Writing and The Simpsons

In honor of The Simpson’s 500th episode, I wanted to share the lessons I’ve learned as a writer from one of TV’s most iconic shows. I know not everyone watches it and I can already hear many of you pointing out that its well past its expiration date.  To that I say ‘Why you little…I’ll show you expired!’  But seriously, I believe there is much to be learned from animation’s first family.

Lesson #1: Good characters can turn the most mundane activity into something memorable, especially when you don’t intend for them to.

Homer can turn an ordinary trip to the Kwik-E-Mart or Moe’s Tavern into a wild adventure at the snap of a finger, (sometimes less).  It might sound cliché but a well-formed character can help direct the plot when the author isn’t sure where the story is going.  They will tell you who they are and what they want to do.  Sometimes, it’s a matter of exploring a direction a character’s personality might gravitate towards instead of imposing your rigid plot line on them.  Remember: it’s the characters that people get invested in, not the antics they get into.

Lesson #2: Impart wisdom without preaching.

Many of the episodes involve a crazy stunt that seems implausible on the surface but usually has a relatable and valuable lesson at its core.  The writers behind The Simpsons make countless statements about society, our politics, and our cultural values in a subtle and subversive way.  They don’ try to force their opinions on others but they do take a stand.  Most importantly, their own values are never expressed in a way that detracts from the story.  It’s a really fine line for writers to walk and The Simpsons does it brilliantly.

Lesson #3: A good story has layers.

Every time I go back to an episode, I see something new in it.  There’s always a joke or a remark that goes over my head the first time but when I come across a rerun years later, (after I’ve had some time to learn new things and grow intellectually), I suddenly spot things I missed.  One example that I’ll never forget is from season 6, episode 21 titled ‘The PTA Disbands’.  With school no longer in session, Lisa starts going crazy and builds a perpetual motion machine which disobeys the laws of thermodynamics, (nothing in the universe disobeys the laws of thermodynamics, the theory will be rejected if does).  When I was younger, I laughed because of the tone of the conversion between Marge and Homer was funny.  Now I laugh because I actually get the joke and it’s ingenious.  A good novel should function the same way.   Here’s a clip of the scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xy0UBpagsu8

Lesson #4: Awareness

The writers of The Simpsons know that the show is no longer at the height of its run.  If you don’t believe me then just watch the intro to the 500th episode.  Before you even reach Bart’s chalkboard writings, they call the episode ‘a meaningless milestone’.  As a writer, it is almost impossible to be subjective about your own work.  You’re so familiar and emotionally involved with the plot and its characters that you often can’t step back and be honest about whether or not your work is any good.  And be honest, you must; even if that means you need to ditch what you’re doing and start again.  Acknowledging your weakness and being honest about the caliber of your work will help you identify where you can improve.  It will make you a better writer in the end.

Having been on the air for almost 23 years, The Simpsons have done it all and brought us along for the ride.  I’ve gotten so many hours of entertainment and laughs that the show has become a staple in my life.  They’ve even shown me an aspect of myself—what it’s like to be a writer.  Because only The Simpsons could show you how to write a novel while being outlandish and make fun of Neil Gaiman while having him in on the joke, (season 23, episode 6).  And you still think they haven’t got it? Of course you don’t 😉