.

"You would learn things in school, and then you would learn things on The Simpsons. And sometimes, they would intersect," he says.

Carl Bybee, a media professor at the University of Oregon, sees The Simpsons as a "cultural advertisement" that stimulates interest in the original.

"The benefits of seeing the parody far outweigh the drawbacks, because now you know about it," he says. "Anything that gets people to re-engage in culture is good news."

Indeed, I was motivated to see The Graduate only after a haunting Simpsons scene in which Grandpa Simpson and Marge's mother escape a botched wedding to the tune of Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sounds of Silence."

For these professors, The Simpsons is a prime example of the "flattening" effect of postmodern culture, meaning that by mixing bawdy humor with lofty subjects, the barrier between "high" and "low" culture is erased. (Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and author Gore Vidal, among others, have been guest stars.) And a more fluid cultural scene is not a bad thing.

Bybee says cultural distinctions have long been used as "sorting tools" for economic classes. Under the old rules, the elite should speak of opera while the downtrodden only talk of cage matches. Smart and accessible works like The Simpsons -- which Alberti dubs "postmodernism for dummies" -- help skew those categorizations.

And Alberti argues that the "true experience" of watching a film or reading a book in a vacuum may be a myth anyway. Most movies and books require a certain amount of cultural capital to be fully enjoyed. So what if the knowledge was originally gleaned from a sitcom rather than a textbook?

For Alberti, it was Mad magazine that gave him his first exposure to thought-provoking fare like 2001: A Space Odyssey. The parody he found in the humor magazine made the Stanley Kubrick classic much less intimidating.

"It said to me: 'It's OK to be confused.' "

And the same could be said of me. The Simpsons made the '70s films of auteurs like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese more familiar, less distant. And even if I didn't get the reference, the comedy still worked.

I have never gotten around to seeing Meryl Streep's A Cry in the Dark. But Bart's line "I think I hear a dingo eating your baby" still got laughs. A similar bit showed up on Seinfeld as well.

"Some people don't even know what they are watching is a parody, but they still enjoy the show," Bybee says.

So as I grew up, I kept watching and re-watching, and something strange happened. The episodes got funnier. The key was it worked on many levels. The two-dimensional episodes had so much narrative texture and satire that they have weathered the test of time.

So I'm finally coming to terms with my alternate education. Alexander had Plato, and I have Homer.

Besides, refresher courses are always available in syndication.

tim.swift@baltsun.com

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