As a form of cultural expression, The Simpsons might not seem to have much in common with, say, epic poetry. But the show has found its way onto the syllabus of a Penn undergraduate course taught by Peter T. Struck, Evan C Thompson Chair for Excellence in Teaching and Chair of the Department of Classical Studies, thanks to a parody of the Odyssey in an episode from 2002 called “Tales from the Public Domain.”
Last month marked the 30th anniversary of the show’s debut as a series of shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show on April 19, 1987. It soon expanded into a long-running hit—still airing—on Fox.
We sat down with Struck to discuss the show’s cultural importance.
Jane Carroll: Why would a classics professor take more than a passing interest in a Simpsons Odyssey spoof?
Peter Struck: It was a natural choice to include that segment in my course, Greek and Roman Mythology, because part of what we look at in the course is the retelling of myth over time. There really aren’t any rock-bottom original versions of the great mythological stories. In every era, we have always been retelling them. The originals are just too far back in time, before historical records, and of course, they came from an early oral tradition.
That process of retelling is still going on. The satirical edge in the Simpsons parody is not at all unique; satire has been used since Classical times.
JC: Can you give an example of a classical satire of an ancient myth?
PS: Sure. Ovid’s Metamorphosis includes an account of the Trojan War that is strange, satirical, and funny. He was taking a traditional tale that was already eight centuries old and reshaping it to make a comment on how the story was received during his time.
The Roman mode of education emphasized extensive training in the verbal arts, and lessons often centered on works from the past. So, for example, two students might be asked to take on the roles of Odysseus and Ajax as they argue over the arms of Achilles after he dies. They might perform the dialog as a set piece for an audience. Ovid’s retelling of the Trojan War asked the Romans to reflect on their use of this epic tale as a schoolboy’s exercise.
JC: What does the Simpsons parody ask us to look at?
PS: The Simpsons piece filters the Odyssey through a lens of today’s culture of advertising, product placement, and branding. Homer confuses the poem’s title with a [Honda Odyssey] minivan. A scene of Homer as Odysseus crossing the River Styx is accompanied by a clip of a song by Styx, the cheesy rock band from the 1970s, and Homer chuckles in embarrassment over the word “Trojans” [referencing a brand of condoms].
So the show’s writers—a group of very smart observers—are poking fun at our culture by taking the idea of the heroic past and putting it through the pop-culture machine. They are pointing out the vast distance between a grand mythic past and the present day.
JC: As a classicist, what do you think is the cultural value of a show like The Simpsons?
PS: Different cultural products attract the best talents in different eras. In Classical Athens, for example, the best talents would want to be playwrights. In our own world, a tremendous amount of fame and wealth go to people who produce satire for television. Much of it is quite brilliant.
That said, I’d be cautious about saying that today’s TV satire is an art form of equal stature with Classical epic poetry. They are doing different things. And I’m enough of an old fogey that if I were stranded on a desert island, I would definitely want to have Homer’s Odyssey with me, rather than Homer Simpson’s Odyssey.