Matthew Norman: Don't mess with 'The Simpsons'

An uncensored Simpsons might prove a palliative to the loathing of the US in the Middle East
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The Independent Online

Given their taste for hilarious vengeance, it's a safe bet that the makers of The Simpsons are already working on ways to punish the Arab world for its impertinent bowdlerising of their magnificent creation. The last time anyone tried to interfere with America's first family, it was the patriarch of America's second family, George Bush Sr; or "41" as he's known within the clan in reference to his presidential number, to distinguish him from his son (as in Barbara telling George W: "43, go call 41 in from the woodshed and tell him supper's on the table").

In 1990, 41 expressed his desire that the American public be "closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons". Whether this was a greater error of judgement than his failure to march into Baghdad a year later and save the world from the subsequent calamity wrought by his first-born is one for the historians, but let's be charitable and ascribe it to spousal loyalty. Barbara, after all, had described probably the greatest show in TV history as "the dumbest thing I have ever seen" - an insane piece of hyperbole, many will think, from a sighted woman who reared 43.

Anyway, Matt Groening and the Simpsons team wasted no time in punishing the Bushes. The first episode made after the attack featured the family watching 41 make his comment on TV, a bemused Homer asking why the President was talking about them. "But we are just like the Waltons," says Bart. "We're both praying for an end to the recession." Before long, the post-White House Bushes retired to a house opposite the Simpsons, the two families quickly going to DefCon 1 and then all-out war. Homer and Bart construct makeshift rockets from bottles and fire them at 41 while he does toe-touches visibly through his bedroom window. "You get one up his butt and it's a million points," says Bart, and so it goes on with brawling in the sewers and the glueing of an afro wig to 41's head, until Mikhail Gorbachev arrives with a housewarming present, and Barbara forces her old man to apologise to Homer on live telly.

Bush the Elder made a stab at laughing it off, but the destructive impact on whatever reputation he had left brings to mind poor David Steel and his Spitting Image puppet.

If the message is that you mess with The Simpsons at your peril, Arab satellite channel MBC isn't listening. In its censored version, Homer no longer drinks beer - the equivalent of taking the snobbery out of Basil Fawlty, or recreating Victor Meldrew as a Zen master who smiles beatifically as the wait for the call-centre to answer enters its second hour. Omar al-Shashoon, as Homer's now known throughout Araby, has also forsaken bacon, and while there are no formal plans to give him a prayer mat and a compass, you do wonder how far these twits will go in the quest to assuage fundamentalist opinion.

The result appears to be comedic suicide. The young Egyptian actor voicing Omar is said to be breathtakingly unfunny, the show is dismissed in the same terms, and Simpsons producer Al Jean makes the obvious point that the Homer who doesn't drink, eat pig and behave like one is no Homer at all.

One senses that an opportunity to improve Arab-US relations is being sacrificed at the altar of political/religious correctness, where mirth goes to have its throat slit like a halal chicken. Laughter may or may not be medicine (myself, I'd give the nod to a course of Tamiflu over a fit of the giggles at the minute). But an uncensored Simpsons might prove a palliative, if not a cure, to the loathing and distrust of the US that reaches its zenith in the Middle East.

Hitler strongly disapproved of Jewish jokes, he wrote in Mein Kampf, on the grounds that people find it tough to hate that which makes them laugh. Difficult as it is to see the Führer as a proto-professor of comedy, he was absolutely right. Nothing is a more effective antidote to the feelings so many of us have reluctantly developed towards the US than watching it satirise itself, in all its unique world-within-a-world complexity, through the mouths of The Simpsons.

The addiction to instant gratification, the generosity of spirit, the cruelty, the tolerance, the intolerance, the cloyingly fake religiosity, the genuine churchiness, the gun culture, the dangers of unfettered free market capitalism, the imperial arrogance, the underlying insecurity, the warmth and good humour, and every characteristic of the country and its people are teased almost to death, but with transparent affection, by some of the planet's most gifted comic writers.

Whether the vision of Monty Burns's appallingly unsafe nuclear power plant will put the Iranians off developing their own seems unlikely, and you doubt that Springfield's local democracy in action will single-handedly persuade the House of Saud to pack up and flee en masse to the Swiss Alps. Yet if the Arab broadcaster had the wit to trust its viewers to cope with characters boozing and eating pork, and to do no more than translate the original scripts into Arabic, one suspects that the realisation that Americans feel every bit as confused about America as the rest of us might do a little good.

Merely knowing that America's best-loved programme is as savage, in its way, about its President as the most outspoken Arab critic - in one recent episode Homer predicts that "the next military quagmire will either be in Iran or North Korea thanks to General Cuckoo Bananas in charge" - might be some vague reassurance that such ideas are too literally laughable to come to fruition. Hearing 43 referred to as "stupid monkey face" in an American accent may suggest that there is more in common between the US and the world beyond than the inhabitants of Qatar and Jordan imagine.

One could overdo the notion that a shared sense of satirical pleasure will bring ideologically riven nations together for one giant pan-global Woodstock, of course, but the subliminal message that the citizens of Springfield and Cairo are divided by less than they presume wouldn't be such a terrible thing.

It will doubtless be a while before President Assad, the son of a presidential father, screams with mirth at the ribbing of his equivalent, or slaps his head at some imbecilic mistake concerning the torture of an Italian citizen kidnapped by the CIA and flown to Damascus on an executive jet to have his tongue loosened, and yelps "D'oh!" President Murabak, should he tire of the Blairs' semi-freebie holidays on the Egyptian coast, may never invite our PM - himself a guest star on the show (worst performance since he read the lesson at Diana's funeral) - to eat his shorts. It could even be that the Simpsons, in all their unbowdlerised genius, simply won't catch on in the Arab world. But that's no reason not to give them every chance, and no excuse for daring to tamper with perfection.