Can any animated show claim to be more influential than The Simpsons? At this point, it may be the most influential TV show period, animated or otherwise. And whether you love or hate the “new” Simpsons, you can’t deny that the show has been a powerhouse of comedy for over 30 years now. But beyond wacky hijinks, the Simpson family has found ways to have an effect on the real world as well, sometimes in ways more shocking than you might think.
10. It Helped Fix iPhone Keyboards
The world is awash in typos these days due in no small part to the fact we’re all typing on tiny little keyboards with our chonky, stubby fingers. But it was even harder to manage years ago with physical keyboards that required individual key mashing instead of the relative ease of a multi-touch keyboard like we have today. And, apparently, we have The Simpsons to thank for it.
Before the iPhone existed, all mobile devices used physical keyboards because multi touch devices, or virtual keyboards, failed miserably. People expected the iPhone to do the same. Why? The Apple Newton. It was an early attempt at a device without a physical keyboard, and the typing was atrocious. In a 1994 episode of The Simpsons, the bully Dolph takes a memo on his Newton for Kearney that is supposed to remind them to beat up Martin. Instead, it records it as “eat up Martha.” Kearney tosses the Newton at Martin as a result.
This very simple joke inspired the iPhone design team. They apparently shared the joke “eat up Martha” around the office all the time as they developed the new keyboard. They worked on the idea until they had eliminated the potential “eat up Martha” problem and changed mobile typing forever.
9. It Has Promoted eSports Acceptance
We’ve talked before about how esports has become a massive industry worth billions. Despite that, mainstream acceptance has not come easily. To this day, there are people who will mock the “sports” part of the name and will very much be surprised and confused by how much money can be made. But the acceptance is growing, and that was helped along in a big way by The Simpsons.
In 2019, The Simpsons aired an episode in which Bart takes up professional gaming. Referred to as a cultural tipping point, the game was made with the help of Riot Games, the company behind League of Legends, as well as eSports’ Team Liquid.
8. It Set the Foundation for Modern Adult Animation
Pop culture is often a bit of an ouroboros, consuming itself over and over as it does. Movies and TV shows reference each other constantly and writers add in nods and homages to works that inspired them very frequently. Over the last 30 years, you’d be hard pressed to find much in the comedy world, especially animated comedy, that hasn’t been influenced in some way by The Simpsons.
Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy and American Dad, credits The Simpsons with essentially creating the entire genre of modern adult animation. He called the show “wholly original” and his shows, along with other titans of animation like South Park, Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill, Futurama and Bob’s Burgers have all seen their success attributed to the trail blazed by The Simpsons. And that’s not to say the shows copied The Simpsons or, in the case of something like Rick and Morty, are even like The Simpsons at all. But the groundwork set by The Simpsons, with irreverence, intelligence and heart, is arguably what allowed any of these other shows to find their own niche.
Basically, The Simpsons showed, for the first time since The Flintstones in the 1960s, that a cartoon could exist that didn’t have to be solely for children. It could cover mature subjects, even dark ones, in a way that could keep an adult audience interested and entertained. That genuinely hadn’t existed before The Simpsons in any real way, and if not for them, who knows if any of the popular animated shows of today would ever have been created?
7. The Show Embraces Spirituality
If you’re feeling spiritually empty, you have a few ways you could seek to get better acquainted with that part of life. There’s always reading up on whatever faith you’re interested in, or even talking to clergy or other spiritual leaders. And, if all else fails, you can focus on The Simpsons, which has been credited with spreading spiritual enlightenment by some pretty lofty sources, including the Vatican itself.
Over the years, The Simpsons have touched on issues of faith from many diverse viewpoints. Christianity is well-represented, but there have also been characters who are Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and more.
On one hand, The Simpsons does make fun of religion and researchers have even coined the term “The Ned Flanders Effect” to account for the tendency of secular people to avoid potentially religious partners in romantic situations because of their beliefs. On the other hand, the Vatican praised the show’s handling of religious themes back in 2009. As the paper noted, “Homer finds in God his last refuge” and though he’s by no means a perfect man or student of his faith, that’s part of the point.
6. The Show Has Changed Education and How Students Learn
Teachers are always looking for ways to engage students and help them better learn. Sometimes that means invoking pop culture and who better than The Simpsons to help do that?
English professor Richard Pioreck used Simpsons references for years in his college courses on various subjects. One course was actually an online literature course based entirely on selections from the show ranging from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. An English professor from Xavier University in Chicago actually co-wrote a book called The Simpsons in the Classroom: Embiggening the Learning Experience with the Wisdom of Springfield focused on using the show as a teaching aide. Other schools have used the Simpsons as a jumping off point to teach topics as diverse as economics, philosophy, political science, and sociology.
This isn’t to say everyone enjoys the use of Simpsons references in lessons. In 2010, over 400 people signed a petition to make a UK school remove the show from a media module being taught to students that focused on a single episode and the opening as a way of showing language in media and satire and parody.
5. The Show Has Led to Language Changes
A surprising number of people are familiar with the word “embiggens.” It’ll get you nearly half a million hits on Google, which isn’t bad for a word that The Simpsons made up back in 1996. The word, meaning “to make bigger” was part of the Springfield town motto “a noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.” In fairness, the word “embiggen” did seem to already exist in the 19th century as a term that meant “to embolden” but it was not really a word that anyone used.
Embiggen is not the only lexical contribution the show can lay claim to and, even if not every utterance makes it to the dictionary, they’re still significant parts of our culture. Everyone knows what “d’oh!” means when they hear and a good number would understand how “cromulent” works in a sentence. Even the word “meh,” while not coined by The Simpsons, was popularized as what is basically the verbal equivalent of a shrug.
Other terms like “yoink,” “unpossible” and the ever useful “craptacular” were either coined on the show or given new life there.
4. It’s Credited With Helping Gay People Come Out
The Simpsons has long tried to balance mockery, which we’ll see shortly, with acceptance. It punches up more than it punches down and has done quite a lot to show diversity in many forms over the years. One of these has been in its treatment of gay characters.
So prominent are gay characters and themes on the show that a German author wrote an entire book about it in which he studied 70 gay characters and 490 scenes across the show’s history. As he pointed out, the Simpsons was the first show to dedicate a whole episode to the subject of gay marriage all the way back in 2005.
The author, Erwin In het Panhuis, has even credited the show with helping gay people come out thanks to its consistent and positive portrayal of gay characters and homosexuality in general.
3. It Led To Unintentional Increased Diversity in Animation
The character of Apu caused some serious controversy in recent years that culminated in voice actor Hank Azaria quitting the role (though not the show where he voices many other characters as well). This set off a storm of other voice actors, also giving up the roles of their characters for the same reason. Azaria, as well as actors like Jenny Slate from Big Mouth and Mike Henry from Family Guy, were white actors voicing minority characters. They all voluntarily gave up their roles after some public backlash about the racial inequality in voice roles came to light and the result was actual actors of color were hired for many of the roles.
Much of this change stemmed from comedian Hari Kondabolu whose documentary The Problem with Apu focused on how the portrayal of Apu affected him as an actual Indian child growing up into an adult with the character and the stereotypes that came along with it for nearly 30 years.
2. It Has Made Countless Real Life Predictions
In recent years, the Simpsons’ major claim to fame has been its seemingly preternatural ability to predict world events. They did make an early joke about President Donald Trump back in the year 2000, after all. And for a few years there’s been a cottage industry of websites giving us lists of all the things the Simpsons has predicted, some a little more precarious than others.
There have been a stunning number of jokes that turned out to reflect real life events later on. Like predicting Disney would buy Fox 19 years before it happened. Also, the tiger attack on Roy Horn of Siegfried and Roy. Richard Branson going to space. A gold-medal curling match at the Olympics. The mass of the Higgs-Boson particle a decade before science even discovered it (not exactly, mind you, but pretty close). Even a three-eyed fish in the waters near a nuclear plant.
There have been numerous other predictions, many of them simple ones that barely even count as coincidences and others that are a little more eerie. It’s certainly up for debate about whether it means anything or whether life is just so absurd that cartoon writers can predict it fairly accurately now and then.
1. One Episode Has Saved Lives
The greatest claim to changing the world The Simpsons can make takes the form of Alex Bencze. Bencze was 8-years-old back in 1992 when one of the most famous episodes of the Simpsons aired. Season three’s 17th episode “Homer at the Bat” featured cameos from numerous pro baseball players and one of the best songs in the show’s history.
At the beginning of the episode, Homer nearly dies choking on a donut as everyone ignores him. Lenny then seems to point out a poster demonstrating the Heimlich maneuver, but the punchline is he’s focusing on a sheet to sign up for softball. Homer fixes himself and the episode progresses.
In real life, Bencze was with his brother when he choked on an orange. His 10-year-old brother Chris remembered the poster from the episode and performed the Heimlich on Alex, saving his life. That simple sight gag actually saved a life. The same thing happened again in England in 2007 when a child choked on a sandwich.