In some upper-twenties season, one episode of The Simpsons saw fit to ‘explain’ the way Ralph Wiggum is by showing a flashback in which, as an infant, his father dropped him on his head. Let me be clear – this would be a repugnant narrative choice in a serious drama. In a comedy it’s unforgivable.
In my previous analysis of Ned Flanders, I recounted how the writers found no way of making ‘Ned talks to his children about his wife’s death’ funny. You might think that they should simply have shown the same common sense here. But this scene is even more damning, as The Simpsons had, in better times, successfully made a man dropping their infant child funny (“See? Got her on the first bounce!”). Ralph may have been dropped badly, but the writers dropped the ball far worse.
Life, to many people’s regret, is not a story, it has no need to follow Aristolean rules of drama. The morally right do not always win the day, the noble nerd does not always get the girl, people do not ride off into the sunset. And the idea that the mentally unusual need to be ‘explained’, to have some tragic pathos-laden backstory, is a naked insult to them and those who care for them.
Who is Ralph, though? Ironically, the best summation probably came in The Simpsons’ cartoon descendant Rick & Morty, when Jerry describes his son – another earnest, wide-eyed naïf – as having “some sort of disability, or something”. Nobody is going to diagnose Ralph with anything specific, and it would be useless to try. He reflects the way in which our knowledge of mental health is (and certainly was in the 90s), despite having come on in leaps and bounds, still very limited. In many ways our attempts to understand the brain are akin to building a sandcastle with chopsticks.
Ralph’s name comes from the American slang term of ralph as a verb, meaning ‘to vomit’. I have this from one of Matt Groening’s mini-dictionaries of hippy-era slang, in which he commented “this makes life difficult for kids named Ralph”. And true to form, Ralph has quite a cross to bear. It’s rare that this comes from his peers, though – most of whom instinctively understand that to torment this true innocent would be beyond the pale. (In one post-decline episode, Lisa, posing as a boy, proves her masculinity by getting in a fight with Ralph, easily amongst the worst things she’s ever done.)
Most of the adults in Ralph’s life, too, are at least understanding. Clancy and Sarah Wiggum aren’t model parents, but they support their son without question. Hearteningly, this extends to Clancy’s colleagues on the force, Eddie and Lou – who are typically fairly callous, nigh-thuggish figures, but have an affection for Ralph beyond even him being the chief’s kid. They, too, are inescapably aware that this is a vulnerable child whose lot is tough enough on the face of it, someone who will need a helping hand now and again.
(Very often this involves some light abuse of power – but hey, they’re only human.)
But it is with this very desire to help where problems arose with the adults on the fringes of Ralph’s existence. When Marge Simpson met Ralph, even though he was happy enough playing ‘wiggle-puppy’, she took it on herself to sort his life out by prescribing Bart to be his friend. This led to a series of events which nearly culminated in a man dying. And where Marge cared too much, Ralph’s teachers consistently did not care enough.
The faculty of Springfield Elementary are treading water at the best of times, but where Ralph is concerned their lacklustre attitude to their job becomes borderline abusive. Miss Hoover, Ralph’s form tutor, is self-evidently the biggest offender (ironically, she’s no fonder of the incredibly bright Lisa Simpson) – a good deal of her interaction with Ralph is intended to put him down.
(“The other children are right to laugh at you, Ralph…”)
When Ralph notes, correctly, that there’s a dog in the vent, Miss Hoover sneerily reminds the class of the time he said Snagglepuss was outside. Just as a reminder, Ralph is eight. And her half-assed approach to education in general seems particularly venomous when applied to Ralph – when, over the course of learning about a certain fateful night at Ford’s Theatre, he tremulously asks “was President Lincoln ok?” Hoover dismissively responds “he was fine”, since it’s the end of the day.
The wider school administration is no better, though – and given this, they have nobody but themselves to blame when he asks stuff like “What’s a battle?”. When students are put on academic alert – called up in front of the entire school to receive this dishonour, I might add – Ralph, naturally, is first on the list. But his effervescent spirit wins the day here. When they call his name, he cries “I won, I won!” – and, moments later, gives us the immortal line “Me fail English? That’s unpossible!” Throughout history, many oppressors have underestimated those they consider their intellectual inferiors. Ralph’s usual command of English is simplistic, but not caveman-level, so we cannot escape the possibility he’s having a bit of fun at his Principal’s expense.
Ralph’s demonstrated these sorts of hidden depths more than once. There was of course the time in season 19 he gained broad bipartisan support in his run for President – which was easily the best idea the show had in years, and they didn’t follow up on it (which would have both prefigured, and blown out of the water, South Park’s Mr Garrison metamorphosing into President Trump). His unseen biology project was visceral enough that Miss Hoover gave him a passing grade so long as he didn’t open the bag. And then there was his bravura performance as General Washington in the President’s Day show, made all the more impressive by how he was initially so muddled about the former President’s persona that he leapt into a wheelchair and donned glasses and cigarette-holder.
This was, of course, the climax to Ralph’s first spotlight episode, ‘I Love Lisa’, our first extended look at the odd but good-hearted little man. Having taken pity on him during a Valentine’s day card exchange, Lisa must deal with Ralph’s unwanted affection – and Ralph, equally, must deal with not having his affection reciprocated. Modern gender discourse might call him an entitled nice-guy for feeling sad about this, but any living human who’s ever had romantic feelings might think differently. It is a singularly lucky person who has had every twinge of the heart responded to in kind – or who has not, over the course of some doomed crush, babbled out something as hopeless as “So…you like stuff?” to the object of their affection.
Ralph, it must be said, took the whole episode about as well as one possibly could. He kept pursuing her when it was a lost cause, but every young man receives the message that they should do this, and Ralph heard it from his father. By anyone’s reckoning he was the injured party, between the initial pity-card and Lisa loudly declaiming him on live television. In spite of this his reaction never went beyond disaffected (yeah, Clancy smashed up Homer’s car, but it’s unthinkable that Ralph ordered this). As such, when Lisa asks to reconcile with him as friends after the show – with a card with a cheap pun on it, the kind he likes – it feels thoroughly earned.
Like Homer Simpson getting stupider every year, Ralph wouldn’t maintain this level of dignity for long. Occasionally there’s an exception, like his Presidential run, but usually the show now limits him to saying or doing something bloody silly. This can range from the actually pretty funny (“at my house, we call [fires] ‘uh-ohs’!”) to the tasteless (“why do people run from me?” and then soiling himself). Ralph’s incontinence in the latter example, as with infants being dropped, is something The Simpsons had actually made funny and light-hearted once upon a time, in the exchange “Daddy, these rubber pants are hot”/”You’ll wear them till you learn, son”.
Although it’s hard to pinpoint a specific turning point, Ralph clearly moves between two phases of existence – one in which he is odd, precocious, at worst a little jumbled-up in the head, and one in which he is simply dumb as a box of rocks. The latter phase has still given us some incredible Ralphisms – any official of the school board would be happy to be greeted with a chirpy “Hi, Supernintendo Chalmers” – but does seem like the writers taking the easy way out.
In much the same way, Fry of The Simpsons’ bastard son Futurama was originally meant to be a 20th-century fish-out-of-water, but, when he found himself acclimatising too quickly, was hastily rewritten into a Ralphesque dunce. Similarly, in Matt Groening’s recent project Disenchantment, Elfo had a blithe obliviousness about him, which between the art style and his high-pitched voice became inescapably reminiscent of Ralph. And it must be said, Elfo was a far stronger and funnier character being ersatz Ralph than he was being a bitter friendzoned creep, the exact trap Ralph himself never fell into.
If there’s one consistent element of Ralph’s personality, it’s that – in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures – he doesn’t care about what other people think of him. Indeed, his account of “when the doctor told me I didn’t have worms any more” was frank and unabashed enough to wring some reluctant praise from Miss Hoover. No amount of scorn or contempt can stop Ralph being Ralph, whether he’s declaring “I’m Idaho!” in the worst costume imaginable, or merrily singing a Spice Girls number, or, yes, playing wiggle-puppy (“I tell you, that dog has had some amazing adventures”).
And yet despite this stoicism, he still cares for and empathises with others – a good deal more than most of the neurotypicals surrounding him. When Lisa thought she was losing her intelligence due to the dubious ‘Simpson gene’, it was Ralph alone who realised “but you’re suffering!” – proving beyond a shadow of a doubt he’s not bitter about her turning him down. And when Springfield Elementary struck oil and its faculty and students started making insane, self-serving demands, Ralph at least tried to temper his with educational value, which gave us the immediately comic image of “chocolate microscopes”.
In this way, then, Ralph may be the only character on The Simpsons – certainly one of very, very few – who the average viewer could and should aspire towards. The Simpsons’ strength was always in skewering the sacred cows of 90s-era America. The patriarch-protagonist was a lazy boor, the priest was a cynical money-grubber, and even within the Wiggum family, the chief of police was a dunderheaded crook. All these supposedly upstanding figures turned out, very quickly, to have feet of clay.
But this wasn’t just nihilistically tearing things down – this was cutting out the crap so the genuine could shine all the more brightly. Remember ‘Do It For Her’? That would have meant so much less if Homer was some standard-issue father-knows-best type. Coming from Ward Cleaver it would have been a trite motivational slogan, but coming from the slothful beer-user whose life’s ambition was to work in a bowling alley, it’s a glimpse of what we all could be.
It’s the same with Ralph being put on academic alert. Being confronted with what is obviously one’s most prominent defect would cut most of us to the quick. Ralph makes a joke of it, and the smile never leaves his face. You might think it shows us a boy too dim to realise he’s dim, I say it shows us a boy better-adjusted than many world leaders (Turkey’s President Erdogan takes personal slights very poorly indeed). And while in the end Ralph may never have taken office, he’s a damn sight more quotable than plenty of people who have – one thing the Bloodhound Gang knew very well. Play us out, lads: