Everlasting cultural ubiquity stands as the holy grail of any creative endeavour. This tantalising achievement so often seemingly within reach is more often than not beaten down by the bulwark of a society whose tastes change and whose fickleness is monstrously incurable. The Simpsons though continues to find new paths to cultural relevance; the latest of which is through internet memes.
Internet memes may be pooh-poohed as the cultural soylent green of society. Taking old artistic efforts and regurgitating them into something barely sufficing as cultural nutrition. Yet they offer the chance of a rebirth of sorts for long-lost, or culturally stale properties. Taking minute details out of context and spinning them in a multitude of different directions is now a time-honoured tradition of internet culture.
The Simpsons became a known prime target years before steamed hams came about. The series’ plethora of sound bytes, freeze frame gags, and visual puns are legendary and have infected many corners of the internet down through the years.
Now though, in 2018, the show’s long shadow over contemporary pop culture is more of a faded glow. Culture simply moves too fast for the show’s six-month long production schedule. I proposed the idea that the show should drop the obsolete half-hour format in favour of shorts back in 2016 as a way to remain relevant. That hasn’t come to pass, so fans are taking matters into their own hands.
Simpsons memes are not a new thing, but historically tend to focus on a single aspect or gag from the show and inserting it into a piece of contemporary pop culture. The Steamed Hams meme on the other hand, is the reverse. Singularly about that scene and the interaction of the characters of Principal Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers within the scene from the episode ‘22 Short Films About Springfield,‘ it takes place wholly within the Simpsons universe; which it uses as a fertile ground for material to remix.
Taking the scene, deconstructing it and reconstructing it in all sorts of new and exciting ways breathes an entirely different kind of life into it that no amount of rebooting, or remaking will ever hope to accomplish. The meme excels at demonstrating the healthy diversity and vibrance of the Simpsons universe as well as the grand thread that seems to runs through all the characters inhabiting it.
The concept also proves to be an excellent way of dragging the series into a more modern era of fan engagement. The Simpsons began just as the internet was beginning to enter the public consciousness and the presence of online discussion boards among other references are common across all seasons of the show. However, as online fan culture and engagement channels matured and evolved, the show’s kept a relatively hands-off stance more common to an earlier era. Some crew members are on Twitter, but the show does not display the same type of engagement that newer animated shows like Steven Universe and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic do.
The memes give fans an opportunity to engage and interact with the show in a new way, and drives the rediscovery of older episodes by people who may not have seen them before. The variety of Steamed Hams memes for example, suggests that fans are very familiar with even the most obscure scenes in the show, and are willing to risk making new and ever more eccentric connections between various episodes, characters, and gags. Memes even offer a way for the show’s original content to be reinterpreted in a more contemporary light. Who would have thought that episodes from over 20 years ago could still be just as relevant, replete with satire that bests even current shows when it comes to hot topics.
Of course the memes themselves aren’t driving viewers to new episodes, but that would be moot at this point anyway. Instead, they ensure that the fandom retains a healthy vibrance as opposed to slowly descending into a small, core group of hardcore fans.
When the current crop of memes finally run their course, will the show find another way to remain relevant? There’s little doubt it will, since many many shows fail to attain the same level of longevity as the Simpsons, or garner near the level of quality and popularity. What will it be next? We’ll just have to wait and see.