Thirty years ago this month, America’s favorite animated family made their debut as part of The Tracey Ullman Show. To celebrate, CoS will be broadcasting live from Springfield all week with a slew of Simpsons features. Today, Zach Blumenfeld traces the influence of Homer Simpson and attempts to find the true successor of the donut-lovin’ father of three, from Family Guy‘s Peter Griffin to South Park‘s Randy Marsh.
We begin with a very simple premise: Let’s say The Simpsons were cancelled at the end of its 28th season on Fox. (Don’t worry, it isn’t cancelled; the show will carry on long after the Sun consumes the Earth and the universe collapses upon itself.) Ignore the mixture of utter devastation and relief that a nail in the coffin of The Simpsons’ rotting carcass would bring, and let’s focus on the important question: Who would succeed Homer as the best dad on animated television?
When The Simpsons began its illustrious run in 1989, hardly anybody could’ve predicted that Homer would become the show’s most iconic character. After all, Dan Castellaneta had yet to even find Homer’s literal voice, recording his lines in an impression of Walter Matthau until he found he couldn’t sustain it for 10 hours a day in the studio. It was Bart, whose rebelliousness popped off the screen from the start — “Eat my shorts” became his established catchphrase by the series’ second episode — and who might well have remained the focal point of most Simpsons story lines had the show not shifted its attention to Homer around the series’ fourth season.
At any rate, the Homer Simpson who developed over the next three decades became the greatest animated television character ever and the undisputed archetype for sitcom dad. Every animated patriarch who’s followed Homer has been defined in relation to him to some degree, so if we’re going to anoint his successor, we have to break down the specific character traits that he embodies, the mojo that has made Homer such an icon.
Let’s start with the obvious fact that Homer is incredibly dumb and accident-prone. One great thing about cartoons is that their safe distance from reality allows them to display slapstick violence that would kill or severely maim actual people. Cartoon physics destroy the stakes in any such violence … and even if animated injuries do have consequences, most viewers are able to dissociate an illustrated world from the real one. Even as our culture becomes more ashamed of the barbarism in sports, with movements to combat concussions in football and end fighting in hockey gaining momentum, we can still satiate our primal bloodlust on animated characters getting jabbed in the eye, falling off a building, or dying repeatedly and not feel the least bit guilty about any of it. And Homer takes a beating, in both the mental and physical arenas, like no other character on television.
Closely related to Homer’s penchant for utter stupidity is his status as the ultimate American everyman. Creator Matt Groening has described him as someone “launching himself headfirst into every single impulsive thought that occurs to him,” essentially a manifestation of our collective id, the part inside all of us that wants nothing but to consume the delights of capitalism and fulfill every whimsy that strikes us. Homer is life without a filter, and even though that comes with a nasty temper, frequent pettiness, and blinding self-absorption, we can’t help but admire the man for touching those impulses in ourselves. And, of course, there’s the ridiculous outcomes of Homer’s unbridled spirit; his life contains multitudes only rivaled by Forrest Gump.
But perhaps most crucially, Homer loves his wife and kids. It doesn’t show when he’s strangling Bart, failing to relate to Lisa, or going through a particularly rough patch with Marge, but there’s enough warmth over the show’s history to convince us that Homer, despite his buffoonery and selfishness, has a decent-sized heart under his massive Duff gut. So, with this criteria in mind, we decided to take a look at which animated dad has the best shot ascending to Homer’s throne. (Not considered: Hank Hill, because King of the Hill is off the air; Stan Smith, because American Dad has never added much to television; or Steven Universe’s Greg Universe, a personal favorite of mine but far too niche to take the title.)
America, here are your candidates for the next Homer Simpson. And, in case Homer reads this, we’ve rated each nominated cartoon dad on a scale of 1-5 donuts. No, nibbling. D’oh!
Dental Plan! (Why): The comparisons have been there almost since the beginning. Peter’s immensely stupid and immensely fat, and he has a similar penchant for injuring himself very badly. More importantly, perhaps Peter’s most defining trait is his love for Lois (who rivals Marge Simpson as best animated mom). It drives him to extreme depths of jealousy at times, and the two have their petty squabbles — mostly because of Peter’s massive inferiority complex — but their relationship redeems Peter and grants him a modicum of likability.
Lisa Needs Braces… (Why Not): The very similarities that make Peter a candidate for the Homer throne are the character traits that doom his candidacy. He’s basically a crasser, more extreme, less lovable version of Homer, and Homer was there 10 years earlier. Therefore, as the two characters have aged in relation to the times — contemporary family sitcoms have largely moved away from dads that are both stupid and asshole-ish — Homer has at least had a long-reaching legacy to fall back upon, while Peter’s shorter prime (and Seth MacFarlane’s general obnoxiousness) means that his greatest mark in the history books will probably be his distinctive voice. Also, his perpetual rudeness to Meg has, at this point, probably crossed the line from biting satire to unnecessary cruelty.
Overall: If we were to crown Peter Griffin the Next Homer Simpson, the whole ceremony would be akin to watching one of the belly button-less clones from Treehouse of Horror XIII taking the original’s spot permanently. Aye caramba.
Dental Plan! The most notable qualities Bob shares with Homer are his pettiness, his inferiority complex, and his love for his wife. All of these traits are written well when they drive a Bob’s Burgers episode. But the most compelling argument for Bob to succeed the Simpson patriarch is that he’s been part of the vanguard for a new paradigm of sitcom dad. Over the past half-decade or so, warmth and sincerity have generally been on the rise, not just in television but in music (see The Rapper, Chance) and youthful political energy, and Bob and his family ooze warmth. His relationship with Linda, as ridiculous as the two can get, maintains one foot firmly in the bucket of devotion through realistic tribulations, and the Bob-Louise dynamic is the perfect combination of chaotic and heartwarming.
Lisa Needs Braces… Despite the show being named for him, Bob isn’t really the centerpiece. Bob’s Burgers, like Arrested Development, depends upon the interplay of its wacky family for most of its humor, far more so than The Simpsons. Homer is an entity unto himself, whereas without the enthusiasm of Linda, the pubescent awkwardness of Tina, Gene’s absurdity, or Louise’s endearing sociopathy, Bob wouldn’t be all that strong of a character — he’d just be a regular small-business owner with no real defining persona. An everyman, to be sure, but not in a particularly memorable way.
Overall: This is tricky. Taken as a family unit, the Belchers are the standard-bearers for modern animated sitcoms, leading the charge into the earnest future. But taken as independent characters and judging based solely upon humor, Homer trounces Bob.
Rick and Morty
Dental Plan! Rick and Morty has only aired 21 total episodes over two seasons — at least, that was the case until it pulled off the ultimate reverse trolling move and premiered its long-awaited Season 3 without warning on April Fools’ Day — but in its limited capacity, the show has been outstanding. And though the titular dynamic (and especially Rick’s profound hollowness) has led the way to greatness, the inept Jerry might be the key to Rick and Morty’s humor. The ridiculousness of Rick and Morty’s inter-dimensional adventures only works because it’s juxtaposed with the mundane absurdity of the Smith family’s humdrum life, typified by Jerry’s male inferiority, middle-aged anxiety, and lack of common sense. He’s a much lower-key clown than Homer, but the more subtle, realistic idiocy allows Jerry to take on the Eugene O’Neill-ian misery of life that Homer can’t really reach.
Lisa Needs Braces … Even more so than Bob Belcher, Jerry is a supporting character on his show, which isn’t a deal-breaking factor here, but it certainly doesn’t help his case. Though Dan Harmon pumps a fair amount of his despairing insight into Jerry, he reserves the balance for Rick, the new poster child (alongside BoJack Horseman) for the cynical sincerity movement that picked up steam a couple years ago and should only conquer more of the zeitgeist during the Trump era. Jerry on his own is like a more unhappy, slightly more pathetic version of Modern Family’s Phil Dunphy, who is a good sitcom dad but no legend.
Overall: This section had a slightly different feel to it before the surprise Season 3 premiere, which (spoilers!) ends with Jerry’s wife Beth pulling the trigger on a separation. It’s going to be fascinating to see how he develops with his family holding him at arm’s length, a move that opens the door for some scathing commentary on middle-aged purposelessness. But for now, Jerry’s merely a great supporting character in a show that’s far bigger than he is.