A lazy, gluttonous loser who often tries to strangle his son has been voted the world's best father. How has Homer Simpson become Everyman?
By Bryan Appleyard (Originally written April, 2002)
His social security number is 568-47-0008. He lives at 742 Evergreen Terrace, Springfield. The state is unknown but internal evidence suggests it lies to the west of the Mississippi. His favourite foods, based on the number of times he has referred to them, are: burgers, hot dogs, pizza, chocolate, beer, doughnuts, sprinkles, pancakes, beer nuts and free goo. His weight fluctuates between 110kg and 120kg.
Born on May 12, 1956, he was raised by his father, Abraham, who struggled unsuccessfully to compensate for the absence of his mother, who had run away to be a full-time hippie. He graduated at the bottom of his high school class. After school, he was more or less unemployable, but he ended up as a safety officer at Springfield's nuclear power plant, owing to an insane misjudgment by its decrepit owner, the evil Montgomery Burns. There he won a special award for remaining at entry-level grade longer than any other employee.
He tried various business enterprises -- telemarketing, fraud, door-to-door salesman for Slash-Co knives, selling sugar salvaged from a crashed sugar truck, managing a country music star, snow remover, selling grease, selling rides on his son's elephant, selling tickets to see his daughter's angel and so on. And he tried various other jobs - bowling alley clerk, car designer, astronaut, mini-golf attendant, team mascot, boxer, blackjack dealer and so on. But all failed.
He drinks too much, eats too much and his inner life is entirely dominated by beer, doughnuts, television and periodic bouts of drooling lust, especially when women's beach volleyball is on the sports channel.
The one success in his life was the wooing and winning of his high school sweetheart, Marge Bouvier, with whom he has three children. She was pregnant when they married and they had to cross the state line to get to Shotgun Pete's wedding chapel. Despite temptations on both sides, he has always remained true to Marge and she to him. She is dumb, but virtuous. Everybody knows she is too good for him. Everybody except Marge.
His brilliant daughter Lisa humiliates him, he frequently tries to strangle his son, Bart, and he is only occasionally aware of the existence of his baby Maggie. Yet he loves his children to distraction.
He still believes in God, a vast white-bearded figure with five fingers on each hand as opposed to the four possessed by all the other characters, and God, in spite of everything, believes in him. For this is Homer Simpson, our age's Everyman and one of the most vivid, brilliant fictional creations of our time.
In a poll of British children conducted by Woolworths, he was voted best dad in the world. Across the world, the gormless face and globular body of this fat, gluttonous, yellow-skinned oaf appears on T-shirts, oven gloves and car windscreen cleaners.
Rubber Homer dolls are pinned by four suction cups to windows from Adelaide to Tokyo. As a global brand, he is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. His sayings are immortalised in books and on Internet "random quote generators". His philosophy is analysed by academics, and his connection to God inspires clergymen. Psychologists dissect his relationship to his children. Rupert Murdoch, Stephen Hawking and just about every Hollywood star are happy to be drawn alongside him. Al Gore wanted to be, but they wouldn't let him. And Homer himself has a star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood.
THIS MALODOROUS FLOP, THIS SLY, work-shy, cowardly loser is a superstar. Homer Simpson is an icon, an emblem, a distillation of ... what? What exactly is it about Homer?
He was never meant to be the hero of The Simpsons. Matt Groening, the show's creator, had roughly modelled the family on his own and had conceived of his own alter ego, the son, Bart, as the central character. Early marketing of the show made his intentions clear. Bart's catchlines - "Eat my shorts", "Don't have a cow, man", "Underachiever and proud of it"- were those of the show as a whole.
The idea was that this was a children's show designed to annoy and, therefore, attract adults. But this was a limited objective that caused problems for the writing team. "As time goes on," says David Silverman, an animation director, "it gets more difficult to do episodes based on Bart. How many times can you say, 'Hey, that's another Barty thing he's done'? Homer is a more varied character. He gives you more avenues."
"There's just so many layers to Homer," says the executive producer Mike Scully. It was also clear that more adults were watching and that even the children were more drawn to Homer than Bart. This was, in part, because Homer had become a nicer guy than originally intended. In the first episodes he was a harsh, crude, unsympathetic character. But the voice didn't quite fit. Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer, had initially copied the growl of Walter Matthau. "It was the shape of the mouth", he said. "I started with Walter Matthau and dropped deeper naturally -- now I believe I'll be Homer until I die"
The voice was warm and vulnerable and it made Homer warm and vulnerable. He would exclaim "D'oh!" when things went wrong. This was originally just scripted as "an annoyed grunt" but Castellaneta adapted his interpretation from the slightly longer version - "Doooooh!" - often heard in Laurel and Hardy films. It was perfect. Not only did it enter the Oxford English Dictionary, it also became our age's version of the universal human cry against the perversity and intransigence of the world. Like Job, Homer knew that man was born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards, but, also like Job, he couldn't silence his anguished protest.
Yet, unlike Job, Homer is not an upright and virtuous man. He is, on the face of it, the paternal role model from hell. The achievement of which he is proudest is discovering a meal between breakfast and brunch. Cigarettes are about the only vice he doesn't have. Advising Bart, he says: "If you don't like your job, you don't strike. You just go in every day and do it really half-assed. That's the American way."
And again to Bart: "Remember, son, the trick to avoiding jury duty is to say you're prejudiced against all races." Raising a can of Duff beer, he toasts: "To alcohol. The cause of - and solution to - all of life's problems." He calls his TV set his "teacher, mother, secret lover". Merely the mention of fatty food or the sight of the volleyball players can start gobbets of saliva dribbling from his lower lip.
He is, we are repeatedly told, physically unpleasant. He smells, as Marge's two sisters keep pointing out, terrible. He eats with an animalistic intensity. Indeed, one of the show's writers describes him as "a dog trapped inside a man's body".
He is, in short, a slob. Or, rather, he is the slob, the yardstick for all other slobbery, the distillation of all the crude appetites, the disgusting selfish impulses, the pernicious habits and low, instant gratifications that afflict us all. More precisely, he is the man - lowlife masculinity in all its sweaty awfulness.
"If guys are honest", says Scully, "they realize there's a lot of Homer in most of us. The only difference is that Homer says things out loud".
The simple, moralistic reaction is to dismiss Homer as a bad guy. Indeed, President George Bush - the previous one - struck this posture in the 1992 election campaign when he said: "We need a nation closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons." About the same time, the chain-store JC Penney banned the sale of Simpsons T-shirts, under pressure from religious groups. To this day the show is banned in Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic as an affront to family values.
But Bush lost the election and Americans voted for Homer or, rather, Bill Clinton - another libidinous, gluttonous man. The 1990s were called the Clinton years, but they weren't, they were the Homer years. The point was that the Waltons were all very well - saintly, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth types - but they weren't real. They were two-dimensional prigs and nobody could love them. The more Homer aimed low and missed, the more we loved him. He was real because he was at one with his world. He pursued the gratifications it offered and said "D'oh!" when they turned sour or were denied him. That's what reality is, constant striving and constant disappointment. Homer may be a jerk, but he was a jerk like us.
But Homer studies have now moved beyond that simple formula. Perhaps it was the ending of the cold war and collapse of the old polarities. People no longer saw things in black and white: they began to see the limitless shades of grey -- or, rather, yellow. The good-guy, bad-guy opposition ceased to convince. We looked more closely at Homer and at our own feelings of affection for the big yellow guy.
"There's a scene when Marge comes home from the school," says Adrienne Katz of the charity Young Voice. "She's been to a talk on how to be a good father and, of course, Homer didn't go. One of the things she was told was that a father should know the names of and recognise his son's friends. Homer doesn't know any of them - he just calls them 'the spotty one' or 'the red-haired one'.
"But he is a good father and he shows that these tests don't work. He fails every test. But it all hinges on the quality of his relationship with Bart, and it is good. Bart doesn't find him useless." Katz is typical of the new wave of Homerphiles. They have seen the moral ambiguity of the man: utterly villainous on the surface but, just beneath, almost saintly.
"He's a failure, but he never loses our sympathy," says Alistair McCleery, professor of literature at Edinburgh's Napier University. "He always gives in to temptation but he always comes back to home and hearth in a reaffirmation of family values. There are two episodes in which he is tempted to commit adultery, but on both occasions he can't do it because he thinks of Marge. The family remains a core value in American society, even among liberal university students."
McCleery gives a lecture at Napier entitled Having the Donut and Eating It: Self-reflexivity in The Simpsons.
A key aspect of the new academic appeal of Homer is that he is a father, and fatherhood is a growing area of studies. The theme is carried back a generation via Homer's relationship to his own father, Abe. This is, again, superficially appalling. Abe is in a nursing home, he is dotty and, when he is not asleep, prone to either absent-mindedness or malevolent impatience. Also, as Bart reveals at one point, the family has been hypnotised not to hear a word he says.
But Abe is Homer. When somebody pulls back his facial skin, he turns into his son. They are both failures and equally vulnerable. "Thank you for not mentioning the outside world," says the sign outside the nursing home. Also, look at their names - Homer, patriarch of Western civilisation, and Abraham, founding father of the three great monotheistic religions. These are the ultimate fathers.
But there is another, even bigger father in the show - God. Though the prevailing ideology of The Simpsons is secular, liberal and rather anti-religious, it is the only American show to acknowledge the reality of American religiosity. One California State University survey showed that 70 per cent of Simpsons plots had some religious content and ten per cent had distinct religious themes. And Matt Groening has said: "Right-wingers complain there's no God on TV - not only do the Simpsons go to church, they actually speak to God from time to time."
Lovejoy, the local minister, and Ned Flanders, the Simpsons' evangelical neighbour - are both big irritants to Homer. The weary and rather faithless Lovejoy's sermons bore him to death and Flanders' sanctity inspires Homer to acts of revenge - he dumps rubbish in his yard and steals his air-conditioning unit. Flanders also takes a mafia bullet intended for Homer, though he is saved by the piece of the true cross he keeps with him at all times.
Worst of all for Flanders, Homer in one episode has brain surgery that raises his IQ by 50 points, and he writes down a proof that there is no God. Flanders scoffs but, on reading it, sees that it is unarguable. He burns the paper, saying: "Can't let this get out."
But in fact, Homer's God does exist, though He may be a bit unorthodox. "I feel this incredible surge of power", Homer says at one point, "like God must feel when he's holding a gun." His faith in the Bible is strictly limited: "If the Bible has taught us nothing else, and it hasn't, it's that girls should stick to girls' sports, such as hot-oil wrestling, foxy boxy and such and such."
But when Homer stops going to church, God descends from heaven to talk to him about it. They chat on the sofa and God is persuaded that Homer's version of religion is fair enough. It is certainly superior to Lovejoy's melancholy creed -- One of the signs outside his church reads: "God welcomes his victims". Homer, in contrast sees God as a nice guy who is real enough to be ambiguous "He's always happy", he says of God. "No, wait, he's always mad." "For Homer," says Tony Campolo, a professor of sociology, "God is like a parachute he hopes he never has to use, but he wants God to be there, just in case. When Homer is in deep trouble, he turns to God and begs for miracles, but when they do happen, they do not make him into a man of faith or deep moral convictions. Once a crisis has passed, Homer's thinking about God is over. God, for him, is somebody you bargain with in times of trouble, making all kinds of promises to change (which are never lived out), if God will just deliver on a needed miracle."
However, Homer fears he is on the losing side. "This series," writes Campolo, "leaves little doubt that Homer has a psychologically repressed conviction that he, himself, falls into the category of those bound for hell". Like a Graham Greene character, the very fervency of his belief in the day of judgment convinces him that he must be damned.
Just as his moral character is riven with ambiguity, so Homer's spiritual life balances uneasily on a contradiction: he rants atheistically against Flanders but, in his heart, he believes unquestioningly. And this, in the end, points to Homer's deep, if primitive, religious orthodoxy. In spite of himself, he is saved by the greatest of all Christian qualities - love. His vices are contained and his wounds healed by the love of his family. It is not just that he always returns to Marge; it is also that he both gives and receives unqualified love.
At one point Mr Burns offers him $lm for a teddy bear, but he turns it down because Maggie has grown so attached to the toy. And, in a fantasy sequence in which Lisa is about to marry an English fop named Hugh, she calls off the wedding because the cad turns up his snobbish nose at the spectacle of Homer. Her father represents everything his prodigiously intelligent and gifted daughter despises but, when the chips are down, her love for him comes first.
Homer is a colossal figure, bigger than either he or his creators fully understand or ever intended. He took over the show from Bart and he escaped the confines of the writers' and producers' secular imaginations. Much of the credit for this must go to Dan Castellaneta, a truly great voice artist, whose nurturing of the character has kept him balanced on a moral and spiritual tightrope.
But even more of the credit should go to the Americans' capacity for redeeming themselves through myth and laughter. Homer embodies the possibility that, foolish and stupid as we are, we can still be saved, not as angels but as ourselves. We can be loved for being the losers we are. A modern Job, a contemporary Sancho Panza, a petit bourgeois Falstaff, Homer Simpson says it for us all -- "D'oh!".