D-Day has come for Rupert Murdoch, who has announced he is stepping down as the head of his media empire. Or should that be D’oh! Day? News that Murdoch is handing over the reins at News Corp and Fox Corp to his son, Lachlan, has drawn contrasting reactions: some will mourn the exit of a tycoon who remade the media in his image, others will be delighted to see the back of him.
Very much in the “mixed feelings” camp will be Simpsons creator Matt Groening. As an avowed hippy, Groening will regard Murdoch as the embodiment of everything he dislikes about capitalism. At the same time, what fun Groening and The Simpsons have had with the mogul who ran the show’s parent network, Fox (until its acquisition by Disney in 2017). Murdoch was the Simpsons’ eternal punch bag – and he seemed to relish taking the blows as much as the Simpsons enjoyed dispensing them.
It isn’t going overboard to say Groening and his show had a heartfelt love/hate relationship with Murdoch. The Australian press baron had launched Fox in the mid-1980s, intending to break the stranglehold on American TV of the three sleepy legacy networks: ABC, NBC and CBS. Part of that strategy involved taking risks Fox’s lethargic rivals would never have considered– including launching, at the dawn of the Nineties, a satirical cartoon featuring a custard-hued family with four-fingered hands and no thumbs.
Fox’s buccaneering style made it a network forged in the image of Murdoch. That risk-taking culture convinced its executives to have a punt on The Simpsons, which had started life as mini-episodes on the Tracey Ullman Show in 1987.
Murdoch and Groening were, from the outset, unlikely bedfellows. Groening grew up in liberal Portland and attended Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington – “a hippie college, with no grades or required classes, that drew every weirdo in the Northwest”. Yet if his politics were the opposite of Murdoch’s, they had one thing in common: an enthusiasm for The Simpsons, as Groening told Playboy in 2008. “When I met him, he said he liked the show. He seemed sincere. Yes, there were little dollar signs in his eyes, but he does seem to be a fan.”
Murdoch was more than a fan. He wanted to be on The Simpsons. He was happy to be lampooned and had fun with his reputation as an evil billionaire when he cameoed in the 1999 episode, Sunday Cruddy Sunday, in which Homer and the gang invade his private box at the Superbowl. “He played himself on the show, and we wrote the line ‘I’m Rupert Murdoch, the billionaire tyrant, and this is my skybox,’ as his entrance line,” Groening said. “He performed it with great zeal.” He had a second cameo in 2010 when he visited Moe’s Tavern and asked to watch the Jay Leno Show (on a rival network, NBC).
The Simpsons has taken swings at Murdoch and Fox throughout its 30-plus years on air. In one episode, Larry King observes that, while the Springfield mayoral debates are being broadcast on Fox, there’s no need “for obnoxious hooting and hollering”.
In another, Bart and Homer decide to fake the images and sell them to Fox if they can’t acquire real footage of aliens. And when, in an episode from 2000, Bart calls a telethon hotline and pledges $10,000 to Rupert Murdoch, the mogul (played by the voice of Homer Simpson, Dan Castellaneta observes, “Thanks, you’ve saved my network.” “Wouldn’t be the first time,” respond Bart.
In fact, the zingers never stopped when it came to Murdoch and Fox. In 1999’s Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo, Homer boasts about investing in News Corp only for Lisa to reveal it’s an alias of Fox. Homer panics and tries to undo the damage. And when Krusty the Clown runs for office in 2003 and appears in a Fox News debate, much fun is had with the network’s Right-wing leanings. When a Democratic politician appears on screen, he is given devil horns and framed by a communist flag.
Four years later, after Simpsons newsman Kent Brockman is fired for swearing on air and moves in with Homer and the family, Homer takes the opportunity to reel off a list of Fox-news style conspiracy theories – with Marge explicitly noting that he watches Fox. Nor was it a surprise to learn that Mr Burns – the Simpsons parody of Gilded Age rapacious capitalism– was a fan of Murdoch, noting in 2011 that “it’s impossible to control all the media, well unless of course you’re Rupert Murdoch”.
But if there is a lot of love in The Simpsons’ relationship with Murdoch and his media interests, there is some hate, too. In 2003, Fox News threatened to sue Fox and The Simpsons after a thinly veiled version of the channel featured on the cartoon – lampooning its hysterical tone with a news-ticker reading “Study: 92 per cent of Democrats are gay.”
“Fox said they would sue the show and we called their bluff because we didn’t think Rupert Murdoch would pay for Fox to sue itself,” recalled Groening. “We got away with it.”
The Simpsons also became entangled in a row with obnoxious Fox host Bill O’Reilly. In 2010, the cartoon depicted a Fox News helicopter with the slogan “Fox News: Not Racist But #1 With Racists”. The aircraft then begins to crash – an opportunity to lampoon Fox’s “Fair and Balanced” slogan, with the pilot declaring “We’re unbalanced! It’s not fair!”
This drew the wrath of O’Reilly, who tweeted: “Continuing to bite the hand that feeds part of it, Fox Broadcasting once again allows its cartoon characters to run wild... Pinheads? I believe so.” Still, Groening will have had the final chuckle: O’Reilly left Fox in 2017 after the New York Times reported Fox News had settled five lawsuits by woman accusing the host of misconduct.
Like all rich left-wingers, Groening is open to the charge of hypocrisy. The success of The Simpsons has given him an estimated net worth of $600 million – much of that coming from the Murdoch coffers. Nor has he had any shame about participating in the capitalist ritual of squeezing a popular franchise for everything it’s worth: Groening has licensed the Simpsons image for everything from t-shirts to y-fronts. He’s grown immensely rich by participating in the very system he professed to hate as a student.
Still, he has at least been consistent in his disdain for Fox News. And he has always been an equal opportunities offender: The Simpsons has poked fun at Donald Trump, but it has also skewered Bill Clinton, while John F. Kennedy clearly inspired corrupt Mayor Quimby, right down to the patrician New England accent. Nevertheless, he’s upfront about finding Fox News offensive at multiple levels.
“Fox News gives me a headache and not even so much for its political content but the spinning logos and American flags and music designed to scare you s___less. Who needs it? We make fun of Fox News on the show,” he told Playboy. “The most fun we had was putting a news crawl like theirs across the bottom of the screen. It said things like “Rupert Murdoch: terrific dancer,” “Brad Pitt plus Albert Einstein equals Dick Cheney,” and “The Bible says Jesus favoured capital gains cut.”
Fox News may not have proceeded with the lawsuit (And later denied having ever threatened Groening). Nonetheless, it was made clear to The Simpsons writers’ room that while they’d had fun, it was time for a new target.
“We were forbidden ever to do it again. Fox said it would confuse viewers. I don’t see how you would think it’s real news on a cartoon show, but we’ll see. It’s fun anytime you can p___ off a right-wing lunatic, but it’s also fun to piss off a left-wing lunatic. In fact everybody on the show is concerned about not being preachy or heavy-handed. We try to mix it up.”
Mix it up, he did. The picture of Murdoch painted by The Simpsons is of a billionaire tyrant who strikes fear into his underlings’ hearts yet also has a sense of humour and an Australian pugnacity. It was a portrayal that Murdoch seemed to find agreeable. He will no doubt pine for many of the perks of power as he steps away from running his empire. But perhaps he will, in particular, miss his status as the comedy villain The Simpsons loved to hate.