The Simpsons (~22 years)
It’s not really accurate to say The Simpsons has been a continuous cultural influence for all of the past 22 years. Though they still churn out new episodes, I haven’t really followed the show for at least a few years. I don’t really know anyone else that does, either — even my most Simpsons-obsessed friends gave up on it years ago. As far as I am concerned, they really could have stopped making new episodes around 2004, and I wouldn’t have noticed. Most fans would even consider 2004 pretty late, but one of my all-time favorite episodes, “I’m Spelling As Fast As I Can,” the one with George Plimpton and the Ribwich, was from 2003. So I was still watching it and enjoying it regularly as late as 2003.
The first episode I ever watched was “Some Enchanted Evening,” which is the one where Bart is kidnapped by an evil babysitter played by Penny Marshall. Wikipedia tells me it premiered May 13, 1990. That means from age 10 through about 24 or so, I watched The Simpsons at least once a week. Actually, probably more, since I watched it in syndication once or twice a day (usually at 5 or 6 on the local UPN or FOX affiliate) well into college and actually into 2007 or ‘08, when I got rid of my TV. That has to be more one-on-one time spent than with any other television show, movie, book, piece of music, or most people.
If you were born after 1985 or so, I think it’s hard to understand just how massive an influence The Simpsons was on day-to-day life for a pretty long time. Just in the way people talked to each other. In the early ’00s, I dated a succession of girls where a large percentage of our spoken communication was made up of Simpsons lines thrown back and forth at each other. Or in the music world, where I spent my entire early 20s, the influence was pervasive. Obviously, there an endless number of bands named for Simpsons lines (the ones I remember best were the Pointy Kitties, the Kung-Fu Hippies, and of course, Monorail, who actually opened their shows with the song of the same name). And despite the fact that many bands I knew held rehearsals on Sunday nights, you never heard of a band rehearsing at 8 p.m. EST. My own band observed this rule; we rehearsed from 6:30 or so until 8:00, and then always stopped to watch The Simpsons. One of the markers of the show’s declining quality, around 2001, was when we stopped breaking to watch, and just rehearsed through that half-hour block. Such a thing would have been unthinkable a few years earlier.
At some point, the show will go off the air, and who knows how old I will be then? Probably in my thirties; possibly even my forties. I may even have kids at that time that are the same age I was when I started watching. Maybe I’ll watch the series finale with them. Imagine how meaningful that will seem.
The show has still turned up at interesting times, even well after its heyday. When the I-35W bridge collapsed on August 1, 2007, at around 6 p.m., I was sitting a few blocks away at the Aster Cafe next door to the theater at St. Anthony Main, waiting to go see The Simpsons Movie, which started at 7:30 or so. In the panic and noise that followed, I couldn’t decide whether to actually see the movie as planned or not; what’s the appropriate response to a situation that enormous, that close by? In the end, I decided to go see it anyway, since I couldn’t get back across the river to South Minneapolis, cell phone service was shut down, and there was nothing to do but sit in the bar next door and get drunk watching the TV reports, which seemed unproductive. It seems weirdly incongruous, looking back, but it was really comforting to be able to sit in that theater for an hour-and-a-half and spend time with characters I knew.