The most common thing you hear about the lasting Simpsons franchise is that the show has “lost its touch,” that while it remains popular, viewers continue to tune in only because of nostalgia for the series’ “golden years” (which most fans place between seasons 3 and 8). Granted, Bart evading Sideshow Bob for the umpteenth time, Homer and Marge re-writing their romantic history, and the Simpson family traveling to Tokyo just feels a little exhausting when we remember the days Bart sold his soul and Homer “did it for her.”
Has the show gotten any less funny, though? Any less edgy, witty, silly, surprising, or relevant? For some people, that answer is a resounding yes. As someone who bases his opinions on subjectively calculated statistics and voodoo science, I’m not yet convinced.
Let’s take a look at the jokes-per-minute ratios of some of the episodes throughout the first 12 years of the series.
The Simpsons has had a total of six “eras” of different show-runners:
Seasons 1-2: James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, and Sam Simon. Although Groening gets most of the credit as the series “creator” (he wrote the Tracy Ullman shorts and created the characters as an inspiration from his Life in Hell comic series), most writers credit Sam Simon for establishing the show’s intellectual humor and assembling an elite writing team including George Meyer, John Swartzwelder, Jon Vitti, and Conan O’Brien. Simon is (arguably) to thank for the show’s subtle homage’s to classic films and art, as well as for the show’s political edge.
Seasons 3-4: Al Jean and Mike Reiss. Many narrow it down to these two seasons as the series’ best. Most episodes are a satisfying blend of unique storytelling, smart jokes and empathetic “relationship-y” moments.
Seasons 5-6: David Mirkin. Although these seasons have some of the greatest episodes of the series, a lot of writers reportedly struggled with Mirkin, who didn’t come from the same Ivy League pedigree as many of the Harvard Lampoon alums in the room. In John Ortved’s oral history of The Simpsons, former-writer Brent Forrester lamented over Season 6 gag in which Homer bashes a man’s head against the ground (“Homie the Clown”): “I remember thinking, That’s never happened on The Simpsons before … That was just the most hilarious thing to Mirkin.”
Seasons 7-8: Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein. Long-time writing partners Oakley and Weinstein gave the writers room a “college-y feel,” spending long nights rewriting episodes, filling pages with jokes. The episodes start to focus on some of the peripheral characters, such as Seymour Skinner.
Seasons 9-11: Mike Scully. Despite Scully’s superb talent and the show’s lasting quality, observers point to these seasons as the start of the series’ transition towards a meta-stage of blatant, self-referential humor.
Seasons 12-present: Al Jean (again). Jean returns to lead the final, and longest, era of the series. The Simpsons becomes a vehicle to comment on the latest pop culture or media craze, such as steroid use, pop boy bands and celebrity scandals. The last two seasons may have revealed a change of heart, however. (More on that later.)
From each of the first 12 seasons I selected one episode that I felt best embodied the comedic style of that time. Typically I tried to find an episode in which the show-runner himself wrote the episode (which doesn’t always mean much –- according to interviews, Oakley and Weinstein’s drafts often had very few edits from the writer’s room, whereas Mirkin’s drafts and ideas were reportedly heavily rewritten and made funnier by other writers). Other times I picked what episodes seem to be the most memorable from the era.
(I decided to stop at season 12, mainly because I felt continuing the analysis beyond that point would be redundant. Besides, I wanted to look at the show’s transition throughout the six different eras of show-runners. I’m sure there have been some further changes throughout the last decade, but that analysis is for another day.)
I ran the episodes through the joke counter, categorizing verbal jokes, visual gags, callbacks, reveals, and cultural references.
Normally for these analyses I pay close attention to how many separate storylines exist within one episode, and how many times those different stories overlap. In the case of The Simpsons, however, the story structure is more linear, featuring one central story arc that takes several unexpected twists. Occasionally there will be tangent storyline from the original thread, and later in the series we began to see a more traditional sitcom binary structure (Bart, Lisa, Marge, or other character deals with A, meanwhile, Homer does stupid B). Therefore, focusing on the number of storylines, and the amount of times those stories overlap, was irrelevant for The Simpsons.
Again, this isn’t watertight science, and a joke like “I shouldn’t have stopped for that haircut” really ought to count for FIVE points in my book. But at least this helps us get a quantitative sense of how the show has evolved over the years.
The Sam Simon Era
111: “The Crepes of Wrath”
Written by Sam Simon, George Meyer, John Swartzwelder, Jon Vitti.
Airdate: April 15, 1990
Story A: Bart’s pranks at school lead Skinner to convince Homer and Marge to enroll him in a student exchange program. He goes to France, where he is forced into backbreaking labor on a vineyard owned by crooked Frenchmen.
Story B: Bart’s foreign counterpart, an Albanian boy named Adil, turns out to be a communist spy.
Verbal Jokes: 47
Visual Gags: 36
Cultural References: 7
204: “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish”
Written by Sam Simon and John Swartzwelder.
Airdate: Nov. 1, 1990
Story A: After Bart catches a three-eyed fish in a pond polluted by the power plant, a safety inspection humiliates Mr. Burns. Homer convinces Burns to run for governor, and the family is divided by the election.
Verbal Jokes: 51
Visual Gags: 45
Cultural References: 15
The Al Jean & Mike Reiss Era
311: “Stark Raving Dad”
Written by Al Jean and Mike Reiss.
Airdate: Sept. 19, 1991
Story A: When Bart’s antics result in all of Homer’s shirts turning pink in the laundry, Burns has Homer’s sanity tested. Homer is institutionalized, where he befriends a man who thinks he is Michael Jackson. The man later moves in with the family.
Story B: Lisa is upset with Bart for forgetting to give her a birthday present. “Michael Jackson” helps Bart write a song for her.
Verbal Jokes: 68
Visual Gags: 50
Cultural References: 28
412: “Marge vs. the Monorail”
Written by Conan O’Brien.
Airdate: Jan. 14, 1993
Story A: When Mr. Burns is fined $3 million for disposing toxic waste in a park, the town invests the money in a new monorail after a musical pitch from Lyle Lanley, a “Music Man” type salesman. Marge is concerned Lanley is running a dangerous scam.
Story B: Homer takes classes to become the monorail’s conductor. He has to save the day when the monorail malfunctions on the track.
Verbal Jokes: 102
Visual Gags: 89
Cultural References: 20
The David Mirkin Era
515: “Deep Space Homer”
Written by David Mirkin.
Airdate: Feb. 24, 1994
Story A: NASA, hoping to get higher TV ratings, recruits lovable idiots Homer and Barney to be part of the next manned space flight. Homer eventually gets chosen, and his antics result in a crisis on the shuttle.
Verbal Jokes: 80
Visual Gags: 66
Cultural References: 30
615: “Homie the Clown”
Written by John Swartzwelder.
Airdate: Feb. 12, 1995
Story A: Homer enrolls in clown college and becomes a Krusty-lookalike for birthday parties and other events. When people begin to mistake him for Krusty in real life, Homer enjoys the special treatment.
Story B: Krusty, who created the clown college to pay off his gambling debts, gets in trouble when he owes money to Italian mobsters. The mobsters mistake Homer for Krusty and kidnap him.
Verbal Jokes: 86
Visual Gags: 72
Cultural References: 23
The Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein Era
721: “22 Short Films About Springfield”
Written by the entire writing staff.
Airdate: April 14, 1996
Stories: A Pulp Fiction homage of sorts, the episode features, among other stories: Lisa gets gum stuck in her hair, Skinner arranges a sitcom farce of a dinner date with Superintendent Chalmers, Homer accidentally traps Maggie in a newspaper dispenser, Wiggum and Snake get in a fight (and eventually get tied up and gagged), Nelson finally sees his day of reckoning, etc.
Verbal Jokes: 92
Visual Gags: 84
Cultural References: 23
807: “Lisa’s Date with Density”
Written by Mike Scully
Airdate: Dec. 15, 1996
Story A: Lisa develops a crush on Nelson, but she struggles trying to chance the dim-witted bully into a sweet, sensitive person.
Story B: Homer finds an auto-dialer and uses it to send out calls to people asking to send him money.
Verbal Jokes: 95
Visual Gags: 40
Cultural References: 14
The Mike Scully Era
921: “Girly Edition”
Written by Larry Doyle.
Airdate: April 19, 1998
Story A: Lisa and Bart co-anchor a kids’ news program. Lisa, taking the job seriously, becomes jealous when Bart’s sensational human interest stories make him the star of the show.
Story B: Homer gets a helper monkey, normally for the disabled, to help him with tasks such as stealing donuts.
Verbal Jokes: 86
Visual Gags: 52
Cultural References: 16
1012: “Sunday, Cruddy Sunday”
Written by Tom Martin, George Meyer, Brian Scully, and Mike Scully.
Airdate: Jan. 31, 1999
Story A: Homer befriends a travel agent who gets him (and a number of other random Springfield men) tickets to the Superbowl. When the tickets turn out to be counterfeit, Homer and co. have to find a way to get into the stadium for the game.
Story B: Lisa and Marge sit at home and paint eggs.
Verbal Jokes: 69
Visual Jokes: 60
Cultural References: 39
1114: “Alone Again Natura-Diddily”
Written by Ian Maxtone-Graham.
Airdate: Feb 13, 2000
Story A: While at a car racing track, a barrage of rolled-up t-shirts fired from cannons knock Maude Flanders off a high-rise, killing her. Ned and the boys mourn her death.
Story B: Homer helps Ned re-enter the dating scene.
Verbal Jokes: 80
Visual Gags: 62
Cultural References: 25
The New Al Jean Era
1211: “New Kids on the Blecch”
Written by Tim Long.
Airdate: Feb. 25, 2001
Story A: Bart is helped out of a tough spot by a music producer who casts Bart, along with Milhouse, Nelson and Ralph, in a pop singing group. The “Party Posse” becomes the next big sensation.
Story B: Lisa discovers that the group is actually part of a subliminal campaign to get people to enlist in the U.S. Navy. She tries to expose the conspiracy.
Verbal Jokes: 98
Visual Gags: 79
Cultural References: 43
I’ll spare you the math and instead offer this handy chart to summarize the data:
While perhaps it’s not fair to judge the episodes solely on joke frequency (and I’m sure you’re thinking I didn’t choose the “right” episodes from each season), it’s still worth noting that the series took a great leap forward in joke frequency starting around the third season (again, when most fans say those “golden years” began). And despite the show’s alleged “fall from grace” at the start of the Mike Scully era, the jokes-per-minute ratio held up pretty well.
Also interesting is the increasing number of cultural references per episode throughout the series. Of course we remember the subtle references to George Bush Sr., Citizen Kane, and Hitchcock films from the first few seasons, but the show’s most direct commentary came later on. Of course, a lot of that commentary was targeted at the Simpsons franchise itself, but really, was there ever a more perfect target?
The data reveal that The Simpsons is probably just as funny as it has always been. Episodes typically have nearly the same amount of jokes per minute, if not more. Yes, the high numbers of more recent seasons come from obvious, easy references to pop culture, frequently through celebrity cameos, but The Simpsons writer’s room (to this day the wet dream job for every comedy writer), led by veteran Al Jean, is still capable of producing the same playfulness of the early seasons and retains that uncanny ability to stay two steps ahead of the audience with its jokes.
What has changed, however, is the nature of the storytelling. If you look at the story descriptions from above, you’ll notice that earlier seasons have simpler, more relationship-based stories. One of the most memorable moments of the entire series wasn’t particularly funny as much as it was sweet: “Lisa, it’s your birthday! Happy birthday, Lisa!” As funny as it is to see Bart join a boy band or Homer use medicinal marijuana, it’s just not the same as the warmth we felt after some of those early episodes.
However, while sometimes it seems like the show is headed towards a future in which normal episodes are weirder than early season Treehouse of Horror specials, occasionally a few refreshing rays of hope point to a change of heart. For example, in this season’s episode titled “Lisa Simpson, This Isn’t Your Life,” Lisa discovers that Marge was once a bright, intelligent student like her, but that she gave up her dreams for the mundane life of a homemaker. Marge is deeply hurt when she finds out Lisa is scared of following the same path, and she doesn’t quite know what to say to her daughter.
Remember that feeling? It’s called empathy. Combine that real emotion with this season’s dark, rich satire in the couch gag by Banksy, Al Jean 2010 is starting to look more like Al Jean 1992.
If you’ve read this far I probably don’t need to tell you this, but don’t give up on The Simpsons. High ratings and a merchandise empire may be keeping the franchise on the air, but the writer’s room still has a few tricks up its sleeve to make even the show’s new episodes some of the most satisfying comedy on television.
Erik Voss will do joke research for food.