Back when I was a skinny, orthodontically fortified knot of sprouting-limbs in the junior-high hallways of the Newburgh City School District, making friends wasn’t hard. It was worse than hard: it was never even an option. The very idea of making friends was contrary to my 8th-grade survival instincts. The daily goal for someone in my social standing was not to make friends but the opposite: to go unnoticed. Notoriety in junior high was a very bad thing, unless it was for making JV lacrosse (not likely in my case). For me, notoriety meant your mid-pubescent voice cracked while delivering a civics presentation or you were spotted playing Lost Worlds during free period. School days were not a time for socializing but a series of charges through a no-man’s-land, where the obvious course of action was to navigate the least-populated hallways, slip quietly into one’s next class and plop behind a desk until the saving grace of the the start bell tolled. From this perspective I don’t consider my childhood a lonely one; I consider it a successful one.
For all our whining, most of us social pariahs found a way of crawling through our lonely youths and emerging generally happy human beings –- a little rough around the edges, perhaps, but nothing that will find us greasy and balding in a newspaper-filled apartment like a Todd Solondz character. There were a hundred ways to deal. Some Shariped their fingernails black. Some scratched “FUCK THIS SHIT” on the backs of their Trapper Keepers. Some slammed their bedroom doors and cranked “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” on repeat.
But I rather liked the natural beige hue of my nails and the edgiest piece of music I could’ve cranked was Space Jam: Music From And Inspired By The Motion Picture. I did have The Simpsons, though.
The Simpsons kept me sane. And it kept me sane so hilariously that I was too busy laughing to even realize my sanity was ever in jeopardy. It was every balm of teenage rebellion rolled into an endless platter of 30-minute episodes (“Mmm, endless platter, [Homer’s drool noise]”). Matt Groening was my James Dean and Sam Simon was my Kurt Cobain. Who needed Billy Corgan when you had Troy McClure singing, “I hate every ape I see/From chimpan-A to chimpanzee?” Is it odd that the best memories of my youth take place in a wood-paneled basement where I watched the endless supply of Simpsons re-runs that Fox provided at a rate of two –- sometimes three –- a night?
The Simpsons taught me to find the twisted humor in the daily horror of public school. If the reader will allow me to briefly enter a vernacular familiar to the show’s fanatics: Remember that one episode where Jimbo, flanked by the other bullies, looms over Bart. “When was the last time we beat you up?” Jimbo hisses. Bart says about a week ago. “You’re due!” they shout. There, in two hilarious lines, The Simpsons neatly sums up the daily horror of bullying, and how cruelly arbitrary it always felt. (Topping the joke off is the Little Rascal-ness of the bullies’ adherence to a strict schedule.)
It wasn’t just Springfield Elementary, of course. Whatever your complaint with life –- womanizing politicians, malpracticed doctors, senile grandparents, bad movies, bad TV, bad radio, chain-smoking clowns and their homicidal sidekicks, or ugly bartenders who illegally smuggle pandas from China –- The Simpsons took it, brought it to its grotesque extreme, warped it, had Hank Azaria create a voice for it and delivered something so funny you’d find yourself actually grateful that the real-life problems existed as inspiration.
But who am I kidding? I watched the show to laugh, not to think. And above any social relevance or civic commentary, The Simpsons prized the individual gag. Sure, somewhere in the recesses of my cerebral cortex a few dusty neurons absorb what season-five’s “Cape Feare” is saying about our flawed justice system, but mostly I just like to point and chuckle with moronic delight, Fruity Pebble milk dripping form my chin, as Sideshow Bob is whacked in the face by nine consecutive rake handles.
Today, making friends is no longer theoretical, and when I encounter other fanatics of the show, those single moments are the currency in which we trade. Life’s too short and The Simpsons is too funny to waste time dissecting it. We prefer to toss out “Remember that one episode where…?”s. Maybe that’s why those early seasons have endured so well. They’ve been kept alive through drunken party conversations and road-trip time-killers. I know I’ve done my part to fan the flame. Like 20-something bards, we heartily swap our favorite moments as though they were ancient pieces of cultural folklore. And you know what? I guess they are.