A Supposedly Brief Chronology of “The Simpsons” Literary References
In its multi-decade, 500+-episode run, The Simpsons has sported all sorts of popular culture references, from the Immortal Bard (a Hamlet parody still shown in high schools all across America by English teachers who want to get hip with the young people) to Spider-Pig (does whatever a spider-pig does).
Last night, The Simpsons aired a surprising homage to David Foster Wallace, titled “A Totally Fun Thing That Bart Will Never Do Again,” which borrows its title — and plot — from DFW’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. The episode, in which Bart assumes the role of Wallace on his disdain-inducing luxury cruise, also includes musical snippets from Hot Chip (“Boy From School”) and Animal Collective (“Winter’s Love”).
With a television run as long as the one Matt Groening’s iconic series has had, there have been a whole lot of other surprising, notable and overall funny salutes to important literary tomes, from Hemingway to Stephen King to the Bible. Here’s a look back at just a few of the other key Simpsons moments that went by the book.
Edgar Allen Poe has been a rather popular source of inspiration, particularly with the Treehouse of Horror Halloween episodes. One of the first Halloween shorts was a direct take on "The Fall of the House of Usher;" in “Lisa’s Rival,” she replaces perfect Allison Taylor’s diorama of "The Tell-Tale Heart" with an actual beef heart, with the real diorama torturing her from the floorboards. But this early Treehouse of Horror installment, a retelling of “The Raven” featuring Marge as Lenore and Bart as the titular bird, is the best of these.
Lisa meets a group of college students in her gymnastics class and pretends to be one of them in order to belong to a group of her intellectual equals. One of her new friends is re-reading Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (one of a few Pynchon references that have appeared on the show), but more importantly, the episode includes one of The Simpsons’ best lit. moments. Lisa attends a reading from former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky (as himself), who gets some support from a group of frat dudes with “BASHO” painted on their stomachs. It did make us wonder about the possibility of a world where poetry slams sported SEC football-caliber tailgates.
Harry Potter has had a few nods as well, including a pretty-okay Treehouse of Horror installment. But it was Lisa’s encounter with the real J.K. Rowling that included the words all fans wanted to hear. When she asks the author what happens to Harry at the end of the series, she responds, “He grows up and marries you. Is that what you want to hear?”
And finally, the Hamlet episode, inspiring curricula since its airing. Although it’s certainly difficult to condense a five-act play into a digestible TV mini-sode, The Simpsons did it as only they could. The episode is notable for its expert use of Ralph Wiggum (“I’m gonna go kill Hamlet! Here’s my mad face.”), “Rosencarl and Guildenlenny,” Lisa’s brief cameo as Ophelia and Bart’s one-sentence review of the play, which sums up the feelings of so many: “How could a play with so much violence in it be so boring?”