Homer Sapiens: The Simpsons’ American Idiot

Father, captain and king of a legion of holy fools.

homer simpson the simpsons

Mayor Quimby: Are these morons getting dumber or just louder?
Aide: Dumber, sir.

– “Much Apu About Nothing”

Professor Lawrence Pierce of the University of Chicago gave voice to a similar sentiment when he wrote in to The Simpsons, saying he thought Homer Simpson got stupider every year. (“That’s not a question, professor!”) The Simpsons has now been on the air for over thirty years. They’re still pretty far off the age when senility would come into play, but by Pierce’s metric Homer should be approaching treestump level.

Homer was meant to be the antithesis of the ‘teevee dad’, an archetype which the success of The Simpsons would more-or-less wipe off the map. Part of that is simply the decline in light (bordering on kitchen-sink) family-based sitcoms, which by the late ‘80s were so ubiquitous that some kind of revolt was inevitable. But success also bred imitators. There’s obvious ones like Family Guy, but that was aping The Simpsons as a whole – more broadly, though, Homer’s anti-teevee dad quickly became a character type all of its own.

Most television fathers now owe at least a little something to Homer, and plenty draw very liberally on him as a model. Family Guy’s Peter Griffin is all too clearly Homer with the serial numbers filed off. South Park’s Randy Marsh started life as a sober geologist, but hit a definite point when he became louder, dumber, and more prone to zany schemes – in short, Homerified. Even Tony Soprano, the godfather (ho ho) of television’s boom in white male villain protagonists, cut a similar figure. This isn’t a surface-level noting that, like Homer, Tony is a hefty balding guy: it’s that he’s a hefty balding guy whose role as head of the family is undermined by both his own personal flaws and by the erosion of the patriarchal family structure.

Even if you disagree with the idea there’s a causal link, highly debatable and probably impossible to prove one way or the other given the enormous success of The Simpsons, this still speaks to the brilliance of Homer as a character. He’s not indistinct, yet we can see shades of him in a huge amount of characters who occupy the same societal role. He’s a true everyman, albeit a white American upper-lower-middle-class one. And one of the most defining factors of his type of everyman is, it seems, being stupid.

(This even extends to Don Soprano, who has the wits to make it in the world of organised crime, and apparently attended some college, but is still for the most part the smartest man in a crew of idiots.)

As Pierce suggests, this has become more prominent over the course of time. In the first, slightly less polished season, it was Homer who was mortified at the rest of his family’s behaviour at a picnic – unthinkable to a viewer who only knew him from the later years. We would also see him casually play Scrabble and lead a successful campaign for improved public safety. However, even this strange early iteration also had him described as some kind of big dumb North American ape: once during that game of Scrabble, and once when he was mistaken for Bigfoot while lost in the woods.

Even this low bar dipped quickly. Season 3’s ‘Homer Defined’ ended with ‘to pull a Homer’ being credited in the dictionary as a colloquialism meaning ‘to succeed despite idiocy’. The success that started it all? Managing to prevent a nuclear disaster by pressing the right button through sheer dumb luck. This is a particularly stark illustration of his decline, since he had only become a nuclear safety technician – now his established job for three decades – because he led that public safety campaign in the incongruous first season.

To his credit, he would later lead other protest movements: most notable, perhaps, was the knee-jerk anti-bear protest that drove Mayor Quimby to ask whether his constituents were getting louder or just dumber in the first place. Much later, he’d also become a figurehead for the Tea Party movement, which was just a naked political statement, depicting the Tea Party as dumb for rallying around Homer – and Homer as dumb for getting involved. (If anyone was getting noticeably dumber here, it was the show itself, its once needle-sharp satire replaced by lazy partisan shit-flinging.)

One confounding factor here is that Homer also became wackier – and less realistic with it – over the years, as we see from his career as rabble-rouser. To campaign for improved public safety after your wife and children were nearly run over at a dangerous intersection is a fairly logical chain of events. To campaign for an airborne anti-bear patrol after a single bear damaged your mailbox may be a deliberately ridiculous situation, but it’s obviously poking fun at mob mentality and overblown panics. To abruptly become a figurehead in a real-life political pressure group as ham-handed social commentary is…well, by now we’ve left realism far behind.

Pierce’s rubric could also apply to The Simpsons’ geeky younger cousin Futurama, whose lead Fry began as a straightforward everyman type. However, over the course of a mere three seasons he became not merely dumb, but dumb at a cosmically unique level due to a time paradox. According to the creators, Fry was originally intended to serve as a fish out of water in the futuristic setting, but acclimatised too fast, so they hastily ramped up the stupidity. Which does fit the facts – though coming from such a similar project, made by a lot of the same people, it also feels like returning to a familiar well.

Even Homer himself ended up witnessing this process of dumbening in action, when he became enamoured with an in-universe TV show, Police Cops, whose lead was also named Homer Simpson (“He’s named like my name!”). The retooling of this show to, yes, make its protagonist dumber enraged Homer to the point he legally changed his name. Homer also visited the show’s producers to complain, only to be told that his namesake wasn’t stupid, but rather a “street-smart fish out of water in a world he never made” – and again, we see how in the world of the sitcom there is an incredibly slippery slope from merely average to noticeably unintelligent.

The original Everyman was simply a figure that the reader was to project themselves onto, in a dry morality play also called Everyman in which Everyman attempts to reach salvation before God. Predating things like metaphor or subtlety, he does this through a series of thuddingly allegorical meetings with characters called things like ‘Cousin’ and ‘Good Deeds’. Overly literal it may be, but helpfully for our purposes ‘Knowledge’ is present, and vital to Everyman’s eventual entry to heaven.

As a moral lesson this is obviously an endorsement of self-improvement, and within the story demonstrates Everyman growing as a character, overcoming his flaws – the journey Homer has been denied over the years. In an individual episode he may wangle a success by the end of the third act (just as it is only ‘Good Deeds’ who stays with Everyman after his death), but taking the show in aggregate, Homer is by Everyman’s standards moving in decidedly the wrong direction.

Does Homer really get stupider every year, though? Is he on a consistent downward tilt? Trying to map out individual instances of idiocy on some sort of quantitative scatter graph, plotting stupidity against time, would quite literally be a fool’s errand. Who’s to say whether a pratfall is more or less stupid than a faux pas? And the montage the show used to demonstrate Pierce’s point threw everything out of whack from the start, by using a clip from the non-canon Halloween specials (where, admittedly, Homer is being very silly indeed).

A Malay warrior I know often remarks that a moment of true manhood is when you sit alone, worrying yourself into a frenzy over how you’re going to get your wife and children all those nice things they want. We saw that with Homer in the very first episode as he silently, shamefacedly compared his house’s threadbare Christmas lights with those of the neighbours. And this, too, is a recurrent thing – Homer’s masculinity is never really in question. The occasional job loss may strike at it, but we never see it come close to destroyed. Even Homer’s moments of effeminacy (“oh, these stubborn grass stains”) are jokes mainly because of their juxtaposition against him as, in many ways, the quintessentially masculine man.

(No, seriously. What else would you call a literal patriarch?)

The rather vague nature of masculinity is here illustrated very well by contrast with Homer’s eternal rival, his generally superior neighbour Ned Flanders. Ned has all the hallmarks of the real man, especially by way of this comparison: he’s in better shape, is a better provider, and is (say it quietly) hung like a mule, but butcher than Homer he surely isn’t.

If there’s one metric on which Homer beats Ned, it’s sheer rage. And this, far more than the stupidity, is a facet of the character that’s been distinctly ramped up over the years. At one time he’d only be truly furious when Bart was getting into shenanigans, or, occasionally, when Lisa was practicing her saxophone – at the persistent, everyday frustrations. But his reaction to real adversity (like Marge straying, a topic to which we will return) was invariably a genuine glumness. He wasn’t, at bottom, an angry man.

By season ten, about the sweet spot for when the show had well and truly passed its prime, he would at one point launch into a screaming rage and assault many, many people in order to rescue guest du jour Mark Hamill from a mob. Not unreasonable from a longtime Star Wars fan, perhaps, but Homer’s actual fury seemed to be towards the nerds mobbing Hamill (as he himself once noted, “as a jock, it is my duty to give nerds a hard time”).

And come the thirteenth season, Homer was so well-practiced in flying off the handle that he made a physical threat towards his own wife while blissed out on medicinal marijuana. This was during an episode of drug use when Lisa explicitly noted he was becoming enraged a lot less than usual.

This is part and parcel of that trend which has been called Homer becoming ‘jerkass Homer’ – but the anger is the salient point here. Feminist thinkers have defined the state as being one of the only emotions men are allowed to show. And while it’s hard to put the relationship between anger and stupidity into words, it’s one which most people can understand. You’re rarely at your most quick-witted when you’re in a fists-clenched fury. At best, you’ll say some of the cleverest things you’ll end up deeply regretting.

Homer’s flaws, then, and dumbness is foremost among them, are those lucky sorts of flaws which do not damage one’s masculinity. The closest they come is in his marriage, which – usually due to his general ignorance and insensitivity – regularly wobbles, but never actually topples. Here is the answer to his unimpeachable masculinity, that his role as head of the family has through all these years not been swept away from him.

Both he and Marge are often tempted by charming guest stars, although it’s only ever Marge who gets sick of the marriage simply on its own merits – and, it must be said, comes closer to being unfaithful. Dumb though he may be, even Homer knows something’s wrong when he comes home to a dinner of hot dogs thawing in the sink, and that this is his cue to make some kind of romantic gesture.

This is the rough equilibrium by which the marriage stays together on his end. But, well aware he’s the one letting the side down, he never makes any kind of pass at any of the A-list actress cameos the show dangles in front of him, even Michelle Pfeiffer’s overly perfect Mindy Simmons, a gorgeous redhead who matched his character almost exactly, found him irresistible, and also drove a sweet motorbike. For a man who once failed to resist the urge to eat some flowers, this is nothing short of absolute self-mastery.

By contrast, in the first season, when Homer was as intelligent and sensitive as he would ever be, Marge was on the way to – if not screw, then have some kind of romantic encounter with – the ten-pin bowling lothario Jacques, but having hit a literal fork in the road ultimately couldn’t go through with it. The show’s ramped up the physical punishment Homer suffers over the years, at times to a degree Wile E. Coyote would find a bit much, but has never let him be hurt in that way.

So it begs the question, would having your lowest-common-denominator protagonist be stupid, unsuccessful, and also betrayed by his wife be too much – take him over the line that divides ‘relatably pathetic’ and ‘painful to behold’? With Homer’s intelligence, such as it is, ebbing further and further away, it would be a hell of a lot to lay on the guy.

Even though there’s a fine line to be trodden, it is usually the failures, rather than the successes, that make fictional characters relatable. Again, this was baked into Homer from the very first episode, which saw him screwed over by his boss, repeatedly outshone by the Flanderses, and finally lose his thirteen remaining dollars of Christmas money at the dog track. And The Simpsons’ much-remarked-upon decline does seem to coincide with the point at which Homer stopped being a failure and started casually palling around with celebrities.

(He’d still go “Wow, it’s TV’s Whoever von Householdname” in tones of reverence and awe, but would then immediately claim them as his new playmate.)

The show did, once, even try to take the defining failure of stupidity away from him, with some crude brain surgery upping his IQ to 105. It being a sitcom, this was reversed completely at episode’s end, and appropriately enough this was because his tenuous new intelligence (again in sitcom style) had made him absolutely insufferable to everyone around him.

Thus we can conclude there is a benchmark – let’s call it ‘Pierce’s Rubicon’ – beyond which the failures, be they stupidity or otherwise, simply go too far to remain sympathetic. To stay with the examples Troy McClure provided Pierce, terrifying your own wife as she reaches in fear for a blunt object does, I would hope, cross that line for anyone reading this (and it is sobering to think that we went from Homer doing this in a non-canon Halloween show, to canonically issuing his wife a threat, in only seven years).

But responding with withering sarcasm when your wife encourages you to grasp at a rather flimsy silver lining? Even if you can bring yourself to be a bigger man than that, you can at least understand the impulse to declare yourself “the magical man, from happyland, in a gumdrop house on lollipop lane”. No, it’s not constructive, it’s not even particularly pleasant, but sometimes such things must be said.

For all that your humble narrator, and much greater minds besides, will harp on about the irrevocable decline of The Simpsons, it is to the show’s credit that it still grants Homer the occasional moment that does not barrel blithely past Pierce’s Rubicon. To be sure, very frequently it makes him a ball of rabid plot-required energy, which doesn’t quite gel with a man whose career plan was to work in a bowling alley. But sometimes it can still capture him at his core. What kind of a man forks out for a treadmill with inbuilt TV, and only uses the TV? We know the answer to that.

What’s more, these moments are usually among the brighter spots of the show’s extended twilight years. The old formula still applies, that stupidity and sloth are not merely funny in and of themselves, but appeal to the lower ebbs of you and I the viewer – we can see ourselves in these moments of weakness all too well. If you’ve ever forgone a workout in favour of getting back to the latest binge-watch (or even a refreshing pint of Duff), you’ll take my point.

In the golden years, every man could see something of himself in Homer, and anyone who drew breath could sympathise with the impulses that made him what he is. This is still occasionally the case, and this has to be the main reason bar sheer name-recognition that the show is still wheezing along. When you look at the flawed, selfish, overindulgent, and frequently stupid TV patriarchs of more recent years, from Viserys Targaryen to Logan Roy, perhaps they’ve enjoyed an evolution into slightly more sophisticated forms – but Homer’s still the daddy.

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