Sunday, September 5, 2021


This is how I unintentionally used “The Simpsons” to increase my brain power.

It is January 1998, and the Video Home System (VHS) is still at large, the first DVD player having only gone on sale in the UK six months earlier. I am a great fan of “The Simpsons,” then in only its ninth season, which is airing twice a week on BBC Two. We didn’t yet pay to have Sky One, but blank VHS cassettes were still widely available and absurdly cheap. I could just record the show when it aired, and watch it whenever I like. People streaming “The Simpsons” on Disney+ take note: this is how things used to be.

Much has already been made about how “The Simpsons” was one of the first TV shows for which recording the episodes was the only way you could take in all of the jokes, with background signs and sights gags often worked on as much as the main plot by the show’s writing staff. Its thick animated lines would not lose detail when recording onto a VHS cassette, which only achieved pictures of 230 lines of resolution in Long Play mode, as I worked to stretch six hours of recording, and sixteen “Simpsons” episodes, onto an E-180 tape.

However, being a British “Simpsons” fan also means there are jokes I am not likely to get. The 1990 episode “Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment” – the one where Homer steals cable television, and Lisa refuses to watch – the sound of a TV show is heard: “We would get there quicker if I borrowed Dad’s car.” “I don’t know, Davey…” If the Christian animated series “Davey and Goliath” had ever aired on British television by that point, I would never know, and it must have been on some satellite station we could not see.

This was where online resources, such as they were at the time, proved valuable. Before the World Wide Web made the internet more accessible, message boards allowed people to communicate in text form. One such Usenet newsgroup,, formed just after regular “Simpsons” episodes began in 1990, began compiling crowd-sourced reference and episode guides into HTML format at The Simpsons Archive (, running since 1994).  With far fewer competing web pages than now, and with Google not being founded later in 1998 – the search engine of choice, Yahoo!, was a curated guide with a search engine attached - you really needed a website that could prove it was authoritative and comprehensive

“The Simpsons” eventually became abasis for making web searches. Anything I didn’t “get” could be looked up, meaning I might laugh if I saw the reference again, like the reference to the 1986 charity event Hands Across America in “Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes,” or the real-life existence of all the baseball players in “Homer at the Bat”. Naturally, if something in the next article proved interesting, you may want to find out more or, when films like “Psycho,” “Citizen Kane” or “A Clockwork Orange” are quoted often, you find the original films to watch on their own.

This established the pattern I use for recalling facts – one piece of information will remind me of a reference made to a similar fact, or word, or number, picked up elsewhere, building into a web. Mnemonics and learning by rote don’t really work with me, although remembering having tried to learn something may make it easier to remember what I was trying to recall. If all else fails, I can look it up again, because I know where to look.

Now, practically everything is available at once, including every episode of “The Simpsons,” a show I made more of an effort to watch when it was more scarce than twenty years ago, both in appearances on TV and in number of episodes, and which has now referenced so much that people think it is predicting the future when history repeats itself. Perhaps it will end when there is nothing left that isn’t worth knowing.

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