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Finn McRedmond: Morrissey and The Simpsons are both past their sell-by date

Comedy and satire have real power but most television humour is safe and toothless

Rarely is there a story with such pleasant symmetry as “Morrissey goes to war with The Simpsons”. Both were once venerated cultural institutions, both are now struggling to cling to their depreciating relevance. Before its fall from grace, The Simpsons was the great chronicler of American suburban life. Before his fall from grace, Morrissey was an anti-establishment icon. Now these two cultural relics are tearing chunks out of each other.

A new episode of The Simpsons features a decrepit, unattractive, British xenophobic singer whose latest album is called “Refugees – Again?” (the best gag out of a bad selection). “I was [a vegan], until I found out veganism was invented by foreigners,” the character says.

Lifelong vegan Morrissey must have felt his ears burning. His manager published a statement lambasting the TV show’s “degeneration” and recent proclivity to dine out on “cheap controversy”. Of particular concern to the singer, it seems, is The Simpsons’s suggestion that Morrissey is fat (“he has never looked like that at any point in his career” his manager protested). “In a world obsessed with Hate Laws, there are none that protect me,” Morrissey himself added.

There is no comedic bravery in implying a man with a history of saying xenophobic things might be a xenophobe

Morrissey is experiencing a sense-of-humour failure. Not least because The Simpsons version of the singer is not entirely out of step with reality. Yes, Morrissey may still be a vegan, and sure, perhaps Morrissey has never been fat. But his real-life transgressions include comments that Hitler was “left-wing” and that halal meat is “evil”. He once wore a badge with the logo of the far-right For Britain party on it. A formerly great but now embittered xenophobe? Seems like a fair enough tribute.


Easy target

But this is exactly the problem with The Simpsons’s largely un-funny pillorying of the singer. He is too obvious and too easy a target. The joke is too predictable and it tells us nothing. There is no comedic bravery in implying a man with a history of saying xenophobic things might be a xenophobe. And the skit has no benefit other than proving the moral credentials of its writers: by pointing out that Morrissey is somehow bad, The Simpsons’s writers have conveniently found a vehicle to remind us that they must be good. It is substance-free piety.

This is a shame but not unexpected given The Simpsons’s trajectory over the past two decades. At its height, it was the poster child of counterculture comedy, capable of satirising the status quo from all directions. At a time when the TV was full of lukewarm and moralising sitcoms, The Simpsons arrived with a slothful and negligent patriarch, a heedless and sleazy mayor, a cynical and misanthropic reverend. In a parody of the Democrat National Convention, the characters stand below banners emblazoned “We hate ourselves” and “We can’t govern”. In “Two Bad Neighbours”, Homer Simpson brawls with George Bush snr, the culmination of a real-life feud the show had with the man.

If the goal is to endear us to some of the worst in America, then SNL does a surprisingly effective job

How did we go from there to this toothless satire? Maybe we ended up here simply thanks to a dearth of talent in The Simpsons’ writers room. Maybe our increasing demand that pop culture and its creators adhere to a strict moral consensus is also responsible.

Ambiguous world view

It seems it is no longer sufficient for a TV show to be irreverent and observant and insightful, in fact it can eschew many of those values so long as it demonstrates it has the right kind of politics. Recent big-hitting comedies like Schitt’s Creek and Parks & Recreation testify to this: they are warm, funny and smart but they are never biting and rarely challenging. It is hard to see something that espouses a complicated or ambiguous world view taking off in this environment. And we certainly wouldn’t have Curb Your Enthusiasm. Not all cultural output needs to be challenging, but some of it ought to be.

The Simpsons is not alone in its recent pursuits, of course. Remarking on Saturday Night Live’s failure to adequately satirise Sarah Palin in 2008, pop-academic Malcolm Gladwell said: “SNL has taken out its dentures and is sipping the political situation through a straw.” Since, it would be hard to claim there has been a marked improvement to SNL’s edge (Donald Trump is orange, Hillary Clinton wears suits, remember that time a fly landed on Mike Pence’s head?) This cowardly comedy comes with a troubling byproduct, too. Tina Fey is such a wonderful comedian that she made Sarah Palin seem likeable with her pastiche. If the goal is to endear us to some of the worst in America, then SNL does a surprisingly effective job.

Is this cultural landscape simply reflecting the views of people who write TV? Or is it the moral demands we place on culture? It is probably a vicious cycle of both. And what we are left with is lazy and inane and smarmy.

We should not overstate the power of comedy and satire. We probably can’t joke our way to a better world, but we certainly can to a more interesting one.