by Aaron Gordon
Homer Simpson descends gracelessly from the sky like an oblong, plastic mold of a mascot, his cowardly scream echoing in the dumpster towards which he plummets. “Ew, this is the worst place yet,” he says, crawling out. He begins to walk along a city block, one of our city blocks, a real not-cartoon city block, in what looks to be urban sprawl LA, cowardly mumbling to himself. The humans stare at him: he closely resembles a golden, obese claymation figure with a particularly misshapen head, three times too large and not unlike the bottom of a bowling pin. If he were to abide by the laws of physics, he would topple. He is alien. Then Homer sees an erotic cakes store and all is right with the world.
That’s how “Treehouse of Horror VI” ends, the sixth installment of the famed Simpsons Halloween episodes, where belief is annually suspended beyond the baseline suspension of beliefs involved in a weekly cartoon show. Hence the cartoon-character-in-our-dimension thing. It’s funny, ironic, and ridiculous; you know, comedy, but not real life. Simpsons Land, Universal Orlando’s latest offering, is changing all that.
There was a popular concept floating around economic circles around the turn of the century called the ”Experience Economy,” which basically said economic growth in general is going to come from “experiences and transformations,” not the value of goods and services themselves. Think of the prevalence of Rainforest or Hard Rock Cafes and the “coffee shop experience” versus the actual food and/or coffee you receive at those places. Or about how technology makes you feel rather than what you accomplish with it. Nothing exemplifies this concept more than amusement parks, which give you absolutely nothing tangible; only, well, amusement, memories or experiences that you may or may not wish you had to begin with.
The experience/goods divide is best exemplified by Disney. According to data compiled by TurboTax, theme parks generate about $57 billion annually (compared to, say, $10 billion for coffee shops). Disney parks accounted for $11.8 billion of that revenue, or 20% of the market share, which has grown substantially since 1992. Of the top ten amusement/theme parks in the US by revenue, only one is not a Disney or Universal park (SeaWorld Orlando, which will be fucked during the dolphin uprising). The only parks in the top 15 which aren’t predicated on bringing fantasy worlds to life are based on domesticating wild creatures or, in the case of Cedar Point’s rollercoasters, pretending gravity doesn’t exist. Both of those alternatives, one could argue, are just different brands of fantasies.
In this context, Simpsons Land makes some kind of perfect sense: It is simply another branded area that has replaced another branded area (the Back to the Future ride) in a park full of branded areas. But that’s about where the sense ceases. Specifically, Simpsons Land at Universal Orlando is centered around the Simpsons Ride, a four-and-a-half minute digitized sensory-qua-senseless ride about a digital family riding an amusement park ride in a gravityless world.
Planned in 2006 and opened in 2008 at a cost of $30 million, the Simpsons Ride predated Simpsons Land itself, which was announced in May and opened this past August to predictably substantial fanfare. It seems the idea of wandering around fantasy worlds you’ve seen in movies and/or read in books has been economically proven as a Thing People Will Pay For™. The economy of Bringing The Kids To Some Place That I Will Hate But Will Get Them Off My Back For A Few Weeks™ continues unabated.
Aside from the ride, the other attraction — and anyone who has ever been to a theme park knows this — is the food. Simpsons Land has Fast Food Boulevard with “iconic Springfield eateries” Krusty Burger, The Frying Dutchman, Cleatus’ Chicken Shack, Luigi’s Pizza, Lard Lad Donuts, Lisa’s Teahouse of Horror and Bumblebee Man’s Taco Truck, which is a humorless idea even if you discount the racist overtones. (If you’re keeping score, only four of the seven eateries actually existed in the show.) As an obsessive Simpsons fanatic, the mere thought of exchanging my money for this psuedo-experience is one I can’t even understand, much less execute.
The main non-ride attraction at Simpsons Land is Moe’s Tavern, whose exterior and interior is a perfectly designed replica of its fictional counterpart: pool table in the center, TV in the corner, Love Tester spitting out randomly-generated results, a pay phone, even Duff on draft (which, reports indicate, tastes like Budweiser). There’s even a giant, plastic Barney standing in the corner, peering forlornly into an almost-empty mug. It’s that fictional Moe’s Tavern, but in real life. You can get actually drunk on actual beer while watching actual Simpsons episodes (which are fake) on an actual TV in Moe’s Tavern (which is fake, but real) while getting actually drunk on actual…
Should the layered surrealism become unbearable, you might dash out of Moe’s and see a statue of Jebediah Springfield — another replica! — with the town slogan on the base: “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.” The Simpsons theme song plays from every speaker, except the ones playing “Aye Carumba!” or audio from the Simpsons episode where Bart and Lisa go to Itchy and Scratchy Land. Everything about Simpsons Land is intended to either make you think you’re in Springfield, or in a theme park with the Simpson family. Neither of those options are very settling, since both Springfield, USA and “The Simpsons” exist for the sole purpose of making fun of us.
Carl Matheson, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Manitoba and author of a chapter in The Simpsons and Philosophy, described “The Simpsons” brand of humor as “hyper-ironic…colder, based less on a shared sense of humanity than on a sense of world-weary cleverer-than-thou-ness.” “The Simpsons,” at its best, was a type of aggressive comedic nihilism: never out to provide answers, but to make fun of anyone who had the pretense to believe they had any. It made fun of everyone and everything — there was, in fact, an entire episode on the phoniness of theme parks and how the only way they could lead to a genuine vacation experience involves the authentic threat of defective, killer robots — including the show’s commodification and branding efforts.
“The Simpsons” and Springfield, USA are not real. These, I hope, are not controversial claims! They are forms reflected by the fire in Plato’s cave to give us indications of truth, glimpses into how we really are or seem to outsiders like Kang and Kodos. But they are not, in fact, actual humans, people, towns, structures, etc. Like the shadows on the wall in Plato’s cave, they are illusions to give us approximations of truth.
Let’s shamelessly block-quote David Foster Wallace (“E Unibus Pluram,” collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again) on the illusions of fictional television:
A problem with so many of us fiction writers under 40 using television as a substitute for true espial, however, is that TV “voyeurism” involves a whole gorgeous orgy of illusions for the pseudo-spy, when we watch. Illusion (1) is that we’re voyeurs here at all: the “voyees” behind the screen’s class are only pretending ignorance. They know perfectly well we’re out there. And that we’re there is also very much on the minds of those behind the second layer of the glass, viz. the lenses and monitors via which technicians and arrangers apply enormous ingenuity to hurl the visible images at us. What we see is far from stolen; it’s proffered — illusion (2). And, illusion (3), what we’re seeing through the frames panes isn’t people in real situations that do or even could go on without consciousness of Audience. I.e., what young writers are scanning for data on some reality to fictionalize is already composed of fictional characters in highly formalized narratives. And, (4), we’re not really even seeing “characters” at all: it’s not Major Frank Burns, pathetic self-important putz from Fort Wayne, Indiana; it’s Larry Linville of Ojai, California, actor stoic enough to endure thousands of letters (still coming in, even in syndication) from pseudo-voyeurs berating him for being a putz from Indiana. And then (5) it’s ultimately of course not even actors we’re espying, not even people: it’s EM-propelled analog waves and ion streams and rear-screen chemical reactions throwing off phosphenes in grids and dots not much more lifelike than Seurat’s own Impressionist commentaries on perceptual illusion. Good Lord and (6) the dots are coming out of our furniture, all we’re really spying on is our own furniture, and our very own chairs and lamps and bookspines sit visible but unseen at our gaze’s frame as we contemplate “Korea” or are taken “live to Jerusalem” or regard the plusher chairs and classier spines of the Huxtable “home” as illusory cues that this is some domestic interior whose membrane we have (slyly, unnoticed) violated — (7) and (8) and illusions ad inf.
“Not that these realities about actors and phosphenes and furniture are unknown to us. We choose to ignore them. They are part of the disbelief we suspend.”
“The Simpsons,” in particular, makes overt references to many of these illusions with a hefty catalogue of meta-references: Lisa exclaiming, “Bart, our cartoon is on TV!” when their Itchy and Scratchy cartoon is shown on their (and by extension, our) TV, and Bart appearing on Krusty’s show and remarking, “I’m on television now.” (That entire episode, really, comes with a giant, honking META tag.)
So why make fun of itself and its own medium? As Matheson wrote, “Comedy can be used to attack anybody at all who thinks that he or she has any sort of handle on the answer to any major question, not to replace the object of the attack with a better way of looking at things, but merely for the pleasure of the attack, or perhaps for the sense of momentary superiority.” Going meta on yourself and your own medium is the comedic equivalent of slashing your own cheek before a knife fight; it raises the bar for any opponent going after you and your art form. That’s all well and good, until places like Simpsons Land come into existence, and then we’re reduced to absurdities.
As Wallace mentioned, we suspend our belief when watching fictional television; that’s part of the deal. Not only is it part of the deal, we want to suspend belief because fiction is, at least in part, escapism. We want to mentally be in Springfield, USA because it’s not real. Their fake monorail boondoggles are hilarious; our real high-speed rail projects that are similarly afflicted aren’t so hilarious. Once it’s real, by definition, it no longer is escapism. The deal is off.
No matter what you think of the idea of the experience economy — a cool idea for 1999, perhaps, when our phones were still stricken blind, deaf and dumb — Simpsons Land is a testament to it. Simpsons Land may provide value of some kind, but it is surely in “experience and transformation,” not in goods and services. A Flaming Moe is an $8 orange soda with dry ice coming out of the bottom. Duff Beer is a $7.25 20-oz Budweiser, for God’s sake. The Yelp reviews for Moe’s Tavern are all five stars for cognitive dissonance.
The questions for Simpsons Land — and all theme parks, really — are ultimately about the commodification of experiencing a fictional world. Doesn’t the attempt to make Springfield real make Simpsons Land emotionally worthless? Is “The Simpsons” satirizing us, or are we doing the job well enough ourselves? Can you be aware of a manufactured experience and still enjoy it? Can you see through the looking glass and still smile for the camera?
It’s a lot to ask, particularly for a show that made its fame criticizing our reality. But, again, cognitive dissonance is a very basic tenet of human existence, and one that seems an increasingly vital evolutionary trait. The ability to stare reality in the face, shrug, and adopt your own version happens to be a decent self-selection process for entrée to a fake world where dreams come true for no good reason other than that you gave a giant corporation your money. Disney sells you dreams, you buy them, “The Simpsons” satirizes this process, Universal builds a dream park about this satirization, you buy it, etc. It’s quite a feedback loop.
Maybe one day a blubbery-3D Homer will fall from the sky, and everything will make perfect sense in a totally imperfect way. Until then, dreamcatchers will be watching “The Simpsons” at Moe’s Tavern, drinking a Duff dry, getting gawked at by a plastic, life-sized Barney Gumble (which doesn’t belch). I, for one, welcome our new ironic overlords.
Aaron Gordon is a contributing writer at Sports On Earth. He has also written for The Classical, BuzzFeed and Pacific Standard. Although he currently lives in Washington, D.C., his heart will always be with the Hartford Whalers. He also tweets a lot @A_W_Gordon.