Are cartoons too violent for children? Most people would say, ‘No, of course not; what kind of stupid question is that?’ But one woman says ‘yes’... Marge Simpson.— Brockman
You know you've made it when the President of the USA starts giving you free publicity. Matt Groening, creator of the American animated series The Simpsons, could scarcely credit his luck when, in 1992, the then President George Bush declared in a speech to the National Religious Broadcasters Convention that: "The nation needs to be closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons."
Before you could say "read my lips", Groening had filmed a scene where the notoriously brattish Bart Simpson is watching Bush's speech on television. "Hey, we're just like the Waltons," Bart exclaims. "We' re praying for the end of the Depression, too."
Speaking down the line from Los Angeles last week, Groening looks back in wonder. "You can't believe it when the President acts like Elmer Fudd," he says.
When Bush lost the 1992 Presidential election, Groening exacted further revenge on screen. "Our conceit was that Bush wanted somewhere quiet to retire to, so he picked the town with the lowest voter turnout in the US - Springfield, which is the Simpsons' home town. He moved in next door to them and then he and Homer (the Simpsons' paterfamilias) became bitter enemies."
Having dominated the American airwaves since 1987, The Simpsons can happily indulge in such elaborate conceits. The good news is that we can now, at last, enjoy their antics on terrestrial TV. After powering Sky One's schedules for some years (the show is made by Fox TV, part of the Murdock stable), the Emmy Award- winning series has now landed on BBC1.
With its political, satirical elements, its witty movie pastiches and its send-ups of stars, the show appeals to both adults and children. Yet despite his huge success, Groening still likes to cultivate the image of a subversive. "In all my work, I've tried to contrive an alternative to what is out there," he contends. "There are already plenty of cow-towing, regular forms of popular culture."
Bart, Homer and Marge Simpson's unruly 10-year-old son, expresses the show's anti-authoritarian stance. He does all the things we would like to do but are too bourgeois to try.
"A bratty kid is the acceptable face of rebellion," Groening muses. "You can assign to Bart whatever resentment or anxiety you feel towards life.
"There's a long tradition in comedy of the guy who gives the finger to propriety," Groening continues, "from Huckleberry Finn to the Marx Brothers to Jim Carrey. There's room for a TV show that says our leaders don't necessarily have our best interests at heart. My problem with television is that it is so scatter-shot. With The Simpsons, I try to have a sustained attitude you can hang onto. That's why Homer works at a nuclear plant - so we can continue to make points about the nuclear industry."
The right-wing Christian movement in the US has power that British "clean- up" campaigners can only dream of. Lobbyists complain about The Simpsons' bad influence on the young. "The Simpsons are certainly not good examples. But if you see something on The Simpsons, it doesn't mean you should go out and do it yourself. Kids are clever enough to realize they are not being pandered to."
But how can a programme that prides itself on being anti-establishment be so popular? "Here in the US the show has been seen for eight seasons, " Groening says. "It's hard to be shocking when you're so familiar. We didn't bring civilization down. But we pushed back the boundaries of entertainment. And as long as the world is full of people who can't take a joke, we'll continue to make them the butt of our jokes."