Bill Cosby hated ‘The Simpsons’

Bill Cosby hated ‘The Simpsons’

Easily offended sensibilities and hand-wringing over every pop culture moment seem to characterize the times we’re living in, but such battles have been brewing for centuries. In his new book, “Outrageous: A History of Showbiz and Culture Wars,” Kliph Nesteroff looks at nearly 200 years of controversies to help us understand the present moment. In this excerpt, he looks back at the hysteria around “The Simpsons” and “Beavis and Butthead.”

By 1991, Fox had enough credibility to land the broadcast rights to the Emmys.

That year, the category for Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program was presented by comedian Gilbert Gottfried. At the last minute, he decided to ignore the teleprompter and deliver a series of jokes about the recent arrest of Pee-wee Herman in an adult movie theater:

Y’know, I’ll tell you something, ladies and gentlemen, I sleep a lot better since Pee-wee Herman has been arrested.

[audience laughter] Masturbation’s a crime — I should be on death row!

[audience laughter]Masturbation’s against the law — I should have been sent to the electric chair years ago.
[audience laughter]

To think that by age fourteen I was already Al Capone. [audience laughter]

Kliph Nesteroff looks at nearly 200 years of controversies to help us understand the present moment.

Gottfried got big laughs for his spontaneous patter, but producers backstage were “buzzing about the bad taste of it” and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences — the organization responsible for the Emmys— considered it an affront. “I was angry to no end,” said the academy president. “I could have gone on and hung him right there.”

Kenny Solms, head writer of the Emmy ceremony, said, “We were looking for a bit more decorum and wit. That’s not wit.”

Newspaper editorials and radio commentaries condemned Gilbert for destroying America. Film critic Michael Medved said Gottfried’s performance was indicative of Hollywood’s “juvenile addiction to off-color material.”

And comedy legend Soupy Sales said, “That was in bad taste. There’s a difference between being in a club where people are smoking and drinking and a primetime television audience.”

Gottfried was astounded that anybody was upset.

“What gets me,” said Gilbert, “a few months later Seinfeld does an episode on masturbation — and it’s Citizen Kane.”

“The Simpsons” was not an instantaneous success. AP

Fox established itself as the controversial channel.

And there was one specific show more than any other that sustained the Fox network.

It led to school suspensions, merchandise being removed from stores and a lot of Culture War grandstanding.

The Simpsons was not an instantaneous success.

It was initially scheduled on Thursday nights against the highest-rated program on television,The Cosby Show.

At the start of the season, Bill Cosby said he welcomed the competition, but when The Simpsons beat him in the ratings for the first time in April 1991, Cosby criticized The Simpsons as an “antisocial” menace that had spiraled “out of control.”

“The mean-spirited and cruel think this is ‘the edge,’ and their excuse is that’s the way people are today,” said Cosby. “But why should we be entertained by that? TV should be moving in a direction from the Huxtables forward, not backward.”

President George H.W. Bush mentioned The Simpsons during his keynote address at the annual National Religious Broadcasters convention in January 1992.

The president told the assembled crowd, “We need a nation closer to the Waltons — than the Simpsons.”

Ironically, The Waltons featured Depression-era characters praising the social programs of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, and it starred Will Geer, an actor who was blacklisted for being a Communist.

Bill Cosby criticized The Simpsons as an “antisocial” menace that had spiraled “out of control.” NBC via Getty Images

William Bennett, a former member of the Reagan administration, toured a drug addiction treatment center in Philadelphia.

As he walked through their common room, he saw them watching Fox and said, “You guys aren’t watching The Simpsons are you? That’s not going to help you any.”

First Lady Barbara Bush watched just one episode of The Simpsons.

Despite having raised future president George W. Bush, she called The Simpsons “the dumbest thing I had ever seen.”

The show was immensely popular, but an anti-Simpsons crusade spread through the country.

A letter to the editor published in the Detroit Free Press complained, “This so-called comedy exploits so many negative things that children do not need to be exposed to: violence, vandalism, disrespectfulness, lying, cheating, bad language, and all-around negative attitude toward life.”

First Lady Barbara Bush watched just one episode of “The Simpsons” and called it “the dumbest thing I had ever seen.” 20th Century Fox

“Bart is an outgrowth of the trend in popular culture to depict violence solely for the sake of violence, depriving it of meaning and making it an end in itself,” wrote a Simpsons-hater to the Los Angeles Times. “This gratuitous expression of violence has now filtered its way into the pre-pubescent realm . . . I am a sixth grade teacher . . . 10% of our students wear Bart shirts. Drawings of Bart flourish on blackboards and on hundreds of papers . . . precisely the kind of ‘anti-hero’ these students don’t need.”

A merchandising blitz of Simpsons toys, clothes and posters ensued.

Bart Simpson T-shirts became the decade’s most popular schoolyard fashion statement.

But the popularity of the impudent “underachiever” who was “proud of it” disturbed teachers and school boards.

“To be proud of being an incompetent is a contradiction of what we stand for,” said a high school principal in Ohio. “It teaches the wrong thing to students.”

Clothing that featured The Simpsons was banned throughout the country.

A school principal in Kentucky explained, “We feel like the Bart Simpson show does a lot of things that do not help student self-esteem, such as saying it’s okay to be stupid.”

A wave of hostility greeted companies that heavily invested in The Simpsons merchandise trend.

The Associated Press reported that JCPenney, after establishing “Simpsons boutiques” in its many stores, was forced to remove “any Bart Simpson t-shirt that might encourage juvenile delinquency.”

President George H.W. Bush mentioned “The Simpsons” during his keynote address at the annual National Religious Broadcasters convention in January 1992.The president told the assembled crowd, “We need a nation closer to the Waltons — than the Simpsons.” Courtesy Everett Collection

A pair of Catholic nuns from Miami Shores, Fla., pretended to condemn The Simpsons, but actually cashed in.

“I don’t think Bart is helping us,” said a nun. “We hope in some way to balance out Bart.”

The nuns copied The Simpsons shirt design and released a new clothing line featuring “colorful decals of popular saints.”

As each hysteria faded, another was quick to take its place.

By the fall of 1993, The Simpsons was established as part of the mainstream cultural fabric, and another satirical cartoon replaced it as the scourge of America.

Beavis and Butt-Head concerned two moronic, antisocial metalheads who hated school, loved music and liked to break things out of sexual frustration.

Mike Judge’s creation went over the heads of politicians, but it was embraced by people in comedy.

It became a phenomenon and merchandise followed in The Simpsons tradition. 

Beavis and Butt-Head apparel was banned in schools around the country and Walmart announced a new “chainwide ban on Beavis and Butt-Head merchandise.”

A factory worker in Greenville, Pa., said he was concerned Beavis and Butt-Head would “lower the morality” of his town. “We may just keep pushing our standards a little further and further in the wrong direction and not even realize it,” he said. “One day we’ll say, ‘Why didn’t we do anything when we could?’”

Beavis and Butt-Head concerned two moronic, antisocial metalheads who hated school, loved music and liked to break things out of sexual frustration. Mike Judge’s creation went over the heads of politicians, but it was embraced by people in comedy. MTV/ Mike Judge

On the program, Beavis would occasionally shout: “Fire! Fire! Fire!”

The mantra was blamed for a real-life disaster when five-year-old Austin Messner burned down his family’s trailer home in Moraine, Ohio—a tragedy in which his little sister was killed.

“The mother says he had never played with matches or lighters prior to witnessing ‘Beavis and Butt-Head’ and laughing about fire being fun,” said the fire chief. “The mother told our investigator that Austin watched ‘Beavis and Butt-Head’ all the time and became obsessed with playing with fire. We’re going to ask MTV to remove those segments — and if they won’t do it voluntarily, we’ll go through the powers that be and force pressure on them.”

Politicians led the charge for cancelation.

MTV refused to end the program but did delete certain antisocial segments and put the kibosh on lighters, matches and the shouting of “Fire! Fire! Fire!” The controversy consumed the news for months.

But years later, when Messner was a grown man, he claimed his mother fabricated the story so she wouldn’t be blamed.

“I literally never saw the cartoon,” said Messner. “How could I? We couldn’t afford cable!”

Excerpted from OUTRAGEOUS: A History of Showbiz and the Culture Wars by Kliph Nesteroff. Copyright© 2023 by Kliph Nesteroff. Published and reprinted by permission of Abrams Press, an imprint of ABRAMS. All rights reserved.

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