Don’t Have a Cow, New Orleans!
So, as it turns out, using a jaunty tune as a backdrop isn’t quite enough to mitigate calling an entire city “putrid, brackish, maggotty, foul.” That’s the lesson The Simpsons learned (or didn’t) in 1992 with “A Streetcar Named Marge.” The episode saw the family’s matriarch performing in a musical version of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, and the opening number—which called New Orleans “damned” and “home of pirates, drunks, and whores”—didn’t sit too well with the city’s residents. Not helping was the fact that The Times-Picayune printed the lyrics in advance of the airing of the actual episode, which at least gives the rancorous words some context. Then-Fox president Jamie Kellner apologized to the city for the remarks.
You think ticking off a city is bad, try ticking off a whole country. In 2002’s episode “Blame It on Lisa,” The Simpsons headed down to Brazil and stumbled into the slums, which were rat-infested and “painted […] bright colors so the tourists would not be offended.” Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso chided the show for portraying “a distorted vision of Brazilian reality.”
Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Children?!
If it feels like the same-sex marriage debate has been dragging on for ages, well, that’s because it has. Back in 2005, The Simpsons sparked ire among conservatives when it took on the issue in “There’s Something About Marrying,” an episode that featured Homer performing same-sex marriages and Marge’s sister Patty coming out as a lesbian. L. Brent Bozell III, president of the Parents Television Council, spoke out against the show, saying, “You’ve got a show watched by millions of children. Do children need to have gay marriage thrust in their faces as an issue? Why can’t we just entertain them?”
Worst! Couch Gag! Ever!
Constantly courting controversy can get tiring, so The Simpsons outsourced its troublemaking to street artist Banksy in 2010’s “MoneyBART.” Banksy whipped up an opening so bleak you’ll want to immediately run to YouTube and watch some fluffy kitten videos to pick your mood up out of the gutter. (Here’s one to start you off.) The dreary couch gag depicts a hellish sweatshop dedicated to manufacturing Simpsons merchandise. Executive producer and show runner Al Jean told The New York Times, “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it for a little bit. Certainly, Fox has been very gracious about us biting the hand that feeds us, but I showed it to Matt Groening, and he said, no, we should go for it and try to do it pretty much as close as we can to [Banksy’s] original intention.”
Release the (News) Hounds…
Speaking of biting the hand that feeds them, 2010’s “The Fool Monty” had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it visual gag featuring a Fox News helicopter, which sported the phrase “Fox News: Not Racist, But #1 With Racists.” Bill O’Reilly clearly did not blink. On his show, O’Reilly blasted Fox—the parent company of his own show’s network—for allowing “its cartoon characters to run wild.”
Eat My Shorts!
Of course any show that draws inspiration from topical subjects will eventually parody politicians, and The Simpsons has had its share of political jokes. But the jabs aimed at Bill Clinton seemed a touch sharper than usual in the 1999 episode “Homer to the Max.” While dancing with Marge at a garden party, a fictional Clinton admitted to sleeping with pigs—which was a reference to actual barnyard animals and not a Lewinsky slight. Eesh.
2004’s “Bart-Mangled Banner” featured Bart accidentally—no, really—mooning the American flag, a faux pas which got the whole clan shipped off to the Guantánamo-esque “Ronald Reagan Re-education Center,” where they run into some other right-wing-tweaking figures like Michael Moore and the Dixie Chicks.
Unfortunately, not every Simpsons controversy was intentional. For example, “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson” featured jokes at the expense of the World Trade Center, something that was perfectly acceptable when the episode aired in 1997. Post-2001, not so much. After September 11, the episode was taken out of syndication in most markets. There’s even a conspiracy theory alleging that the show may have predicted the attacks.