Simpsons movie spotlights an enduring icon
SPRINGFIELD, Vermont (Reuters) - In the Vermont town of Springfield nestled in a mountain valley, a banner decorated with images of pink doughnuts is festooned across Main Street, welcoming visitors to the "Home of the Simpsons".
"We're all very proud," said long-time resident Judi Martin, 56, after the town of white-steepled churches, historic homes and aging brick factories was named the official hometown of television's favorite dysfunctional family.
The tranquil New England community of 9,300 people beat 13 other Springfields in the United States in an online poll last week for the honor of hosting "The Simpsons Movie" premiere on Saturday -- six days before its nationwide release on July 27.
On the surface, the Vermont town bears little resemblance to the fictional home of television's longest-running sitcom. It is steeped in history -- founded in 1761, 15 years before U.S. independence from Britain -- and wedged between jagged hills and a series of postcard-perfect waterfalls.
But dig a little deeper, and similarities emerge. Homer Simpson works at a nuclear power plant. In Vermont's Springfield, such a facility is just 45 minutes away.
Its only bar, McKinley's, is seen locally as a cousin of the fictional Moe's Tavern. A local TV personality played Homer in the video that helped the town win the contest.
"Our police even sort of resemble their police," said Steve Mehlenbacher, 55, whose family owns the 76-year-old theater that will show the premier.
He's bracing for hundreds of people on Saturday. "It'll be a circus," he said, stacking boxes of candy in a concession stand. "It'll be cool," added Andy Aldrich, owner of music equipment retailer Backline Central across the street.
There's a Simpsons buzz across town. A plastic inflated Homer bobs in a storefront window by a sign reading "Welcome Home Homer". Another sign, playing on a favorite Homer expression, exclaims "Woohoo Springfield" on the town library.
Kostas Rentumis, owner of Springfield Village Pizza, is rewriting his menu to focus on cheese and pepperoni pizza slices, which he expects to be in hot demand. Vermont ice cream makers Ben & Jerry's are unveiling a special Homer Simpson-inspired ice cream flavor for Saturday's event.
"It's going to take over Springfield," said Aldrich, who has arranged for a three-piece rock band to perform in front of his store on Saturday.
As it puts Vermont on the pop-culture map, Saturday's big-screen debut of Homer, Marge, their family and friends also underlines the enduring popularity of a cartoon still revered with cult-like fervor by millions worldwide after 18 years.
"It's the longest-running comedy in TV history and the longest-running animated series by a wide margin," said Ray Richmond, a TV critic for the Hollywood Reporter and co-author with "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening of the book "The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family."
"It isn't given nearly enough credit for being essentially the standard against which all other comedies on TV, all other pop culture phenomenon of the late 20th century and early 21st century, should be compared," he said in an interview.
The mustard yellow-skinned characters with Ping-Pong ball eyes and heads shaped like grocery bags, and the procession of celebrity guest voices connect with several generations.
"It's like a secret that has been passed down from a generation to another," said TV Guide chief critic Matt Roush. "It's very smart about its cultural references," he added. "It's able to satirize trends very, very quickly."
Broadcast in more than 70 countries, the Emmy-winning show produced by Twentieth Century Fox has stayed funny well past landmark sitcoms such as "Cheers" and "M*A*S*H". Richmond estimates it generated at least $2.5 billion for Fox, and reaped about $6 billion in merchandise sales worldwide.
"It re-runs better than any show in the history of television, and re-runs are what bring the money in," he said.
Part of the appeal is a breezy irreverence and sharp-edged social commentary that spares no one. All religions, ethnic groups, political parties, stereotypes and ages are satirized -- from hallowed institutions like public education to politics, the medical profession, law enforcement and the entertainment industry. Everybody takes it on the chin.
"While the show is not what it once was, a bad episode of The Simpsons is still better than an awful lot of the comedy on network television," said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television.
"They are layered, so that an episode you saw when you were a kid was funny but when you are in high school you start noticing some of the sexual word play and all that sort of thing. And when you get your Ph.D in comparative literature and you watch the same episode, you're suddenly understanding some of the literary allusions and philosophic allusions."
It also benefits from characters who never age. "Its stasis is an advantage," said Thompson.