The Simpsons: As it comes to the big screen, we celebrate the greatest TV show on earth

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The Independent Culture

Stupid newspaper. Stupid Simpsons the Movie. If it weren't for the stupid Simpsons the Movie I wouldn't be having to write about The Simpsons for some stupid newspaper and instead I could be doing what I was born to do. I could be watching The Simpsons.

You think that's stupid? Ha. Watch the BBC going down the plughole, making up a ridiculous fuss about that bit of footage which actually made the Queen look good, look powerful, look as if she bites, in order to divert attention from their hateful "reality shows" which – now here's a surprise – are rigged. Well: it's not that they're rigged. It's that they're terrible. Same goes for ITV and Bravo and all the rest of the abominable junk we're fed by ludicrous children who like to say they're In Television. Reality TV? World's Most Predictable Police Videos? Old Etonians Staying In Hotels While Pretending To Survive On Worms And A Sprig Of Earth? Women With Bosoms, Shouting? Oh, for heaven's sake.

But among the almost universal dross a single programme, running since December 1989, shines like a yellow, blue-haired, five-o'-clock-shadowed beacon in a paltry world. If you want real reality TV, the only thing on offer is The Simpsons. The television in the corner of my room only exists to show it. Were I charged with naming the thing, "televison" wouldn't be even considered. It would be called the Simps-O-Mat, because that is what it is for.

And I am not alone. Google "The Simpsons" and over seventeen million pages come up in 0.14 seconds. Google "The Simpsons is rubbish" and it takes twice as long to come up with just five pages, and four of those five are complaining that it's not what it used to be, that standards have declined, that – as humanity has always thought, about everything – we are declining from some Golden Age. The truth (this is not an opinion; it is the truth) is that The Simpsons is never less than brilliant, and frequently reaches a sort of comedic Nirvana never before attained by any episodic comedy, whether live-action or animated.

It's hard to say exactly why the thing is so magnificent, not because there are too few reasons, but because there are too many. The writing is unfailingly intelligent, it's true, and has refined the comedy of bathos to new heights (or possibly depths). Great lines come thick and fast; even the minor characters – walk-ons who we'll never see again – have almost Shakespearean moments of articulating great truths. In an episode parodying The Perfect Storm, a meteorologist seen in one brief shot says, hunched over his computers: "This looks like it's shaping up to be the worst storm I've ever seen. And I've seen three storms." There in one brief utterance is encapsulated both the vainglory and the terrible human fallibility of experts, and we will never look at any solemn, overly-grave pundit again in quite the same way.

At the heart of The Simpsons stands the paunchy, bald, beer-and-donut-loving Homer, paterfamilias, half-man, half-ape, and possibly the greatest comic clown – in the classical sense – ever conceived. At the core of his idle, incompetent, sometimes barely-sentient confusion and endless ability to just ever-so-slightly miss the point, lies both truth and humanity. At one stage, Homer is told by the inappropriately-chucklesome Dr Hibbert that he is going to die after eating contaminated fugu; an endlessly incompetent father, locked in a desperate power struggle with his viciously cunning, maverick anarchist son Bart, Homer decides to pass on his wisdom in the three most useful phrases in life: "Cover for me." "That's a great idea, boss," and, "But it was like that when I got here."

So far, so recognisable in all our lives. But, come the dawn – after a night spent listening to the duller books of the Old Testament on tape – Homer realises he is going to live. "I'm alive!" he cries; "I'm alive! From this moment on I'm going to live life to the full." And we cut to Homer sitting in front of the television. Only his eyeballs are moving, as he follows some sports game; his hand shovels potato chips into his churning jaws. Modern man, living life to the full; but the genius is the length of this scene. The immobile camera, lingering on the stupified Homer, for longer than we could imagine possible. It is achingly funny; but begin to analyse it, and it becomes wonderfully complex: here we are, gazing at Homer, gazing at the television: the filming performs what it is also demonstrating, and forces us to join in. Watcher and watched become one, and, as in all the finest comedy, our laughter becomes uneasy. Not the terrible unease of The Office, the apogee of the comedy of embarrassment (indeed, it's part of The Simpsons' charm that its characters are almost uniformly immune to embarrassment) but the unease of a deeper reality: that we are all, in the end, in the same boat, and that we are all, too, assholes.

Sometimes the brilliance of the comedy is so subtle that it's only on reflection that we notice it. When the young Doc Hibbert, sitting round the campfire, says: "You know what I'm really looking forward to? The future," things have moved on before we quite notice the wit. When, later in the same episode, the adult Homer, having been hypnotised into recalling a childhood encounter with a drowned body, says: "Wow, that explains everything that's gone wrong in my life. My fear of corpses! (PAUSE) My occasional over-eating..." it's only afterwards that we realise we are seeing that rarest of all birds in drama of whatever style, the contented man. We watch Homer's life as a series of slapstick catastrophes driven by utter lack of insight; but we also see the result of that self-unawareness, as when he observes: "That guy impressed me. And I am not easily impressed. Wow! A blue car!"

At the heart of this comedy, both utterly American and utterly universal, lies the family. But it is not the family in the dystopian, minatory imagination of a politician-on-the-make. Rather, it's a family brought round so far in the circle of surrealism that it becomes real again. Blue-haired Marge, the earnest, socially-inept Lisa, baby Maggie (all-too-often forgotten by Homer), even the terrible dog, Santa's Little Helper, are human archetypes representing both us as we fear we might secretly be, and as we equally secretly wish we were: incompetent, anarchic, wilful, intermittently endowed with superpowers, and, although caught in the great machine of modern society – and in its lower regions at that – oddly autonomous.

Perhaps it acquires some of its humanity from its core characters being inspired by creator Matt Groening's own family. Perhaps its secret is that in an age of cynical and egotistical manufactured TV product, designed solely to deliver viewers to advertisers, The Simpsons is almost uniquely rooted in two apparently irreconcilables, intelligence and human warmth. If the measure of Shakespeare's greatness was that he could allow none of his characters to go unredeemed (even the appalling milquetoast Andrew Aguecheek has his moment: "I was adored once, too") then The Simpsons follows in that great bustling tradition of multum in parvo, the world written in the Erewhon of Springfield. And now it's with us on the big screen, at full length. As Homer said when watching a meteor shower, "I wish God were alive to see this."

Matt Groening, who created "The Simpsons" in 1987, in conversation with Deborah Solomons...

"The Simpsons Movie" reminds us of your substantial role in giving masterpiece status to cartoons and animation. Do you see yourself as an A-level artist?

No. Cartooning is for people who can't quite draw and can't quite write. You combine the two half-talents and come up with a career.

How much of the movie is hand-drawn?

We used a combination of cheap labour and computers.

What does that mean? You outsourced the film to animators in China?

No. When I say cheap, I mean there's no amount of money that an animator can be paid – they deserve our eternal gratitude. I would give them back massages if they would take them.

One highlight of 20th-century art is surely Marge Simpson's blue beehive hairdo.

That was inspired by a combination of my own mother's hairstyle in the 1960s and, of course, The Bride of Frankenstein.

Marge's hair also puts one in mind of Queen Nefertiti and makes her seem regal beside her husband.

Any woman would seem regal in comparison to Homer.

In its 18 years on Fox, The Simpsons has taken more than a few swipes at Rupert Murdoch, the network's politically conservative owner. Do the two of you ever hang out?

Not really, but he's been gracious every time I've met him. He played himself on the show, and we wrote the line: "I'm Rupert Murdoch, the billionaire tyrant, and this is my skybox," as his entrance line. He performed it with great zeal.

Would you like to see him buy The Wall Street Journal?

I think he owns enough.

In your film, a character named President Arnold Schwarzenegger occupies the Oval Office. How did that happen?

We needed a President that would make people laugh. And Schwarzenegger was the obvious choice.

You're known to be a fairly active Democrat.

I've rarely voted for a winner in my political life, with the exception of Al Gore.

For all its supposedly subversive humor, The Simpsons is basically pro-family and celebrates the consolations of domestic togetherness.

The show is celebrating the people who drive you crazy, and that's basically been it from the very beginning.

It's unimaginable that Marge and Homer will ever divorce.

No, they love each other – they're nuts about each other. I guess there is a little bit of wish fulfillment on the part of the writers. We want it to work out for somebody.

Your own family has not remained intact. Is there anything to say about your divorce?

The demise of marriage and the breaking up of a family is a big drag for everyone.

Do you enjoy fatherhood?

It's a blast. My sons are 16 and 18. We enjoy so much of the same garbage.

What did your dad do for a living when you were growing up in Portland, Oregon?

He did single-panel gag cartoons in magazines, the kind featuring starving men crawling across the desert. Later, he turned to surf movies. That's where he made his mark.

In what state is The Simpsons' fictional Springfield located? Certainly not Vermont.

You'll find out in the movie. We actually reveal the states that Springfield borders on.

Can you tell me now?

Maine, Kentucky and – I can't remember what the others are. The point is that Springfield is in your heart.

Why did you decide on a small-town setting instead of the big city?

Big cities are harder to draw.

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