Every Christmas or so, William F. Buckley sees fit to fill his “Firing Line” slot on public television with a re-airing of an outrageously strange conversation with Malcolm Muggeridge. Buckley customarily introduces the segment by observing that this is, by far, his favorite episode of “Firing Line,” and what’s remarkable is the utterly undignified and awkward interview that follows.
It’s not an argument, exactly, and both men seem to be deriving a great amount of pleasure from one another’s company. But the stakes strike the viewer as somehow alarmingly high as Muggeridge, covering his smile, gazes at Buckley with his Obi-Wan Kenobi eyes and Buckley shoots back furtive glances of disbelief at what’s being proposed. Muggeridge, you see, contends that everything under heaven is laughable—and he does mean everything.
Chartres Cathedral, the Cistine Chapel, Bach’s B Minor Mass, Mother Theresa, whatever we can propose for the status of dignified and noble and true. Buckley, as we might guess, is scandalized. How can this be? Muggeridge: "Let’s think of the steeple and the gargoyle. The steeple is this beautiful thing reaching up into the sky admitting, as it were, its own inadequacy—attempting something utterly impossible-to climb up to heaven through a steeple. The gargoyle is this little man grinning and laughing at the absurd behavior of men on earth, and these two things both built into this building to the glory of God."
But what is he laughing at? Evil? Pomposity?
"He’s laughing at the inadequacy of man," Muggeridge says, "the pretensions of man, the absolute preposterous gap-disparity-between his aspirations and his performance, which is the eternal comedy of human life. It will be so till the end of time you see."
Till the end of time. This is where Buckley, like a great many of us, can hardly help but hesitate. But the alternative, a worldview that allows for some finalized perfectibility of human nature in the here and now is hopelessly off as well. What Muggeridge so profoundly understood and what Buckley had such trouble seeing (to the former’s respectful amusement) is that the state of affairs we’ve found ourselves in is really quite laughable. No one has successfully dotted every "i" and crossed every "t." The word is modesty. Television has never looked so good.
And yet, it occasionally does. I’m referring to the closest thing I’ve found on the airwaves to a Muggeridgean tragicomedy: “The Simpsons.” It is a cartoon. It is also a work of art. It is very likely the most pro-family, God-preoccupied, home-based program on television.
After all hell has broken loose over the Simpson family’s Thanksgiving dinner, Homer offers thanks for the food while interjecting, "Lord, are we the most screwed up family in the whole universe or what?" Later, when the runaway Bart has returned home and a haphazard order has been restored, they convene again for a late-night meal and Homer ends the show praying, "Thank you, Lord, for another crack at togetherness."
As a kind of celebration, “The Simpsons” fulfills, in part, the role that Carnival played in medieval culture. Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin gives this description: "Carnival laughter is the laughter of all the people…It is directed at all and everyone…The entire world is seen in its droll aspect…It is gay, triumphant, and at the same time mocking, deriding. It asserts and denies, it buries and revives. Such is the laughter of carnival…It is also directed at those who laugh. The people do not exclude themselves from the wholeness of the world. They, too, are incomplete. They also die and are revived and renewed."
The purpose of Carnival is to overcome or provide momentary relief from the seriousness of the status quo, the official. On “The Simpsons,” all societal personalities are pushed together into a normalizing proximity in which the prerogatives of power and class and celebrity are dropped. George Bush moves into a house across the street; Sting assists in getting Bart out of a well; and Michael Jackson appears as a huge, white mental patient with a shaved head. Everyone comes to know everybody, and any appeal to aloofness or superiority from any quarter is subject to the heaviest lampoon and ridicule. The playing field is leveled, and the forum is open.
“The Simpsons” is customarily subjected to a false evaluation for a variety of reasons, but its status as a kind of stumbling block is not, primarily, as an enemy of family values but rather as its advocate. The necessary, life-giving gargoyle, if you will. It refuses to take seriously our proudest efforts, the various instances of self-centeredness and idiocy which fall so hopelessly short. That our presumed goodness is so devastatingly shabby is not a cause for outrage. It is a major part of what we profess when we claim Christianity.
An acknowledgement of the ongoing persistence of our frailties is also, after all, the central groundwork for comedy. And we need comedy like we need the gargoyle. We need a sense of humor. Without it, we lose the ability to criticize ourselves.
Seriousness can be an excruciatingly inhumane task-master. Its vision is very often too small. It doesn’t want to know, for instance, that the person disagreeing with us or whose very existence offends has, as it turns out, a really nice smile. It doesn’t want to hear that a Samaritan would do a thing like that. No time for it. We’ve got to keep an eye on seriousness. It can make us treat people very unkindly. Seriously.
On “The Simpsons,” everybody’s soft and funny-looking. No exceptions. Everybody fits, because nobody does. They’re all weird and getting weirder. Moe, the bartender, is just about consigned to a stereotype when, suddenly, we see him reading stories to children in an orphanage, a weekly activity he goes to great lengths to conceal. The writers of the program are kind enough to violate our prejudices at every available opportunity. And occasionally, through one child punching another on the arm or Marge gently stroking the back of Homer’s hand or kids on the playground exchanging a high-five, we get to hear the strange, delightful sound of this silly-putty flesh-on-flesh. They’re ridiculous. And the kindness and compassion which works its way between them is always funny but never ridiculed. They’re alive like us.
When watching “The Simpsons,” it’s certainly okay to wince or to be a little bit bothered sometimes. But we probably ought to be careful about deciding we’re feeling offended. After a while we become offended in all the ways God isn’t. And the seat of offendedness, like the seat of judgment, can be a real tricky spot to occupy. Before we know it, it can become a twenty-four-hour-a-day job. It becomes all we’re known for. And when we’re all caught up in all the things we’re against, we forget the beauty of the things we’re supposed to be for.
Thankfully, “The Simpsons” affords us a delightful reminder of this upside-down Kingdom. It reminds us that everything down here is laughable.