The popular TV show “The Simpsons” debuted 28 years ago today as a regular series, and among its cultural contributions are more than a few references to the Constitution.
Granted, with more than 600 episodes in the can for the satirical animated comedy, “The Simpsons” have touched (and re-touched) a lot of topics. But the whole Constitution-Simpsons connection got its share of publicity about nine years ago, when a museum-commissioned poll showed Americans knew more about “The Simpsons” than the Constitution.
The McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum was opening in Chicago in 2006 when it commissioned the poll.
The phone survey found that only 28 percent of Americans could name more than one of the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution’s First Amendment, but more than half of Americans could name at least two members of the fictional Simpsons family. In addition, 22 percent of Americans could name all five Simpsons family members, while just 11 percent of folks knew that freedom of the press was guaranteed under the First Amendment.
Since then, the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum has closed-- it lasted about three years -- while “The Simpsons” has endured as a cultural icon. And in fact, the show has taught us a few Constitutional lessons along the way.
Back then, the website Simpsons Crazy listen seven examples of constitutional illuminations in the TV series, and we also checked “Simpsons World: The Ultimate Episode Guide” for a few additional references. So here’s a short list of constitutional lessons and references among 24 years of satire!
1. The Bill of Rights
In an 1999 episode “Make Room for Lisa,” Homer Simpson encounters a traveling Smithsonian exhibit featuring the Bill of Rights, the Liberty Bell, Fonzie’s jacket from “Happy Days” and Archie Bunker’s chair from “All In The Family.” Lisa has to explain the Bill of Rights to Homer, who is shocked that Bart doesn’t know who Fonzie is.
“It guarantees all of the basic freedoms- speech, religion, the right to a speedy trial," she says.
Things go tragically wrong after Homer removes the Bill of Rights from its glass case, and gets chocolate on the document. When security guards try to attack Homer, he literally tries to hide behind the Bill of Rights, but he has licked the words off the Eight Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
To atone for his actions, Homer has to pay $10,000 to the exhibit’s sponsor, a phone company that wants to put a cell tower in his house as compensation.
2. The First Amendment
In a 2004 episode called “Bart-Mangled Banner,” Bart accidentally “moons” the American flag at a school event. The incident causes a national outrage flamed by a talk show host. The family is ostracized locally and nationally. At church, Lisa speaks about the First Amendment, after Bart is told to keep quiet.
Clip: Bart Moons The Flag
"Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press. That's from the First Amendment to the Constitution,” she says. However, a SWAT team arrests the family for violating the fictional “Government Knows Best Act.” The family is later shown watching a cartoon about the Constitution that portrays the “Bill O’Rights” as its “crazy drunken cousin.” The family eventually escapes to France but returns to the United States as undocumented immigrants.
3. Article V
The Constitution’s Article V allows for the founding document to be changed through the amendment process. Not only do “The Simpsons” take on the amendment process in the 1996 episode, “The Day The Violence Died,” they tackle copyright issues and the famous “I’m Just A Bill” cartoon from Schoolhouse Rock.
In the episode, Bart discovers that an old man named Chester Lampwick is the real creator of the Itchy and Scratchy cartoon series, starting a courtroom copyright battle. The popular cartoon is taken off the air, and replaced by “boring” cartoons such as one called “Amendment To Be.”
That cartoon opens with a similar shot from “I’m Just A Bill,” but it is a proposed constitutional amendment to outlaw flag burning sitting on the steps of the Capitol.
“But why can't we just make a law against flag burning?” ask the child. “Because that law would be unconstitutional. But if we changed the Constitution...,” says the amendment. “Then we could make all sorts of crazy laws,” the child counters.
In the cartoon, Congress passes the flag burning amendment, and Itchy and Scratchy return to TV after the Postal Service is found guilty of copyright infringement.
4. Article I: Congress
The 2003 episode “Mr. Spritz Goes To Washington” features a parody of Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington: with Krusty the Clown playing Jimmy Stewart’s role.
The episode skewers most Washington institutions and especially Congress. After the Simpsons protest about a federally approved flight path over their home, Krusty gets elected to Congress when an elderly representative dies. But things go wrong quickly as Krusty heads to Washington.
Clip: Krusty wins the Election
“I swear to uphold and protect the Constitution of these United States. So relax, gun nuts,” he says after his election.
But like Jimmy Stewart, Krusty is placed on do-nothing congressional committees, and he can’t even mount a filibuster, since Congress has left a floor session. The Simpsons and Krusty are taught by the Capitol’s janitor about how to get a bill through Congress. They blackmail a Congressman, get another drunk, and attach their airplane noise bill as a rider on a “Flags for Orphans” bill that is guaranteed to pass.
5. The 18th and 21st Amendments
Yes, there is an entire Simpsons episode called “Homer vs. The Eighteenth Amendment” and it deals with the issue of Prohibition in Springfield.
In this 1997 adventure, local government discovers that it had a prohibition amendment on its books for the past 200 years that says “spirituous beverages are hereby prohibited under penalty of catapult.” The town is soon beset by speakeasies and an Elliot Ness-like character trying to enforce liquor laws. Homer Simpson is arrested as the infamous Beer Baron and placed on a catapult for punishment.
“You can't do this! All my husband did was violate a law that doesn't make sense,” yells Marge Simpson. “Now, I'll admit, car crashes and fistfights have been down recently but prohibition has cost us our freedom- our freedom to drink!”
Homer gets a reprieve when the 200-year-old document shows that prohibition was repealed 199 years after the law was written.
6. Article II: The Executive
In the 2008 episode “E. Pluribus Wiggum,” Mayor Quimby moves the town’s presidential primary up to next Tuesday, after Homer accidentally blows up Springfield’s fast-food district and a bond referendum is needed. The election also makes Springfield the first presidential primary in the nation, angering New Hampshire.
After being swamped by political operatives and journalists, the offended residents of Springfield put their support behind eight-year-old Ralph Wiggum as president, leading Lisa Simpson to raise a constitutional objection.
“Ralph is only eight years old! It says in the Constitution, you have to be 35 [to be President],” she says. “The Constitution? I'm pretty sure the Patriot Act killed it to ensure our freedoms,” counters Bart.
“Ooh, the Patriot Act is so terrible! The government might find out what library books I take out! What's next, finding out what operas I go to?” adds Homer in a mocking fashion.
There are more references to the Constitution scattered throughout the series, including a reference to Bart's future occupation - as the Chief Justice of the United States - in an early episode that also makes some startling claims about Earl Warren!