A Simpsons Lover’s Guide to Mr. Burns, a post-electric play

By Adam Odsess-Rubin

Costume designer Alex Jaeger’s 
rendering of Bart Simpson 
for A.C.T.’s production of
Mr. Burns
If humanity ever suffers an apocalypse, The Simpsons, with its encyclopedic collection of movie-star cameos, original couch gags, and literary references, would offer survivors a detailed archive of the last 25 years. The Simpsons is American society writ large. Winner of 31 Emmys, a Peabody Award, and the record for the longest-running sitcom in television history (561 episodes and counting), it has been lauded as a simple yet effective satire on the dysfunctional nature of the American family, and a piercing look into the complexities of human nature. The many characters that populate this seemingly simple TV show reflect American society in a fun-house mirror meant to simultaneously entertain and provoke.

The heart of the show is the Simpsons family. Homer, the father, is an irate buffoon who serves (poorly) as a safety inspector at Mr. Burns’s nuclear power plant. Marge, the mother, is cautious and thoughtful, and works hard to keep the family together. Lisa, the older daughter, is the moral center of the show, a genius and die-hard liberal intellectual. Bart, the son, is a sassy yellow Dennis the Menace, never found without the slingshot he uses to terrorize his teachers. Lastly, Maggie is the silent baby, witness to the family’s antics. Supporting characters, of which there are hundreds, include Chief Wiggum, an inept donut-eating policeman; Abe Simpson, the forgetful grandfather who loves to tell war stories from his past; and Mr. Burns, the evil and greedy owner of a nuclear power plant who would rather block out the sun than lose money.

Mr. Burns playwright Anne Washburn has pointed to the universal appeal of The Simpsons as a major reason for its popularity, saying, “The characters, when you think about them, are durable archetypes—Bart is a Trickster; Homer the Holy Fool; Marge, I suppose, is a kind of long-suffering Madonna; and then the inhabitants of Springfield are an almost endlessly rich supply of human (and non-human) personalities.” But while the goofy family from the fictional town of Springfield is undoubtably average, they and their fellow townspeople are also undeniably unique. In large part, the show’s popularity is due to the fact that it has always encouraged audiences to laugh at, and admit, their own faults.

The Simpsons creator Matt Groening
at the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con International.
Photo by Gage Skidmore.
In 1990, the Los Angeles Times called The Simpsons “perfectly conceived and executed,” while the Boston Globe has deemed it “TV’s most intelligent comedy.” The Simpsons has graced the covers of TIME, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and even The Advocate, for a groundbreaking episode featuring filmmaker John Waters as Homer’s gay friend. The show’s influence has also spread worldwide to TV sets as far away as Mexico, Lithuania, and Japan. It has been dubbed in dozens of languages, banned on primetime TV in China, and adapted to fit Muslim sensibilities in Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

The Simpsons has always been visceral and immediate, even in its earliest renderings as a series of crudely drawn skits for The Tracey Ullman Show. The show has crafted episodes around immigration (“Much Apu About Nothing,” 1996), gun rights (“The Cartridge Family,” 1997), and the environment (“Trash of the Titans,” 1998). Given its penchant for being current and politically relevant, the show has weathered a fair amount of controversy. At the 1992 Republican National Convention, President George H. W. Bush said, “We’re going to keep trying to strengthen the American family, to make them more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons.” In 1990, Barbara Bush said the show was “the dumbest thing” she had ever seen. Of course, The Simpsons retaliated with a parody—season seven’s  “Two Bad Neighbors,” in which the first family moves in across the street from the Simpsons.

With the ever-increasing popularity of current-event satirists like Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy), Matt Stone and Trey Parker (South Park, The Book of Mormon), Jon Stewart (The Daily Show), and Stephen Colbert (The Colbert Report), some critics believe it has been difficult for The Simpsons to keep up in recent years. But it is impossible to deny the show’s influence. Although critics complain that it can’t measure up to South Park and Family Guy, these shows wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the groundwork laid by Groening almost 30 years ago. MacFarlane acknowledged this debt, saying, “The Simpsons created an audience for primetime animation that had not been there for many years. They basically reinvented the wheel.”

It is no coincidence that Washburn chose The Simpsons as the sole surviving cultural artifact after the apocalypse. The Simpsons has permeated all aspects of our culture, deconstructing celebrities, fads, and trends by way of spoof, riff, and satire. Various Simpsons episodes have tackled film classics from Psycho to A Clockwork Orange (Hitchcock and Kubrick seem to be favorite targets) and plays from Macbeth to Rent. The antagonist of “Cape Feare” and regular Simpsons supporting character Sideshow Bob is a lover of theater. In “Cape Feare,” he sings songs from the H.M.S. Pinafore and shows off his branded prison number—24601, the same inmate number as Jean Valjean’s in Les Misérables. The Simpsons has devoted entire episodes to spoofing Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (“A Streetcar Named Marge”) and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita (“The President Wore Pearls”).

Indeed, audiences find pleasure in deciphering the treasure trove of obscure pop-culture nods sprinkled throughout episodes. The potency of memory, storytelling, and one of our most iconic pop-culture staples intersect in Mr. Burns, a post-electric play. As Washburn suggests, even if a nuclear meltdown or global warming were to destroy civilization as we know it, it’s likely that The Simpsons would, indeed, endure.

For more about Mr. Burns, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays!
Click here to order online.

For tickets to Mr. Burns visit act-sf.org/burns.

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