I grew up without the family.
Not a family, mind you — I had a family. I had a mom, and a dad, and a rambunctious skateboarding brother, and a grandpa fond of saying silly things, and a few wisecracking aunts, and all the rest. But I didn’t have the family everyone else had, the family everyone else shared, the family everyone else loved.
I grew up without the The Simpsons.
And, perhaps more importantly, I grew up without the Simpsons.
You see, when I was a little girl, the most dangerous and popular boy in the world was Bartholomew J. Simpson. No one had ever seen anything like him on television before. He talked back. He played pranks. He disobeyed his elders. In comparison, even Dennis the Menace was an angel. And Bart was nothing like those nice Cosby kids.
My mother said Bart was rude. My father said he was crude. Even President Bush (the first one) and his wife said they didn’t like The Simpsons, and when the President of the United States said something, you knew it was 100 percent true. Like priests and teachers, presidents never lied.
I was a neurotic, Type A do-gooder, ever in search of adult approval in the form of good grades and perfect attendance awards. I had no rhythm, no athletic talent, and a cloud of unruly hair that inspired the kids on the bus to call me “Medusa” and tease me about being the ugliest girl in the world. I used to pretend to be sick so that I wouldn’t have to face those taunts on the bus from the popular kids.
The popular kids thought Bart was the coolest. They wore Simpsons t-shirts and backpacks and keychains and thermoses and lunchboxes and sneakers. They did not wear thick glasses and their dads’ golf sweatshirts.
I wrote Bart Simpson off as a no-good rabble-rouser. I returned to my pretty, dead-eyed American Girl dolls and their pleasantly bland tie-in historical books.
While ours was a Simpsons-free household, my parents weren’t totally uptight about television. As I got older, I was allowed to watch The X-Files (although not the dearly beloved Leonard Nimoy-hosted, Duchovny-and-Anderson episode, “The Springfield Files.”) And of course The Cosby Show was always okay. But no Roseanne, no Married With Children and definitely no Simpsons.
Eventually, I reached college, where the boys in particular seemed to communicate entirely in quotes from the show. They would say things about not being able to sleep because clowns would eat them, or about alcohol being the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems, or something about a space coyote, or something about bleeding gums. I didn’t understand any of it. I missed punchlines, jokes, entire conversations because I didn’t speak the lingua franca of my generation. Once again, The Simpsons had me feeling left out.
Of course I could’ve borrowed the DVDs and watched every episode in a row in order to catch up, but by this point in time I had built up quite a bit of resentment regarding The Simpsons. Somehow, the show had come to represent for me all the ways in which I didn’t fit in with my peers. The show was cool, and I was definitely not cool — even though I’d grown my hair out, and gotten contact lenses and boobs and all those important things.
Over the next several years, I dated a wide variety of gentlemen, all of whom had a love for The Simpsons that left me vaguely annoyed. I didn’t share every boyfriend’s deeply-embedded emotional connection to the show’s internal logic and constellation of quirky characters. I figured that, as with gymnastics or religion, you had to start ‘em young when if you hoped to hook a kid on The Simpsons. I caught a few episodes and found them amusing or interesting, but nothing deeper than that.
Then came last week. FXX, which is some sort of channel that is not FX, began airing every single episode of The Simpsons in chronological order — an undertaking that is slated to take twelve days. While looking for the Series 8 premiere of Doctor Who (I am still not cool), I happened to stumble upon an episode about Lisa and Bleeding Gums Murphy (“Oh, that’s the bleeding gums reference,” I thought, realization finally dawning on me.) It was “’Round Springfield,” episode 22 of season six, and it originally aired on April 30, 1995.
In case you’ve never seen the episode, here’s a synopsis: Lisa’s jazz musician mentor, Bleeding Gums Murphy, is in the hospital at the same time as Bart, who is suffering after consuming a jagged metal Krusty-O (natch). Bleeding Gums lends Lisa his saxophone for a recital. She does a phenomenal job, obviously, because she’s Lisa Simpson and she’s good at everything that takes place within the confines of the school (except, perhaps, socializing). Lisa returns to the hospital the next day, full of excitement and pride, and she discovers that Bleeding Gums has died. She’s devastated. And then she’s the only one to attend his funeral. Her genuine sorrow at his passing reverberates through the rest of the episode, along with her indignation that the rest of Springfield does not share her reverence for him.
I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that it’s lovely and funny and irreverent and sweet in a way that I’ve come to recognize as a hallmark of the best episodes of The Simpsons — at least, the best ones I’ve watched since that episode. And I’ve seen watched quite a few. This marathon has me hooked!
Yes, after all these years, The Simpsons got me. It just took 22 minutes of perfectly-paced tragicomedy that originally aired 19 years ago, featuring a trifecta of great actors (Ron Taylor as Bleeding Gums Murphy; Phil Hartman as attorney Lionel Hutz; and Steve Allen as himself) who have since passed away.
I don’t know why this episode hit me the way it did. Maybe all those years of pro-Simpsons propaganda finally bored a hole in my brain. Maybe my career as a writer and comedian made me figure I ought to give this seminal work another shot. Maybe I was bored.
Or maybe it turns out I wasn’t ready for The Simpsons when I was a kid. Maybe it took adulthood, with all the love and loss it entails, to make this nuanced, deeply human cartoon come alive for me.
Whatever the reason, “’Round Springfield” sent me down the Simpsons rabbit hole. I discovered that the janitor fellow is a groundskeeper (important distinction!) I learned that Ned Flanders had beatnik parents. I decided that the Reverend Lovejoy’s wife, Helen, was a real pain in the ass. I reported these findings to Twitter, where one stranger observed that watching me watch The Simpsons for the first time was like seeing a newborn baby fawn learn to walk.
Most of all, I found that every episode is packed with so many laugh lines that it’s nearly impossible to NOT quote them to your friends.
So what I’m saying is I get it now, world. I get the whole Simpsons thing. I give up, and I give in. You are right, and I’ve been wrong, all these years.
And while a lot of women my age like to characterize themselves as a Carrie, a Samantha, a Miranda or a Charlotte (or a Hannah, Marnie, Jessa or Shoshanna) I am proud to say I am none of those.
It turns out I’ve been a Lisa all along.
Sara Benincasa is a comedian and the author of Great and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She tweets @sarajbenincasa and is currently on tour: dates are at SaraBenincasa.com/shows.