The Literary World of The Simpsons
Throughout the twenty-plus year run of The Simpsons, an impressive number of characters have walked the streets of Springfield and become part of the cultural lexicon. Homer Simpson. Bart Simpson. Montgomery Burns. Barney Gumble. Ralph Wiggum. Thomas Pynchon. Yes, that’s right, Thomas Pynchon. Over the years, a surprisingly large amount of authors have “gone yellow” and made appearances on the show. The Simpsons has hosted writers from such diverse fields as fiction, graphic novels/comics, and science. So which authors have added voice acting to their resumes?
- Stephen Jay Gould
Paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and prolific author Stephen Jay Gould made his appearance in season 9’s episode, “Lisa the Skeptic”. Lisa takes a sample of an alleged ‘angel skeleton’ to Gould in the hopes that he will prove it’s a fake, but Gould tells her that the results were inconclusive. When the skeleton is indeed revealed to be a fake later on, Lisa asks Gould why that didn’t come up in his testing. His response, before walking off, is simply “I’m going to be honest with you Lisa, I never did the tests.”
- Stephen Hawking
Hawking has made four appearances on the show, but the best to me is his first; season 10’s “They Saved Lisa’s Brain”. It is Stephen Hawking with an extendable boxing glove and propellers attached to his wheelchair, how can you top that? I came across this interesting video in which Hawking talks about his appearances on the show, and shows that he has a great sense of humor:
Stephen Hawking: Sometimes the smartest of us can be the most childish.
Lisa: Even you?
Stephen Hawking: No, not me. Never.
- Stephen King
Stephen King makes his appearance during the season 12 episode, Insane Clown Poppy, in which the Simpsons attend a book festival. My favorite part is when Marge tells Stephen King to call her when he starts writing horror again, and he makes a little note for himself that says “Call Marge, Re: Horror”.
- Amy Tan
Amy Tan also makes her appearance during the episode “Insane Clown Poppy”, as part of a panel that includes Tom Clancy and Maya Angelou (neither of which are voiced by the authors, though Clancy makes an appearance in a later season). I imagine her lines are what authors really want to say during appearances:
Lisa: Miss Tan, I loved “The Joy Luck Club”. It really showed me how the mother-daughter bond can triumph over adversity.
Amy Tan: No, that’s not what I meant at all. You couldn’t have gotten it more wrong.
Amy Tan: Please just sit down. I’m embarrassed for both of us.
- John Updike
Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Updike is another author who made an appearance during the “Insane Clown Poppy” episode, though in a different way than King and Tan. In this episode, he is at the book festival because it is revealed that he was the ghost writer of Krusty the Clown’s autobiography, Your Shoes are Too Big to Kickbox with God. Updike doesn’t have a lot of lines, but hearing Krusty yell “Shut up, Updike!” elicits a chuckle from me every time.
- Thomas Pynchon
The famously reclusive writer has stopped by The Simpsons twice; first in season 14’s episode, “Diatribe of a Mad Housewife” and again in season 16’s “All Fair in Oven War”. His best line, I think, comes from his appearance in “All Fair in Oven War”:
Pynchon: I’ll put this recipe in ‘The Gravity’s Rainbow Cookbook’, right next to ‘The Frying of Latke 49’.
(On a side note this article by Simpsons writer/executive producer Matt Selman directly references Pynchon’s work on the show. It is a few years old, but is still brilliant.)
- Tom Clancy
“Hello this is Tom Clancy. Would I say “if you’re hunting for a good read this October, Marge Simpson’s book is a clear and present danger to your free time?” Hell no I wouldnt! Whaddya mean I just said it. That doesn’t count. Hello? Hello?”
- George Plimpton
Plimpton had a distinguished career; he was editor of The Paris Review and wrote many books. However, that did not stop his from appearing in season 14’s “I’m Spelling as Fast as I Can” as an officiator for a spelling bee that Lisa is in. In the episode, he urges her to throw the competition (so a more popular boy would win); attempting to bribe her with the promise of a college scholarship and a hot plate.
- J.K. Rowling
Lisa: Look! It’s J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books! You’ve turned a generation of kids onto reading.
Rowling: Thank you, young muggle.
Lisa: Can you tell me what happens at the end of the series?
Rowling: He grows up and marries you. Is that what you want to hear?
- Michael Chabon, Johnathan Franzen, Tom Wolfe, Gore Vidal
This impressive foursome make their appearance on Season 18’s “Moe N’ Lisa” is which Moe becomes a poet and attends the Word Loaf festival (parody of the prestigious Bread Loaf festival.) All four authors have memorable lines, but Chabon wins for this zinger (which he says before punching Franzen in the face):
“That’s it, Franzen! I think your nose needs some ‘Corrections’!”
- Art Spieglman, Alan Moore, Dan Clowes
These three powerhouse graphic novelists made their collective appearance on season 19’s episode, “Husbands and Knives”. There are a lot of great moments with these three, (Dan Clowes reveals his desire to draw for Batman, they all are revealed as super-buff superheroes who fly), but it is undoubtedly Moore who steals the show.
Bart: Alan Moore, you wrote my favorite issues of Radioactive Man.
Alan Moore: Oh really, so you liked that I made your favorite superhero a heroin addicted jazz critic who’s not radioactive?
Also, this picture never gets old:
- Mitch Albom
In season 21’s “Thursday’s With Abie” (a parody of his work, Tuesdays with Morrie), Albom voices a character named Marshall, a journalist who follows Grandpa Simpson around to record his life stories and put them in a book. Albom appears as himself, when he goes into the nursing home attempts to record Grandpa’s stories as well.
Mitch: Hey Abe great stories. I’m Mitch Albom author of Tuesdays With Morrie.
Abe: Never heard of you!
Mitch: Yeah. Sure you haven’t (sarcastically).
Abe: Take a hike Hollywood. I’ve already got a college boy to turn my every word into syndicated gold.
At the end of the episode, Marshall attempts to kill Grandpa because he knows his death would make the book more poignant and thus more profitable. Albom’s books tend to be quite serious and moralist, so it was refreshing to see him take a light-hearted stance towards his work.
- Gary Larson
Far Side writer Gary Larson appears in season 21’s “Once Upon a Time in Springfield”. In this episode, Larson reveals that he came out of retirement to be the in-house cartoonist for the Capital City Power Plant (A rival plant that is wooing Homer, Lenny, and Carl).
- Neil Gaiman
While The Simpsons is viewed by some as low-brow humor (and undoubtedly, sometimes it is low-brow), the sheer volume of author appearances and literary references prove that there is a certain depth to the show. It is partly due to this seamless mix of high and low culture that has kept The Simpsons going all of these years.