Exploring Satire with The Simpsons
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Students are introduced to the idea of The Simpsons as satire by comparing what they did on a typical day to the things the Simpsons do in the opening segment of the show. They use the character profiles on the The Simpsons Website to analyze six characters, identifying satirical details that reveal the comment or criticism of society that the cartoon is making through the character. Finally, students use a graphic organizer to record and analyze specific examples of satire as they watch a full episode of The Simpsons. A list of other modern shows that provide examples of satire is included in the lesson.
Analyzing Characters from The Simpsons character list: This handout provides instructions and character choices for an analysis of characters on The Simpsons.
Analyzing Characters from The Simpsons blank chart: Students can use this chart as they analyze the satirical role of various characters on The Simpsons.
Analyzing an Episode of The Simpsons: Students can use this graphic organizer as they analyze an episode of The Simpsons.
From Theory to Practice
Popular culture, in the form of the episodes from The Simpsons, provide an introduction to and extended exploration of the literary techniques that are commonly used in satire. This pairing of popular culture with traditional literary instruction provides what Meg Callahan and Bronwen E. Low call "a meeting place where students and teachers can share their expertise" (52). Through their extensive research with secondary students, Callahan and Low concluded that "many students identified the use of popular culture in the classroom as a catalyst for complex thinking" (57). Callahan and Low identify popular culture as "a site where students can experience competence at the same time that the teachers provide appropriate challenges through careful support, reframing, and questioning" (57).
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
- 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
- 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
- 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
Materials and Technology
- "Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish." The Simpsons: The Complete Second Season. Episode #7F01.
- Television, and DVD Player or VCR
- Headphones for each student (recommended)
- Opening Sequence from The Simpsons
- Analyzing Characters from The Simpsons character list
- Character Analysis Examples
- Analyzing Characters from The Simpsons blank chart
- Analyzing an Episode of The Simpsons
- Analyzing an Episode of The Simpsons: Sample Answers
- Additional Shows for Analysis
- Character Analysis Rubric
- Episode Analysis Rubric
- Additional Examples of Satire in Pop Culture
- To review the techniques of satire, you can complete Exploring Satire with Shrek before beginning this more detailed exploration of satire.
- Make an overhead or copies of the Opening Sequence from The Simpsons, or copy the info to a sheet of chart paper. You might also write the list on the board while students watch the opening segment in Session One.
- Make copies of additional handouts, or make overheads that students can refer to as they work on these sessions.
- If possible, obtain headphones for students to use during Session Two. Because students will be exploring a Website with many audio features, the classroom will quickly be filled with competing audio clips. Headphones will help you control the room and keep students focused.
- This lesson focuses on the "Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish" episode of The Simpsons; however the activity works well with many other episodes. Additional suggestions are included.
- If you are not already familiar with the show, The Simpsons Official Website, The Simpsons Archive, and the Wikipedia entry on The Simpsons can provide you with background information and sample episodes.
- Test the Interactive Character Profiles from The Simpsons Official Website on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tools and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the technical support page.
- identify the four techniques of satire in a satirical work.
- explain how the four techniques of satire contribute to the comment or criticism being made by a satirical work.
- analyze a satirical work to determine the comment or criticism being made about the subject it is ridiculing.
- use visual literacy skills to analyze, interpret, and explain non-print media.
Session One: Analyzing the Title and Opening Sequence of The Simpsons
- Before class begins, cue the the opening credits of "Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish" from The Simpsons.
- Explain that you are going to show a video clip and ask students to compare what they see in the clip with life in a typical family.
- Ask students to respond in their reader response notebooks or journals to the following question to gather their ideas before they see the clip: "Brainstorm a list of things that happened yesterday after school."
- Emphasize that students need only gather a jotted list, rather than fully detailed descriptions. Provide a few examples from your own day (e.g., left school, went to the gym, picked up kids).
- While students work, circulate among the class, monitoring student work. If you notice students deeply involved in specifics, redirect them toward a simpler list of activities.
- Once students have written their lists, set up the clip by explaining that you will show the opening sequence from The Simpsons and ask them to pay attention to the things that happen to this family during the sequence.
- Show the opening segment of The Simpsons and pass out or post the following parts of the opening segment:
- Bart writing on the blackboard
- Bart on his skateboard
- Homer leaving and driving home from work
- Marge at the supermarket checkout
- Lisa playing the saxophone
- The family racing for the couch in front of the television
- Bart writing on the blackboard
- Ask students to compare the events in the opening sequence to their own lists of after-school activities, inviting conjecture on why the cartoon begins with these events rather than others that might be chosen. If students identify satire as a purpose, encourage that line of discovery.
- If students have not already suggested it, explain that The Simpsons is frequently described as a highly satirical program.
- Review the definition of satire:
A work that ridicules its subject through the use of techniques such as exaggeration, reversal, incongruity, and/or parody in order to make a comment or criticism about it.
- Ask students to identify the subtle or secondary meaning of the show's title, The Simpsons. Technically, the etymology for the name is "son of Sim," which is short for Simon. The possible pun, however, is the play on the word simple.
- Revisit the parts of the opening segment and consider what they may be satirizing. Below are examples of how students might respond to the second question:
- Bart writing on the blackboard: Public education
- Bart on his skateboard: The riddles of childhood
- Homer leaving and driving home from work: Plight of the working man
- Marge at the supermarket checkout: Consumerism (Note: Maggie costs $847.63)
- Lisa playing the saxophone: Restrictions of public education and free thought
- The family racing for the couch in front of the television: Impact of television on the modern family
- Bart writing on the blackboard: Public education
- Encourage students to share specific examples from different episodes that address each of the areas that are addressed in the opening segment.
- Before concluding the session, identify the students who are not familiar with the show and encourage them to view an episode of the show before the next session. All students can be encouraged to watch the cartoon for homework; however, you may want to prepare a note for families, explaining that students are using the cartoon to explore satirical techniques in class.
Session Two: Analyzing Characters from The Simpsons
- Explain that during this session of the class, students will explore information about characters from The Simpsons online and analyze the details for satirical techniques.
- Pass out the Analyzing Characters from The Simpsons sheet, which includes instructions and a list of characters.
- Choose one character from the list to analyze as a class, in order to demonstrate the process. Since you'll do this character as a class, ask students to remove that character from the list of choices. Character Analysis Examples are available for several characters.
- Using an LCD Projector, visit the Interactive Character Profiles on The Simpsons Website.
- Locate the profile for the character you've chosen in the filing cabinet.
- Explore the information for the character, being sure to talk about everything that is included. Each file includes a biography with background information, pictures of the character, and other related information. Pages for human characters also include quotations from the character. Find the "Click It!" link(s) on the right side of the folder as well.
- As you work through the information for the character, ask students to look for and identify satirical details that reveal the comment or criticism of society that the cartoon is making through the character.
- Encourage students to think-aloud about the reasons for the kinds of information that are included. Ask leading questions such as "Why do you think they included this quotation for this character?" or "Why do you think this picture is included instead of another one?"
- Record observations the character that the class is exploring on the board or on chart paper. To simplify the process of exploring the profile and recording the information, ask a student volunteer to record information while you guide the exploration of the site.
- Reinforce the labeling of satirical techniques by extending students' observations. For instance, if a student notices that something is exaggerated, build on the observation by asking students to identify other examples of exaggeration that are used in the character's profile and personality.
- Once you've explored the profile for the character, review the information that has been recorded and make any additions or corrections.
- In light of all the satirical information that you've gathered from the character's profile, ask students to identify the comment or criticism about society that the show is making through the character.
- Answer any questions that students have about the sample character you've explored then pass out the blank character analysis chart that students will use to record their findings on the characters that they choose from the Analyzing Characters from The Simpsons sheet.
- Encourage students to use headphones, if available, to help control the noise level of the class.
- Remind them that they need to explore profiles for at least six characters during the remainder of the session.
- Acknowledge that it will be easy for students to be distracted by the fun of the site, so you'll call out reminders every five minutes to help them pace their work. If they change to a new character every five minutes, they should be able to complete their analysis before the session ends.
- Circulate through the classroom while students work. Pay attention to students' progress on the character analysis charts to notice any students who fall behind and need to catch up in order to finish by the end of the session.
- Collect completed character analysis charts at the end of the session and review them for evidence of students' understanding of the techniques of satire.
Session Three: Analyzing an Episode of The Simpsons
- Before class begins, cue the "Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish" episode of The Simpsons.
- Explain that during this session of the class, students will analyze an entire episode of The Simpsons for satirical techniques and commentary.
- Share the summary of the episode with the class.
- Ask students to predict the themes that will be the subject of satire in the episode. Students should easily be able to identify nuclear power (or environmental issues) and political campaigns, but may come up with additional themes.
- Note the themes on the board or on chart paper.
- Pass out the episode analysis chart and ask students to choose two satirical themes to focus on while watching the episode. Have them write their choices at the top of the columns.
- Ask students to look for satirical techniques in the episode that relate to the themes they have identified. They should find at least three examples for each theme. Refer to the sample responses handout for examples of how students might respond to this assignment.
- Show the episode of the show, while students take notes on the satirical techniques that are employed.
- After the episode concludes, arrange the class into small groups to discuss their observations and draw conclusions about the comment or criticism made about the themes that are satirized.
- Once groups have drawn their conclusions, bring the class together and invite groups to share their examples and observations. Reinforce the labeling of satirical techniques and use of literary terminology.
- Collect completed episode analysis charts at the end of the session and review them for evidence of students' understanding of the techniques of satire.
- Ask students to find an example of a work in print media or on the Internet that uses the techniques of satire to make a comment or criticism about a subject from contemporary society. To complete this assignment students should include the following in writing: title of the work and bibliographic information, a short summary of the work (or a copy of the work), two examples of satirical techniques in the work, and the comment or criticism being made about a subject in contemporary society. One of the best sources for students to use when completing this assignment is the satirical newspaper, The Onion. For an example of political satire, share the short cartoon, "This Land Is Your Land". This film takes a satirical look at the campaigns of John Kerry and George W. Bush during the 2004 Presidential election. Be sure to review sites that you suggest to students to ensure that they are appropriate for your classroom and community. Begin the assignment by exploring a list of popular satire that students can use as resources for their selection.
- Ask students to write an essay that explains how individual techniques of satire are used in an episode of The Simpsons to make a comment about a subject from contemporary society. The essay should include a summary of the episode, an explanation of the main comment or criticism the episode is making, and identify three different examples of satirical elements used in the episode. For each example, the paper should describe the example in concrete detail, explain what the subject, idea, or issue was like before it was satirized, explain how a satirical technique (such as exaggeration) is used in the example, and explain how the example contributed to the main comment or criticism about contemporary society. Share the list of additional episodes as possible starting places for this activity.
- Ask students to create an original piece of writing that uses the techniques of satire to make a comment or criticism about an issue in contemporary society. The written piece must be original and include at least three different types of satirical techniques. Responses can include a parody of a newspaper reporting a news event that might appear in The Onion or on The Daily Show, a parody of a popular song that might be sung by someone such as "Weird Al" Yankovic.
Student Assessment / Reflections
Informal assessment works best for this activity. As students work, circulate among students, observing students’ analytical process and their understanding of satirical techniques. Provide support and feedback as you move through the room. To guide more formal feedback on the activities, use the Character Analysis Rubric and the Episode Analysis Rubric.