x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Homer Simpson: The epic hero for our times

He regularly strangles his son, has a two-digit IQ and is actually Canadian. Yet the overweight sage of Springfield was recently voted the greatest television character of the 20th century.

Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

In his essay Homer and Aristotle, published in September 2001, Raja Halwani, an assistant professor of philosophy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, compares the values of the former with those of the latter.

Based on his study of Aristotle's towering The Nichomachean Ethics, Prof Halwani observes that: "It does not require great observation to realise that Homer is far from being a temperate man. Not only is he not virtuous with respect to his bodily appetites, but he is quite vicious." To which Homer might reply: "Doughnuts! Is there anything they can't do?" Homer is Homer Simpson, of course, not the ancient Greek poet who is widely regarded as the author of The Iliad and The Odyssey. That Homer described the sacking of Troy. The other one has a friend called Troy, a washed-up actor who is frequently sacked.

That the two are not the same might come as news to a generation whose cultural values owe more to the TV series The Simpsons than the study of the classics. Prof Halwani's essay comes from The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D'oh! of Homer (Popular Culture and Philosophy), a textbook intended for university students who study the significance of the show in courses like "How the Simpsons Saved American Literature" at places like Berkeley and Tufts in the US and Napier University in Edinburgh.

Now comes the confirmation that Homer Jay Simpson is, without doubt, the most significant cultural figure of our age. A poll this week voted him the greatest television character of the last 20 years, beating everyone from Tony Soprano (fourth place) to Spongebob Squarepants (a disappointing 10th). So how did a grossly overweight, mentally challenged working-class white - well, yellow, actually - male living in the suburbs of Middle America achieve such fame? As the man himself likes to put it: "Fame was like a drug. But what was even more like a drug were the drugs."

Much of his early life is a mystery. For example, the origin of his name. For a long time it was believed he was christened after a character in Nathaniel West's masterpiece of alienation in Depression-era Hollywood, The Day of the Locust. Homer's literary credentials, though, are, to put it mildly, restricted. "Books are useless!" he complained in 2004. "I swore never to read again after To Kill a Mockingbird gave me no useful advice on killing mockingbirds. It did teach me not to judge a man based on the colour of his skin, but what good does that do me?"

In fact, what few people realise is that Homer is Canadian. The character's creator, Matt Groening, revealed in 2002 that Homer was the name of his father, an ad man, writer and documentary filmmaker from Saskatchewan. "That would make Homer Simpson a Canadian," Groening said. "I hope Canadians won't hold it against the show now that they know." Mr Groening himself was raised in Portland, Oregon, but moved to Los Angeles in his early 20s to become a writer. After the inevitable spells as a waiter and a landscaper at a sewage-treatment plant, he eventually won a cult following for his quirky Life in Hell, a self-published comic book that drew from his early life in LA.

After a copy of the comic was seen by a producer, Mr Groening was invited to create a series of short cartoons based on the Life in Hell characters for Fox Television's The Tracey Ullman Show. Instead, he created an entirely new cast of characters that he called the Simpson family. Homer, his wife, Marge, and their three children, Bart, Lisa and Maggie, made their debut on April 19, 1987. Homer, in his earliest incarnation, seemed more careworn than of late, largely because Mr Groening drew a rough sketch only, expecting the Fox illustrators to polish his efforts. In fact, they simply traced over the originals.

In those early appearances, he also sounded remarkably like the late actor Walter Matthau, until Dan Castellaneta, the actor who has voiced him for more than 20 years, realised he could not sustain the impression and developed a deeper, rougher tone. Homer's trademark "D'oh" was also developed by Mr Castellaneta, a tribute to the Scottish actor Jimmy Finlayson from the Laurel and Hardy films. By 1989, the popularity of the Simpsons saw the family get their own prime-time show, a half-hour cartoon that first aired on December 17. By the third episode, it was established that Homer was a worker at Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, and a spectacularly incompetent one at that.

Responsible for many of the plant's 342 safety violations and several near-meltdowns, he has been fired on numerous occasions but has always been reinstated. His philosophy of work is simple, as he tells his children: "I want to share something with you: the three little sentences that will get you through life. Number 1: Cover for me. Number 2: Oh, good idea, Boss! Number 3: It was like that when I got here."

Over the course of 21 seasons more details of Homer's life have emerged. In 1995 it was revealed that his mother, Mona, long believed dead, was in fact a 1960s' radical and political activist who had gone on the run after breaking into a biological warfare factory. The other woman in Homer's life is Marge, née Bouvier. According to a 1991 episode, the couple fell in love in their senior year at Springfield High School. In one account, their marriage was a hasty affair stemming from an unplanned pregnancy. However, another version has them living as a childless couple in the 1990s.

Such inconsistencies are part of Homer's life. Aged 36 when the show began, two decades later his age is generally given as 40. He has filled out a little, too, as the show's writers have aged. The distinctive comb-over remains, though, as tribute to his creator: the squiggle of his sideburns and shape of his ear form the letters M and G. Aside from the brief "Jackass Homer" period, ascribed to a change of executive producer between series nine and 12, his boorishness is generally tempered by his devotion to his wife and children. He no longer attempts to strangle Bart on a regular basis and is attempting to be a better father, telling his drinking companions at Moe's Bar & Lounge, "Well, it's 1am. Better go home and spend some quality time with the kids."

Homer remains monumentally stupid, with an IQ of 50. Yet he retains more than a touch of the idiot savant, with observations such as "What's the point of going out? We're just going to wind up back here anyway," and "If at first you don't succeed, give up." While Homer's financial circumstances remain modest, the success of the series and a feature-length film have generated a multi-billion marketing empire for its parent company, complete with comic books, action figures, video games, clothing and even a theme-park ride.

Homer, of course, has seen none of this. Despairingly, he once said: "I've got three kids and no money. Why can't I have no kids and three money?" Still, there are compensations. In 2003, a BBC online poll to find the greatest American placed him ahead of both Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. Will this latest accolade go to his head? TheSimpsons has already eclipsed Gunsmoke as the longest-running series on American television and earned the family a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Homer has been shot into space, met Tony Blair and Bill Clinton and jammed with The Who.

Yet he remains a man who knows his limitations. "Oh Marge," he once told his wife. "Cartoons don't have any deep meaning. They're just stupid drawings that give you a cheap laugh." jlangton@thenational