An industrial-sized three-night pub quiz full of fans of a cult TV show that’s not even that good any more. Sounds like hell, right? But as Joe Nunweek finds, The Simpsons is still the exception to the rule. //
Adults-only. That was my first impression of The Simpsons before I’d seen so much as a frame of the show. It first screened in New Zealand at the watershed hour of 9pm, dismally far beyond my bedtime, accompanied with a distant hum of concern by grown-ups.
Lucky kids came to school with scandalising, spiky-haired figurines, or “Eat my shorts” lunchboxes. This was a pose: no-one in J1 was actually allowed to sit up and watch it. But I was an insufferable little fiend when it came to cartoons, so my parents relented pretty quickly. When I watched the show for the first time on a VHS taped the night before (“There’s No Disgrace Like Home”), it was a weird, crude nightmare. I remember a yellow family turning into weird, flaming demons – the mum getting drunk, the kids electrocuting each other in ECT family counselling. It felt like some transgressive path into adulthood, somewhere taboo and beyond.
Nearly 25 years later, The Simpsons isn’t transgressive, taboo, or much of anything. But those same kids are all adults – in their 20s, their 30s. They ingested years of the show wholesale, parroted it in the playground, the lecture theatre, and on Facebook. And now they’ve turned it into the only entertainment young professionals know: the pub quiz.
When I arrive at the Richmond Eureka Hotel, I’m not here to compete – tickets sold out weeks ago, and I’m squeezing myself into proceedings on the second of a three-night stand. A spitting image of Homer’s one-off love interest/temptation, Mindy, can’t find my name as I try to recognise the organiser I talked to on Facebook.
But peering over a throng of robed Stonecutters, and an ordinary household pot plant hideously scrawled on to resemble Marge Simpson, I find him. Jarryd Hasenkam seemed like a healthy young man in his photos, but looking at him in his starchy white shirt and blue slacks, sweating under the lights, he looks bloated, like he’s caught gout to give himself a comedic lumber. Or purchased his own weight in padding.
Whatever his trick, Jarryd is forsaking all comfort to become a realistic Homer Simpson tonight. He and the other creators of “The Simpsons Best Moments” Facebook page (230,262 likes and counting) are doing a residency.
Jarryd leads me to an array of “Red Tick Beers”. It’s bargain-basement beer made from dog hides that was only referred to in one episode of the show, a free gesture to true fans that’s a notch above just relabelling dollar-bin Chinese lager as Duff. I suck one dry as he marks off the page’s accomplishments. “We were the first – before Rock Bottom, before Can I Borrow A Feeling?, before all of those. It just grew and grew. I don’t actually do the posting now – I take more of a role doing a business end of things role.”
They’ve got seven administrators doing the basic work of hitting “post”, plus a graphic designer (that’s Mindy/Myra). More than any other page on the Internet, Simpsons Best Moments does what it says on the tin since August 2011, serving up a reliable seven-day cycle of captions, pictures, and 15-second videos from the show.
This is a more impressive achievement than it sounds – in the late ’90s, Fox, who own The Simpsons and all the content that sails under it, welcomed the advent of the web by sending lawyers’ letters to anyone who so much as put up a screengrab or “D’oh” .WAV file. Nowadays, they have a sense of relative priority, meaning that Jarryd and his mates have been able to turn their fanatical verbatim-quoting Simpsons obsession into a cottage industry.
“We try to run it reasonably professionally,” he explains. I express my admiration that the page avoids posting the same joke twice in a week, that it’s quick on the ball enough to commemorate vital global events like the 2014 World Cup and George Bush Sr’s birthday with the right gag. “There’s a spreadsheet for the coming week, a record of what episode we’ve referenced last to keep track of. There’s standards you’ve gotta uphold.”
Jarryd had been working up in Gladstone, a Queensland mining town, and began involved in the Greatest Moments page after being kept off work by an injury, breathing endless hours of boredom and comfort television. “I was a pretty active contributor, and before long I got asked to come on board properly. My mate Nick ]a stoic, lanky Stonecutter who is anxiously spinning the event’s many plates as I arrive] is connected in the Brisbane nightlife, and so his efforts were very valuable in getting the first quiz happening up there.”
It’s more than your typical quiz, that’s for sure. Apart from the Red Ticks, the bar is doing a suppurating, exhausting Ribwich burger which threatens to turn my table transparent when I let it sit and ooze too long. The group admins – they’re almost all here, complete strangers who give me untold office-job joy each day and will never know it – are distributing ancient-looking Simpsons merch.
Plush Barts for your windshields, slightly warped Marge figurines. Not too long ago, Jarryd tells me, he found a man selling a entire house full of unsold products on Gumtree. “He wanted $600 for the whole lot. He came down to $400 really quickly when we explained who we were and what we were doing.”
I didn’t come to compete, but Jarryd suggests I add what I can to an undersized team. The JBs are Chloe and Jacob – both originally from Bendigo, one-time veterans of entertainment retail. They traveled over a hundred kilometres just to be bailed on by teammates.
They’re bearish about their knowledge and their chances. I am too, to be honest – I can quote the show and endlessly rewatch it, sure. But have I ever watched it on freeze-frame? Could I name every character that appears in the original title sequence, or every celebrity in Kent Brockman’s “The Following People Are Gay” list?
Abandoning the rote “how are you finding Melbourne?” small talk, Chloe, Jacob and I slip into a fluid banter that’s just Simpsons quotes, a sort of quickdraw identifier of a true fan. But I still fear we’re a bit like a good social team cast into the world of professional sport. Well-meaning amateurs go all the way in the movies – in life, as on The Simpsons, things tend to be a bit more anticlimactic.
There’s one sliver of hope, though. The quiz, like the page, confines itself dogmatically to Seasons 1-10 or so of the series. Because if there’s one thing about Simpsons fans that holds true, it’s that we’re the most eschatological motherfuckers out, up there with classical music purists and the global left.
All the good times – several years of television that have produced the highest strike rate of laugh-out-loud jokes of anything, anywhere, ever – are constantly cast in the shadow of the show that continued afterward. Get up to speed and you might get surprised – bad Simpsons seemed like a disappointing epilogue to a phenomenal show a few years ago. South Park had picked up the satirical ruthlessness it had lost and amped it to 11, Family Guy had replicated its entire structure and padded it out with weak fratboy humour and lazy pop-culture references.
Now, you’ll find two-thirds of The Simpsons’ total output is sewage. Today, it’s essentially defined by and collaborating with its unfunniest rival. “What do you think of… Family Guy?” Chloe asks me after a while. I can’t feign diplomatic journalistic calm. “Fuck that show.” There’s a relief, a sense of shared understanding among us.
As I hold my Ribwich down, the quiz begins. Jarryd and Nick recline across a threadbare red living-room couch, surrounded by pitchers of beer, Simpsons toys, and an Encyclopedia Britannica-sized bound episode guide. We get three rounds – part esoteria (what is the first name of Lisa’s teacher, Ms Hoover?), part brief video clips we have to scramble to memorise the main details of, part lightning rounds on a particular character or topic.
Some of the stuff is easy: what’s Homer’s greatest fear? Sock puppets! What’s the name of the brothel Bart starts working at? La Maison Derriere! As per, the real danger isn’t “will I get it”, but “will I blurt it out in loud tone-deaf excitement in earshot of our competitors”? (“I don’t have an inside voice.”) Jacob is assiduously decent when I just look blank, and reaches for the sheet to quietly scrawl something down that seems too leftfield to be wrong.
Elsewhere, we feel the game get away on us. What was the name of the fast food joint Homer worked at when Marge was pregnant with Bart? We put Krusty Burger, and it’s a feeble answer that mocks us from the page as we just try to keep up. Who were the three nerds Homer dormed with when he went back to college? (They’re Benjamin, Doug and Gary – not funny, not memorable, not what anyone should remember from a half-hour sitcom aired in 1993 – until half the room cheers when the answer’s read out).
Most sports, most pub quizzes, you can wait to strike back – for your opponent to lose energy or be forced to answer a round of geography questions. Here, the competitors are faster, better and just plain geekier.
The tension is getting to everyone. One of those lightning rounds we have to wing is on Hank Scorpio, Albert Brooks’ tour de force Bond villain pastiche in best-episode-ever contender “You Only Move Twice”. Two of the questions devolve into floor-clearing, impassioned challenges, athletes visibly flustered that the quizmasters have remembered the episode incorrectly.
“You claim that the correct answer to question 18 – what do Hank and Homer have a conversation about on his first day at work? – is ‘hammocks’,” a challenger cries, trying to be heard over the din of jeers and his own team’s cheers. “That’s simply wrong. The hammock discussion is in a later scene. On the first… on the first day, there’s a discussion about Homer’s dream of owning the Dallas Cowboys!” Assured that both answers will be valid, a yay/nay is put to the seething mob. There’s only one solitary, meek voice saying ‘nay’. “Who keeps saying that?”
My team have to start their long trek home any moment. I hardly knew ‘em, but it’s past 10pm, and I’m going to be the last man standing. We all rack our brains to name every last MLB guest voice from “Homer At The Bat”, 1992’s baseball caper (it’s a masterpiece if you haven’t seen it recently – a high-water mark for the show treating pop culture as its playground and backing the intertextual wildness of its early writers). Then they’re gone, and I’m alone.
The lights dim one more time before the top three scores are read out. “I wanted to do something a little special,” Jarryd explains, hoarse and flush, umpteen beers down, “so thanks for bearing with me.”
The cyclorama displays a picture of a dapper-looking dude, in the ’60s, in his prime. “This is Milton Hasenkam. A very suave guy, and a very great grandpa right to the end. He passed away a few days ago, and it was his funeral today. So, I thought I’d do a bit of a tribute for Grampas in general.” And we get one. It’s Jarryd’s edited highlight reel of the finest moments of Grampa Simpson – senile, braying, not always particularly flattering.
It’s meant with love, though. When I catch up with him after the quiz, Jarryd expresses his regret at missing the funeral. “My family and friends have been aware of the page for some time now , and they understood that I was so heavily invested in the event now that to throw it away wasn’t an option. I told him before he passed that I was going to Melbourne for this event, and he was proud I’d organised something this big. He was a strong believer in hard work. He’d probably have woken up if he I knew I skipped a day’s work for him.”
And besides – The Simpsons is a form of tidy emotional and conversational shorthand now for untold millions. It doesn’t matter that Jarryd played cartoons of an old man rambling about an onion on his belt and bellowing for Matlock. Abraham Simpson is Grampa, insofar as he signifies grandfathers, old people in general, their stories, the way we forget them.
I remember how I’ve had two completely separate conversations about the phone ringing while you’re in the shower in my life, and each time someone’s said, apropos of nothing, “You’ll have to speak up, I’m wearing a towel”. Or every other time I’ve encountered the word “Idaho” in the wild, at which point someone pipes up “I’m Idaho!” in their best Ralph Wiggum voice.
Other shows probably command enough of a following for pub quizzes, and they’re probably a lot more insular and depressing than this one was. The Simpsons is the only one that functions as an auxiliary language – because I realise I just spent three hours in two completely normal people’s completely pleasant company, and I couldn’t tell you a thing about them. We just reeled off great big swathes of the show the entire time.
The top three are read out to howls, and some very serious talk of people glancing at phones and cheating, but it’s too late. “Hoju” are third on 101.5 points, and “Purple Monkey Dishwasher” are second on 102. The winners, the B-Sharps, are a family team: a cop, his sister, his partner, her brother. They’re on an unassailable 109. The cop, Ian, had been preparing for this day for decades. “We used to travel a lot as kids,” he says simply. “We were in the back, with a book that was just an episode guide of the first eight seasons.”
“I’d flip to a random page, and pick out an episode,” his sister explains. “Then we’d take turns reciting the entire show, line by line, from memory. It was just a way to pass the time.” As adults, sharing a flat, the team stalked the house belting out lines to each other, a call-and-response that never gets old.
Everyone piles out, so I get to take a look at the frantic working the organisers have left on stage, calculating scores in tiny scrawl between rounds. I’m interested to see just how well we did. The JBs (plus visitor from the Colony of New Zealand) placed an agonising fourth – 101 points, a mere 0.5 off the top three. I pour a Red Tick out for my departed comrades (yup, it’s undrinkable) and slink out.
A weird feeling of melancholy comes over me – maybe it’s my new glasses, or maybe I’m missing my old glasses. Or wondering if there’s anything, ever again – socially, culturally, professionally – that I’ll know inside and out like this, that I’ll have somehow stayed immersed in after all these years.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.