This is already a quaint scenario and not long from now it might seem antiquated. A man sits before his TV, desperately wanting information but with no means of obtaining it. A commercial comes on. An actor dressed as an authority on the subject offers all the answers if you call a special phone number and pay fees for the call. He gives out the number. The man feverishly dials it.
That’s how it was though. We had so much less knowledge of what was out there in the world. You knew your town and what you saw on TV. Maybe what you read in the paper or books. You might come across special phone numbers or cryptic ads in the backs of magazines that seemed like conduits to privileged information. There was no other way to obtain it, so you gave it a shot. This might be the only way to hear an underground genre of music or to find out secrets for pleasing women or to learn which teams to bet on Sunday. As a last resort, you might go to the library, “The Hip Place To Be.”
At the time, there was no way for an average guy like Homer to really find out anything at all about a subject like sports betting. Is it even possible to win? If so, how? What kinds of lines is Moe giving compared to Vegas? Not that Homer is the sort of man to google all that stuff and study up on Wong teasers. His behavior in betting on football would be about the same today.
But Homer is a proxy for a broad range of men here. The writers of this episode have spoken of their own involvement with sports betting and they nail all the stuff they depict. There are still touts: guys who go on radio and TV and make their predictions, usually so they can sell picks that are not accurate enough to cover the cost. They still have lines like, “well, this one is really a toss up but, if I had to bet on it…” They still have ridiculous gimmick picks. I saw a print ad here in Vegas with a guy selling a 100,000 star pick. There are still guys with giant computer systems, like Frink and his Gambletron 2000, who say they can predict football scores. And part of you wants to listen to all of it because the idea of easy money is hard to resist.
There’s the glorious overstimulation of watching sports, having action on the games and gorging on fatty, heavily salted, deep fried snacks that can’t be good for your heart. There’s that sinking feeling when the team you bet on gives up a touchdown less than a minute into the game, like the goddam Jets did last Monday Night. Great handicappers are right about 56% of the time (slightly more than Smooth Jimmy Apollo’s 52%). While you might think you’ve made a big bet, there’s always a Sideshow Mel out there plunking down thousands like it was nothing. If you’re a gambler, when you get hot you buy everyone gifts and expensive dinners because obviously it is going to last forever. And, on the off chance it doesn’t, you’ll always have those moments of luxury. Most women, like Marge, disapprove when their men gamble. They hate the risk. One of the best exchanges in the episode for me is when Lisa says, “Boy, mom sure will be happy you won fifty dollars.” Homer: “You’d think that, wouldn’t you?”
This is one reason the classic Simpsons are so great and, hopefully, will still be watched after we are all dead. The way they capture these little nooks and crannies of our culture with depictions that, while satirical, work mostly by being completely accurate and grasping the tone and context of the nooks and crannies. Knowing exactly how they fit into our culture and our lives. Like being a kid reading Mad Magazine and laughing at Spiro Agnew jokes without having a clue who he was. If someone from 2490 wanted to know what it was like to be alive during the time, classic Simpsons might be the best thing to point him to. But maybe it would just be a maze of archaic customs and culture. Best left to historians and literature professors, who would misinterpret half of it. “The Harlem Globetrotters was the nickname of the Dutch national Soccer team.”
The most common reasons given for the decline of the show are the erosion of the heart of family feeling and the breakdown of the characters. They have gone from being flexible to the thematic needs of a particular episodes to hat racks on which the writers hang whatever joke they think of for a particular scene.
Indeed, in Lisa The Greek, there is a nice family story. Lisa takes an interest in the “savage ballet” as a means to connecting with her father, who has never bothered to connect with her. When she’s hits her first game, he says, “My God, it’s like there’s some kind of bond between us.” But he’s mainly interested in Lisa for her picks. He showers her her with gifts from his winnings, which he figures is a sufficient expression of his affection and gratitude. But Lisa really wants him to take a direct interest in her, not her attributes, or the activities they engage in and to desire and enjoy just spending time with her and giving her the attention she needs. None of this is particularly interesting to him. When she discovers this, she gives away the gifts, which were an expression of personal closeness to her. Only when Lisa withdraws from Homer does he realize how much he cares for her.
The outcome of The Super Bowl will tell if she still cares for him and he sweats it more than any of the games he bet on. It turns out they do care for eachother and Homer agrees to a hike, purely to spend time together. He enjoys it, but the second it’s over he wants to go home and do something more interesting, like watch TV or go bowling. A few strokes capture an awful lot about male/female relationships of all kinds. And then there’s the “B” story, in which Bart is dragged into clothes shopping with Marge, one of the very worst fates that can befall a son, boyfriend or husband. It’s all about having interests that seem to be in direct conflict at first, but finding ways to mix and balance them so that everyone can be content.
But, in addition to the family/character stuff, the show lost its focus on the salient trivialities of our lives. In much the same way guest appearances have shifted from great performances by the likes of James Woods and Dustin Hoffman to wedged in cameos by whatever pop star is most popular when he show is recorded, the cultural references of the show shifted to more broad and obvious subjects rather than sports betting touts, comic books, commercial jingles for hot dogs, Mexican TV comedy, educational reel-to-reel films and film strips, 80s Action movies, The Guinness Book of World Records and The Bud Bowl.
Lisa The Greek just touches on The Super Bowl and it hits all the marks in perhaps a minute of airtime: the limbo of the 4 hour pregame show, the crass tie ins to other, even more mindless programing, and the half hour sojourn into the depths of hell that is the Super Bowl halftime show. The joke most representative of the show’s greatness is about the absurd viewership numbers that are given for The Super Bowl. We are told that 18 billion people in 580 countries watch The Super Bowl. But, especially back when this episode aired, nobody really liked American Football other than Americans and some Canadians. The minds behind the early Simpsons were the type to latch on to a little piece of dubious trivia like that and run out its logical implications: distant indigenous people gathered around the village TV set to watch for no identifiable reason. Indifferent Frenchmen flipping through the channels, pausing to watch for three seconds before finding a Jerry Lewis movie.
Maybe this is all generational. What is the contemporary version of the “I feel like chicken tonight” jingle? We’re all aware of The Most Interesting Man In The World, but I think that’s about it. Who watches commercials? More importantly, who watches and remembers bad commercials? That went out shortly after The Playboy Channel and microfiche. Maybe those cultural idiosyncrasies that millions could identify with were produced by common limitations, like sitting around and watching bad old movies or terrible shows and dumb commercials just because you felt like watching TV and had to take whatever it offered.
It seems like today many facets of our culture fall into one of two branches. First, there is vulgar and boring mass culture that is perfectly aware it is vulgar and boring and just doesn’t care–I can’t imagine a funny joke, let alone a classic Simpsons level joke about The Kardashians or Guy Fieri or Bieber. It’s all too obvious and it was all baked into those entities at their inception. It’s like making fun of a clown for having big shoes and baggy pants. Plus, maybe a vehicle like The Simpsons just gets beaten to the punch a thousand times over now. Maybe making fun of Guy Fieri was great for like a week, but it was all done on social media. However, if we had all been wandering around in our private little worlds, wondering why this bulbous dufus was on TV all the time, and then The Simpsons swooped in with a perfect caricature that said what we’d been thinking, it would have felt like a home run.
Other facets of our culture can be fascinating and funny, but are so esoteric that, if you haven’t spent at least 4 hours in the subreddit, all references would be meaningless to you. There are SJWs, MRAs, incels, PUAs, monarchists (yep), people who marry giant dolls, people who want to look like giant dolls and, I assume, hundreds more. But, if I didn’t start a Twitter account to promote this site, I’d never have heard of any of them. Maybe someone can capture the experience of using the internet the same way The Simpsons captured the experience of watching TV and so successfully integrated it into the show as a key part of the lives and experiences of the characters (one more brilliant innovation to throw on the pile). Still, I like to think that if George Meyer, John Swartzwelder, Jon Viti and Conan O’Brien were alive today, they might come up with the perfect depiction of food trucks, Portland, competitive eating or Alex Jones. Or whatever the stuff is now. I mostly only pay attention to things you can bet on.