Science Writer Reveals Ugly Truth: ‘The Simpsons’ Is Really All About Math
It turns out that there’s a hidden agenda in The Simpsons. Or at least another hidden agenda, in addition to its terrifying anti-American, anti-NRA, anti-Bible, and anti-Catholic agendas. According to British science writer Simon Singh, the true subtext of teevee’s longest-running scripted program is even more insidious:
The truth is that many of the writers of The Simpsons are deeply in love with numbers, and their ultimate desire is to drip-feed morsels of mathematics into the subconscious minds of viewers. In other words, for more than two decades we have been tricked into watching an animated introduction to everything from calculus to geometry, from p to game theory, and from infinitesimals to infinity.
And to think that people let innocent children watch this stuff. It boggles the mind.
Singh’s The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets is one of those pleasant little books that you can dip into a chapter at a time (or skip parts of, for that matter) without worrying that you’re going to miss the thread of an argument. That’s largely because the book doesn’t really pretend to make much of an argument beyond “Math is neat. The Simpsons is neat. And one of the neat things about The Simpsons is that a lot of the writers are a bunch of big math geeks who toss in math jokes every chance they get.” It’s not a bad premise for a book, and it gives Singh a chance to get rapturously nerdy about one of the most proudly geeky shows that’s ever aired.
And boy, are there ever a lot of math geeks working on The Simpsons, five of them with degrees from Harvard, where several drifted into comedy writing at the Lampoon, including Al Jean and Mike Reiss, who have been executive producers and show runners (Reiss, though something of a math prodigy, ended up majoring in English). Several of the writers also have advanced degrees in math, physics, or computer science, and a number of the writers have published papers in math/science. Plus scripts about Ralph Wiggum picking his nose.
I’ll assume that I’m probably smack in the middle of Singh’s target audience: much more fan of The Simpsons than of math. Heck, that’s just statistics right there; a Venn diagram of the two groups would have a far larger circle for the first set, while the second would be a little circle with a big overlap into the first. So Singh periodically reassures us, especially in the early chapters, that we don’t need to worry too much if we don’t know calculus, but if we do remember something from undergraduate math classes, we’ll get a little extra laugh from the mathematical jokes sprinkled into the show. And he reminds us that there’s a calculus joke in the first full episode of the series, “Bart the Genius,” in which Bart is placed in a gifted program after cheating on an IQ test. In his first day at his new school, the teacher puts an equation on the board and says,
“So y equals r cubed over three, and if you determine the rate of change in this curve correctly, I think you will be pleasantly surprised.”
There is a short pause before all the students — except one — work out the answer and begin to laugh.
The solution, explains the teacher, is HILARIOUS:
“Don’t you get it, Bart? Derivative dy equals three r squared dr over three, or r squared dr, or r dr r.”
Har-de-har-har, and we’re off and running, not just with a brief overview of the calculus problem, but also a glance at Jackie Gleason’s sarcastic “Har-de-har-har” on The Honeymooners and the terrible Hanna-Barbera cartoons about Lippy the Lion and his deeply depressed hyena sidekick, Hardy Har Har. It’s a thoroughly digressive, trivia-packed book, and Singh’s enthusiasm for the show and for math keep him bubbling right along, even when he knows damn well that many (most?) readers are going to skim past the finer mathematical explanations. For people who really want to get into the math, Singh also provides five appendices that go into greater detail than the main text; while the book is definitely accessible, it’s by no means dumbed down.
For my money, the most interesting chunks of the book are the bits from the writers’ biographies and the moments when Singh takes us into the writing and revision sessions for The Simpsons, where we get to see the process of joke construction. A lot of the math jokes get added as scripts go through rewrites. Singh even wrings an entire chapter out of a set of three numbers seen briefly on a ballpark JumboTron screen — the writers added them as a nod to two visiting math profs who use Simpsons clips in their classes. And it’s fun to see the writers speculate about the connections between math and comedy; David X. Cohen, who went on to produce Futurama, thinks that
“The process of proving something has some similarity with the process of comedy writing, inasmuch as there’s no guarantee you’re going to get to your ending. When you’re trying to think of a joke out of thin air (that also is on a certain subject or tells a certain story), there’s no guarantee that there exists a joke that accomplishes all the things you’re trying to do … and is funny. Similarly, if you’re trying to prove something mathematically, it’s possible that no proof exists. And it’s certainly very possible that no proof exists that a person can wrap their mind around.
And that’s about as theoretical as the book gets about why math and humor go together; mostly, Singh takes a bit of math from The Simpsons or Futurama, veers off into a brief history of the problem, and has a fine old time talking us through it, with a couple of corny jokes thrown in on the side, such as:
Q: Why did the chicken cross the Möbius strip?
A: To get to the other … er …!
The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets is not a book that’s going to change your life or even make you love math, but it is a consistently engaging, grin-inducing look at smart people playing around with ideas they enjoy, and throwing in jokes that they know will only be appreciated by a portion of their audience. That willingness to play with a lot of obscure material is part of why The Simpsons has worked as well as it has — Bart and Homer get all the attention, but the writers are really a bunch of Lisas.