Matt Sheedy: In your recent essay, “It’s Funny Because It’s True? The Simpsons, Satire, and the Significance of Religious Humor in Popular Culture,” you look at the intersection between humor, religion and satire and note the various contexts and interests involved in the depiction of religion in The Simpsons. You argue that the humor in The Simpsons is not “funny because it’s true,” but funny because it reflects the “culturally contextualized” humor of the show’s writers’ and their general assumptions about religion in contemporary America. Could you elaborate on these ideas?
David Feltmate: When I first started teaching religion and popular culture at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, NS in 2004, I had classes of 60-70 students–none of whom knew much about religion. That was fine, but the bigger problem was that a wide variety of popular culture examples did not captivate them either. So I started telling jokes from The Simpsons and South Park in class and everybody came on board. It was at that point that I realized that students knew how to laugh at jokes from the programs without knowing any of the historical and cultural references that gave the jokes their bite in the first place. Yet, there is something about how the jokes are presented, phrased, and what they target that audiences have come to learn as “funny.” That was the start of my research.
Yet, I also meet people who hate The Simpsons because they do not see the humor in the program. That very fact tells me that something is not “inherently funny,” people have a “sense of humor” and this sense is cultivated over time. I know that my own sense of humor has been profoundly shaped by The Simpsons, South Park, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and Canadian programs such as Royal Canadian Air Farce and This Hour Has 22 Minutes. I also have a soft spot for comic strips like Calvin and Hobbes and standup comedians such as Bill Hicks, George Carlin, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and Richard Pryor, among others. It has simply become impossible for me to conceive of humor as something that “just is.” There is too much cultural activity going on in its production and dissemination.
In the article I try to draw out some of the specific incidents that make a character like Ned Flanders so fascinating and multifaceted. What The Simpsons has done better than any other television program in the animated sitcom genre is they have allowed their characters to develop broad and complicated personalities over the years. Ned is a lot like the Baptists I grew up among (my father is a Baptist minister in eastern Canada). I remember people quoting scripture, the religiously motivated politics around same-sex marriage and abortion, and also the popular cultural elements of trying to construct a safe Christian world for the kids in the church. There were Christian music CDs and T-shirts, VeggieTales and McGee and Me videos, Sunday school comic strips, and well meaning, caring human beings who wanted to make the world as good as humanly possible. I think part of the reason why Ned is such a fascinating character is that The Simpsons‘ writers and artists have so faithfully brought a character with those dimensions to the screen.
At the same time, those dimensions are brought forth in a social and media environment that is increasingly politically bipolar and it has been going in that direction for quite some time. The Simpsons is a show that leans to the left, no matter what the writers and producers say, but what gets missed in the analysis of the program’s humor is the way that they mobilize biases and stereotypes in specific ways that make sense within the cultural context.
At the same time, they are satirizing heartfelt actions. If you are pointing out somebody’s foibles that means that you are in a position to label said actions as foibles. Perhaps the most darkly disturbing jokes in Ned’s history have been the ones where he actively tries to intervene in the moral regulation of his fellow Springfielders (e.g., taking down the names of doctors associated with Planned Parenthood in the extended version of season 12′s “HOMЯ”, being a media watchdog in season 18′s “You Kent Always Say What You Want”).
Inherently, there is nothing funny about this. Media watchdog groups are serious business, both in terms of the way that they serve as intellectual and moral gatekeepers who help guide and direct human action by disseminating knowledge that people then use to direct their media choices and in the role they play in publicly debating moral standards and trying to force others to conform. I do not think I have to defend treating abortion clinic attacks by groups such as Operation Rescue as something serious. That said, when people make jokes at their expense they are both acknowledging the seriousness of their opponents’ viewpoints and exposing these perspectives as somehow worthy of ridicule. In the case of the Ned jokes, that requires that you have a different perspective than the moral entrepreneurs’, which is why I say that nothing is inherently funny. If it were, then racist and holocaust jokes would always be humorous. We know that there are appropriate times and places for certain types of jokes and we know who is likely to laugh and who is not.
In this sense The Simpsons knows their audience well and knows what works for them. Their criticism of evangelicalism through Ned Flanders is, in no small part, a reaction to the political actions of the Christian Right in the United States. The thing is, if you had a group of equally gifted writers who wanted to write a show for the Ned Flanders’ of the world that made fun of political liberals who did not hold to evangelical worldviews, they could write jokes that are just as funny to evangelicals, but which people who do not share said views would find despicable.
Eliot Oring’s book Engaging Humor has a chapter on the humor of hate which was really important in shaping my perspective of humor in this regard (which I will pick up in part two of this interview). In many ways, my work has been about analyzing a mass mediated mode of disseminating a particular perspective, which has been taken as normal because we have this common assumption that jokes are “just funny.” I do not think anything is “just funny,” I find humor much more complicated and significant than that.
David Feltmate teaches Sociology of Religion at Auburn University at Montgomery. Trained as a sociologist of religion in the University of Waterloo’s Joint-Ph.D. Program in Religious Studies with Wilfrid Laurier University (Ontario, Canada), Dr. Feltmate specializes in the sociology of religion, religion and popular culture, religious diversity, the sociology of humor, and sociological theory. His ongoing research interests lie in the ways that people have used humor to discuss religious issues in the public and private spheres and the politics of controversial representations of different religious groups in North America. His articles have appeared in online and print journals and he is currently revising and expanding his dissertation “Springfield’s Sacred Canopy: Religion and Humour in The Simpsons” for publication.