Sunday 25 February 2018

D'oh! The Simpsons are about to land....

As Homer and co get ready to join the Paddy's Day parade, Declan Cashin looks at how they've insulted us over the years and how we've enjoyed it

Homer and Grampa get into the party spirit in the Irish episode
Homer and Grampa get into the party spirit in the Irish episode

Bart Simpson will have to swap his trademark catchphrase 'Ay Caramba!' for 'Begosh and Begorrah' tomorrow when the Simpsons officially touch down here for the first ever episode based in Ireland.

The episode entitled In the Name of the Grandfather will see Homer and Grampa travel to Dublin, the Giant's Causeway, Blarney Castle and the Guinness Brewery; encountering special guest stars such as Kenneth Branagh, Colm Meaney, and Once Oscar winners Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.

For the first time in the 20-year history of the show, the episode will make its debut on Irish screens before it is shown in America. In addition, actress Nancy Cartwright, who supplies the voice of Bart, and two producers are in town to take part in the Dublin parade tomorrow.

It's a big moment for the many Irish fans of the series, but as the die-hard aficionados will know, the Irish, or more accurately, a particular view of the Irish, has long been a feature of The Simpsons, and usually not in very flattering ways.

By rights, the often outrageous stereotyping of the Irish in the show down through the years should have led to storms of protest, as happened after the notorious Irish episodes of EastEnders in 1997 that depicted us as drunken, violent louts.

But Homer and Co can seemingly do no wrong. To even register on The Simpsons' radar at all seems like a compliment to Irish fans.

In that vein, the series has hosted several famous Irish guest voices, including Pierce Brosnan, Liam Neeson (as a Catholic priest) and U2, into whose concert Homer sneaks by posing as a potato delivery man (on a more positive note, Lisa's love interest in The Simpsons Movie was an environmentally conscious Irish nerd named Colin).

Perhaps one of the reasons that the show gets away with aiming jokes at the expense of the Irish is due to the strong Irish creative power behind the scenes. Producer James L Brooks (who is in Dublin tomorrow) is a member of the diaspora, and was duly honoured by the US-Ireland Alliance in Los Angeles last year. In fact, according to Brooks, that event was where the seeds of the special Irish episode of the show were first planted.

In addition, one of the former staff writers of The Simpsons was US late-night talk show host Conan O'Brien, who is of Irish stock, and pioneered several of the Irish gags in the early days of the show. For instance, the 1993 episode Whacking Day is based around the St Patrick-esque idea of driving snakes out of the town and even beating them to death with clubs. Bart later finds out that the day was actually invented in 1924 "as an excuse to beat up the Irish", to which an Irishman then responds: "Ah, but 'twas all in good fun."

In other episodes, Grampa Simpson reminisces about chasing the Irish out of Springfield in 1904; a deranged leprechaun appears to tell Ralph Wiggum to burn things; and the diabolical nuclear plant owner Mr Burns reveals fond memories of crippling an Irish man with a fairground bumper car.

Next week's special episode is not the first time that St Patrick's Day has been referenced by the show either. In one of -- if not the -- greatest ever episode of the cartoon from 1997, entitled Homer Vs. the 18th Amendment, Prohibition is re-introduced into the town of Springfield after 10-year-old Bart accidentally gets drunk during a particularly rowdy Paddy's Day parade.

The floats in that Springfield parade include '200 years of Irish Cops' (who then proceed to beat up bystanders) and 'The Drunken Irish Novelists of Springfield', one of whom resembles James Joyce and later starts a brawl on the street.

Meanwhile, in scenes that were always cut from TV airings but which can be viewed unedited on the DVDs, a British pub named John Bull's Fish and Chips is blown up to huge cheers, while a sozzled Homer is seen in Moe's Tavern (which is adorned with three signs reading 'Erin go Brath', 'Kiss me, I'm Irish' and 'Help wanted, no Irish need apply') wearing a barrel on his head, proclaiming: "I'm the prime minister of Ireland!"

All of the parade mayhem later prompts TV news-reader Kent Brockman (or Kent O'Brockman as he calls himself on that day) to utter the classic line: "Drunkenness, fighting, destruction of property: are these really the qualities we associate with the Irish?"

There were even more savage digs at the Irish to come. The 20th season of the show kicked off last September with an episode that began with the family attending an alcohol-free St Patrick's Day parade, where the Kennedy-esque Mayor Diamond Joe Quimby reveals his full name to be Joseph Fitzgerald O'Malley Fitzpatrick O'Donnell 'the Edge' Quimby.

Featured floats in the parade include 'Straight Catholic Priests' (with two clerics on board) and 'Small Irish Family' depicting a downtrodden man, nagging wife and at least two dozen children, which bears more than a passing resemblance to a similar Irish joke made in rival series Family Guy last year.

A bored Bart then plaintively asks, 'Where's the IRA when you need them?' and an Irish man beside him answers, 'We've renounced the way of the gun and the bomb'. Right then a Union Jack-bedecked bus with cheering British tourists drives by and the Irish man sighs, 'In the auld days we'd have been all over that'.

A group of Northern Unionists then join the parade, prompting Bart to ask, 'There are two kinds of Irish people? What are they fighting over -- who gets to sleep in the bathtub?' At this point the Unionist and Nationalist groups start fighting with each other (in scenes not dissimilar to the 2006 Love Ulster riots on O'Connell Street), despite Lisa trying to placate the warring factions with a rendition of 'Toora Loora'.

Marge is left with the last word on the topic: "This was such a pleasant St Patrick's Day until the Irish turned up."

Of course, it's not just the Irish who have been the butt of The Simpsons jokes. They have presented their own take on several cultures -- with far more controversial results. When the family visited Australia in a 1995 episode, Oz is presented as a land of ignorant yobs, where koalas and kangaroos roam the streets, and the prime minister spends his days floating in a pool drinking beer.

Antipodeans were not happy with the end result. The Newcastle Herald paper in New South Wales fumed that the instalment "embarrassed and degraded our country as well as making us look like total idiots" and the episode was even condemned in the national parliament.

The show's creator, Matt Groening, was forced to defend the episode, saying that they were merely playing with "silly stereotypes" and that rather than try to get everything right, they opted to get everything wrong instead.

Similarly, Brazilians failed to see the funny side when the family made a trip to a filthy, crime-ridden Rio in an episode broadcast in 2002. When they arrive in the city, the streets are teeming with rats and monkeys, teenage pickpockets prey on Marge and Lisa, Homer is kidnapped by an unlicensed taxi driver, and Brazilian television shows a semi-pornographic programme aimed at children.

According to Chris Turner's book Planet Simpson: How a cartoon masterpiece defined a generation, the episode provoked a major diplomatic crisis, causing the then Brazilian president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, to publicly criticise "the distorted vision of Brazilian reality". The Rio tourism board further blasted "the idea of the monkeys ... and the image that Rio de Janeiro was a jungle".

In response, the show's producers neutralised the controversy by issuing an apology to the city and its residents, adding: "If that doesn't settle the issue, Homer Simpson offers to take on the president of Brazil on Fox's Celebrity boxing".

It's doubtful that the Irish episode of the show will lead to a similar controversy here, regardless of whatever stereotypes might be wheeled out. And if for some reason we fail to get the joke, no doubt Bart Simpson will be quick to tell us: 'Don't have a feckin' cow, man.'

The Simpsons, tomorrow, Sky 1, 7.30pm

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