The Simpsons creeps from the shadows to remind us it was once a defining cultural force

The show gave Morrissey a prime opportunity to moan like an underappreciated maiden aunt

‘Quilloughby’, on The Simpsons. Image: Fox

‘Quilloughby’, on The Simpsons. Image: Fox

 

Have you heard? Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In has had a pop at Dean Martin. Something about him being a drunken old has-been who couldn’t hold a candle to Perry Como. You’ll find it just below the headlines about Dana winning the Eurovision.

I’m making a funny. Somehow or other, the news that The Simpsons had got itself into a fight with Morrissey attracted much media buzz last week. One imagines confused young people taking to Wikipedia for clues as to the significance of the Precambrian TV show and key characteristics of the even more ancient pop singer. A few older people may be surprised to learn The Simpsons still broadcasts. It’s akin to discovering one of those fabled Japanese soldiers on an isolated island still committed to defending the Emperor from the advancing Americans. “We are no longer at war with Morrissey!” you yell. “We came to an arrangement decades ago.” Wait? What? He is still whining about mistreatment from the comfort of his Californian home? Maybe this fight is worth having.

The perennial eight-year-old embraces a band very like the Mancunian wet blankets

Scanning the plot of Panic on the Streets of Springfield, screened in the US last weekend, one wonders how the show never before got around to making Lisa a Morrissey fan. (Perhaps they did. It’s been a long time. I’ve forgotten much about the Council of Trent as well.) The first incarnation of The Simpsons – a segment on the Tracy Ullman Show – debuted in the same year The Smiths split up. It was 1987 and young Lisa was immediately established as the sort of drip who would eat up the band’s melancholy whinges like so much smoked-tofu surprise.

Anyway, all these decades later, the perennial eight-year-old embraces a band very like the Mancunian wet blankets while browsing a contemporary streaming service. Had she been a fan at the beginning of the show they would still just about be a happening act. Now, the whiff of antique obscurity adds an extra layer of exoticism to the lead singer’s introspective dirges. I hate to do this to ageing readers, but it’s as if 1987 Lisa got into an act from 1950. Even Elvis would have been a little too recent.

Before moving on we should clarify that the group is not The Smiths and their lead singer is not Morrissey. They are called The Snuffs. They have records titled How Late is Now and Hamburger is Homicide. “The flesh you cover with cheese is proof of your moral disease,” the lyrics of that last tune lecture. The coiffed lead singer, who wears horn-rimmed glasses while clutching a bunch of flowers, goes by the decidedly un-Irish name of Quilloughby. Our young hero is visited by the spirit of high-era Quilloughby and becomes an acolyte, but the scales fall from her eyes when she encounters the present-day version on stage. Now notably overweight, he eats a pastrami sandwich and pelts the audience with sausages. Apparently he is no longer a vegan because the practice was “invented by foreigners”.

The succeeding debate was funnier than anything The Simpsons have done since the Battle of Thermopylae. If the show really were about Morrissey (which it’s not) then the line about foreigners could be read as a reference to a series of controversies going back as far as the Thatcher era. “The word is meaningless now,” he said, responding to accusations of racism in 2019. “Everyone ultimately prefers their own race – does this make everyone racist?” Morrissey’s riposte to The Simpsons episode was framed in the thuddingly arch and grammatically disordered prose he has long used for such sub-Papal bulls. “The hatred shown towards me from the creators of the Simpsons is obviously a taunting lawsuit,” he writes puzzlingly. “But one that requires more funding than I could possibly muster in order to make a challenge.” Does he mean the hatred is taunting him to respond with a lawsuit? If so, the very, very different Quilloughby would sympathise. “I lost my fortune suing people for saying things about me…that were completely true,” he says towards the close of the show.

Both these venerable institutions get a little welcome publicity in the autumn of their years

More larks. Tim Long, writer of the episode, assured Variety that the character is definitely not Morrissey. “And I’m sticking by that!” he said (tellingly, Variety used the word “quipped”). “Having said that, the character is definitely Morrissey-esque, with maybe a small dash of Robert Smith from the Cure, Ian Curtis from Joy Division, and a bunch of other people.” If you say so.

What are we left with? Both these venerable institutions get a little welcome publicity in the autumn of their years. Matt Groening’s satirical cartoon creeps from the shadows to remind us it was once a defining cultural force. Morrissey, about whom fans and detractors have long ago made up their minds, is offered the opportunity to do what he has always enjoyed best: bitch and moan like an underappreciated maiden aunt. Everyone involved should send each other a thank-you note.

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