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The Alumni

No Mere Journalist: J. Anthony Lukas Reading Homer
Showing the Flag New HAA President
Leaders by Example Doing His Part
Now's Your Chance Managed Firefighters
Travelers' Aide Tour Entrepreneur
Yesterday's News

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Reading Homer

Think all cartoons are two dimensional? Tune in to The Simpsons, Fox's top-rated television series, and prepare to adjust your depth perception. While the story of the Simpson family--man of the house Homer, wife Marge, and children Bart, Lisa, and Maggie--may seem like a tale told by an idiot, it is full of sound allusions, many of them Ivy League.

In fact, you probably need a degree from Harvard to appreciate surreptitious references like the assorted Lampoon addresses that appear on everything: Bart and Lisa's elementary school (19 Plympton Street); the local Kwik-E-Mart (57 Mount Auburn Street); Dr. Nick Riviera's walk-in clinic (44 Bow Street); a fake driver's license issued to Homer's mother (also 44 Bow Street). And what about town historian Hollis Hurlbut--might he, too, be traced back to Harvard?

Yes, says Bill Oakley '88, coexecutive producer-turned-consultant to The Simpsons, and just one of the show's cadre of Lampoon alumni who have littered the 'toon town of Springfield with both Harvard graffiti and Yale-bashing incidents. Here's how it works: a roundtable of 14 merry pranksters--including, this past season, Oakley, David Cohen '88, Steve Tompkins '88, Daniel Greaney '86, J.D. '92, Daniel McGrath '86, Richard Appel '85, J.D. '88, Jonathan Collier '83, Ken Keeler '83, Ph.D. '90, and George Meyer '78--slaves over a hot script, sometimes peppering the product with Ivy League innuendos. Oakley himself sees to it that addresses appearing as 123 Main Street in the production stills are replaced by the coordinates of a certain castle located at the juncture of Bow, Plympton, and Mount Auburn Streets in Cambridge. That this practice has caused a single Springfield building to possess different addresses depending on the episode does not concern Oakley.

"I'd say 99.999 percent of our viewers don't care about the relationship between Harvard and Yale," he concedes, so the inside jokes are limited to "once or twice a season." But the remaining .001 percent of us who round out the show's 8.4 million-household viewing audience each Sunday night can look forward to catching all the name-dropping and name-calling. During one episode, for example, Bart is handed a slip of paper with the suspiciously familiar 57 Mount Auburn Street address, where he finds his discarded mutt, Santa's Little Helper.

The mail-order collie Bart substituted for his own dog, meanwhile, has an unsettling resemblance to a Yalie: "Why that canine has the proud bearing and shiny fur coat of a Yale man!" observes the villainous Montgomery Burns. "I believe this dog was in Skull and Bones." Mr. Burns, whom Lisa Simpson and, tellingly, Bill Oakley have identified as "the worst man in the world," is the owner of Springfield's seeping nuclear power plant, a member of the Yale secret society, and, naturally, a Yale graduate--and football fan. "Honestly...I don't know why Harvard even bothers to show up," he says during a trip home from The Game. "They barely even won."

In another episode, we learn exactly what it takes to acquire the shiny fur coat of a Yale man when Mr. Burns attempts to "persuade" university officials to accept his underachieving illegitimate son, Larry. Says the Yale admissions officer, consulting his guidebook, "A [test] score of 400 would call for new football uniforms; 300, a new dormitory. And in Larry's case, we would need an international airport."

Writer Richard Appel (who carries on The Simpsons' Harvard tradition this season, along with Cohen, Greaney, and Meyer) credits the "almost silly and embarrassing" quality of the ancient Harvard-Yale rivalry itself for providing such a rich source of comedy. A former attorney, he expertly defends the show's Yale-bashing practices as "shorthand for making fun of an Ivy-League pompous type." Which is not to say he feels remorseful: "Personally, I never experienced a moral quandary about making fun of Yale...Even to say 'poking fun at Yale' and 'moral quandary' in the same sentence would be a stretch." Oakley also shrugs off any question of foul play: "We do it because it's fun."

In fairness to Yale, however, The Simpsons' creators have taken pains to see that Mr. Burns is not the show's only representative from New Haven. There is also the sociopathic Sideshow Bob, whose impressive résumé includes both a degree from Yale and a couple of convictions for attempted murder.

One could go on unearthing every Harvard-Yale subtext in The Simpsons but surely the more enlightened viewers have already detected them?


~ Mary Christ

Mary Christ '90 is an associate editor at Condé Nast Sports for Women magazine.

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