Jen Aronoff

When “The Simpsons” made its series debut on Fox in December 1989, millions of people tuned in. Bill Savage wasn’t one of them.

“I didn’t watch it because it was ‘just a cartoon,'” the English department lecturer says.

But when some of his friends suggested that the show was more than that, Savage decided to find out for himself when season two hit the airwaves the next fall. As Simpsons mania reached a fever pitch — does anyone else remember the song “Do the Bartman”? — and mischievous Bart told viewers to eat his shorts, Savage ate his words.

“I started watching, and I was immediately glad I did, because it’s smart and funny, and such a well-written show.”

Now Savage has taken his affinity for things Springfield to the printed page, contributing an essay to the just-published “Leaving Springfield: The Simpsons and the Possibility of Oppositional Culture.” The book includes pieces by an array of academics attempting to answer the question of whether “The Simpsons,” itself a product of mass-culture capitalism, can simultaneously critique mass-culture capitalism and society.

On its face, that sounds like the kind of conundrum that would make Homer Simpson exclaim “D’oh!” — repeatedly. But Savage is quick to explain.

“See, it is serious, ponderous scholarship,” he notes. “But it’s about ‘The Simpsons,’ for chrissakes.”

Savage’s essay, “So Television’s Responsible!”, uses episodes of “The Simpsons” and “South Park” to examine how satirical animated series confront the issue of censorship and the effect that cartoons have on impressionable young viewers. He said he wrote the piece in 1997 or 1998, and the book has been in the works since then.

At the time no books that took a serious look at “The Simpsons” were available, though several other “serious” treatments have appeared in the interim. In addition, several colleges, including the University of California at Berkeley, have begun offering classes on the show.

Still, many have a hard time believing that the denizens of Springfield, U.S.A. are worth studying. Savage’s own father and stepmother looked at him skeptically when he told them he was writing about “The Simpsons.” But to Savage and his fellow essay writers, there’s no question that the show is one laughing matter worth taking seriously.

“People who dismiss ‘The Simpsons’ because it’s television or because it’s animation should remember that film, the novel, vernacular poetry and drama were once considered inherently lowbrow and not serious,” Savage says. “So to dismiss something because of its medium is a bad move.”

What began as “just a cartoon” is now a worldwide phenomenon, an instantly identifiable part of American culture and the longest-running sitcom of all time, having surpassed “Ozzie and Harriet” when its 15th season premiered last November.

In the process, the yellow family from Evergreen Terrace has received something generally not afforded to television shows, particularly animated ones: respect. “Bart is art,” Britain’s highbrow Guardian newspaper proclaimed in an article published last winter.

Yet Savage believes academia has been slower to acknowledge the intelligence and insight inherent in something that’s also massively popular and designed to entertain. “That kind of popularity draws attacks,” he says. “People assume that if something is popular, it can’t be smart.”

But “The Simpsons” is not only smart, it also has a trailblazing knack for social and political commentary, doled out weekly in hilarious half-hour doses.

“‘The Simpsons’ was the first in a line of shows that now includes ‘South Park,’ which have quickly been able to provide scathing satire … much more so than regular TV,” says Jim Mortensen, owner of Comix Revolution, which will celebrate the publication of “Leaving Springfield” with a “Simpsons”-themed get-together from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Scott Curtis, an assistant professor of radio-TV-film, agrees. “Today, serious, subversive political comment is almost always in the form of satire,” he says. “It’s the only safe realm. ‘The Simpsons’ is one of those vehicles for biting social and political commentary, which is another reason it’s so fun to watch.”

The fact that the show is animated also allows it to slip under the radar. “Because it’s a cartoon, (it) allows a certain expressive and dissenting voice you don’t find elsewhere,” says Curtis, who will be teaching a course about the history of animation Spring Quarter.

“Even if you don’t get everything, you can still laugh at Homer wringing Bart’s neck, Moe’s prank calls, (classic Homer Simpson quote) ‘Alcohol — the cause of, and solution to, all life’s problems!'” Savage notes. “The multilayered experience is what makes any reading experience worthwhile.”

If all goes well, Sunday’s party at Comix Revolution will also be a multilayered experience. “I don’t think there’s many comic book stores that would be able to host this sort of event, but we’re pretentious enough do it,” Mortensen says with a laugh. The gathering will feature free doughnuts, salty snacks, “beverages to be named later,” and a showing of the “Simpsons” episode Savage analyzes in his essay. Afterwards, Savage will lead a discussion.

“I’ll crack wise,” he promises. “It’s very freeform.” Indeed, expect musings on anything from corporate capitalism to Krusty the Clown. Lisa Simpson would be proud — and it’s just as Savage likes it. “The best episodes, and the best sorts of shows, will always work on more than one level,” he says. “Whether it’s Dickens, Twain or the Simpsons.”

Medill senior Jen Aronoff is an assistant editor of PLAY. She can be reached at [email protected]