If you’re on the internet, you’ve seen the articles. YouTube videos, bargain basement listicles, and social media profiles all ring out with the same refrain: The Simpsons predicted this. Donald Trump’s election, the COVID-19 pandemic, 9/11, murder hornets, and even the explosion in Beirut are all fodder for the shittiest parts of the internet’s favorite content mills.
After 30 years and almost 700 episodes, The Simpsons has become a source of prophecy. It is, of course, all bullshit. When The Simpsons have gotten the future right, it’s only because the show was a razor sharp satire of American life that imagined the worst possible outcome for comedic effect. The Simpsons obviously didn’t have a magical ability to see the future. It’s just that there’s so much of it, people on the internet can splice frames of it together to tell whatever story they want. If it did accidentally predict anything, it’s because our reality is now stupid enough to resemble a cartoon satire of American life.
Like all good satire, The Simpsons held up a mirror. Audiences were scandalized when it premiered in 1989 and they understood that they were part of the joke. But they laughed and kept laughing. Thirty years later, little has changed and many of those early The Simpsons episodes still hit.
Bill Oakley was a writer and a showrunner on The Simpsons during what some fans consider the show’s prime, roughly seasons four through nine. Oakley keeps up with the growing lists of purported predictions and even has them broken down by category.
“Category one, which occurs extremely rarely, is legitimate things we did predict,” he told Motherboard in a Zoom call. “Category two is stuff that just happened in history that people are unaware of because history repeats itself. They aren’t predictions of any sort. Three is just complete bullshit which is usually when somebody pastes two or more old scenes, usually from different shows, together.”
The theory that The Simpsons predicted the Beirut explosion is a typical category three.
“The Beirut one was particularly egregious,” Oakley said. “It was from two different shows and it in no way predicted the Beirut explosion, it just predicted an explosion.”
Simpsons as prophecy has come in waves. The first real wave came after 9/11 when fans pointed out supposedly secret messages coded the first episode of season nine, “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson.” In a quick sight gag, Lisa holds up a magazine with a $9 fare to NYC. The $9 is next to Manhattan skyline and the Twin Towers.
But the articles about Simpsons predictions really took off when America elected Donald Trump the President of the United States. In a 2000 episode “Bart to the Future,” Lisa is President and she references the budget crunch she inherited from President Trump.
According to Oakley, this is the only category one prediction he credits.
“‘Always predict the worst, and you'll be hailed as a prophet,’” Oakley said, quoting his comedy hero musical satirist and math genius Tom Lehrer. “Back then, it played as a joke because people were like, ‘Oh, that’s preposterous.’ As [writer Dan Greaney] has said in the past, the reason he picked Trump is that it seemed like the logical last step before hitting rock bottom.”
And here we are at rock bottom.
According to Chris Turner, a journalist and author of Planet Simpson, an academic deep dive into The Simpsons satire and impact on pop culture, one of the reasons The Simpsons has become a source of prophecy is that it’s popular and there’s a lot of it. It’s the same with Nostradamus. The French prophet wrote a book of poetry called Les Prophéties where he vaguely predicted the near future and commented on current events. There’s so much of it and it’s so vague that Nostradamus’ name has become synonymous with prophecy. Every decade, people find new ways to explain how his work predicted their present.
“You have a show that’s been such an institution in western culture for the last 30 years now that it takes on an aspect of parables or Bible stories,” Turner said. “They are these stories that people just come back to again and again and again for new interpretations and new meanings. In the age of gifs and memes, there’s a ton of stuff there to be mined.”
“With almost 700 episodes, there’s an infinite amount of material to choose from,” Oakley said. “There’s probably nothing that you couldn’t say The Simpsons predicted.”
According to Turner, The Simpsons has always had two lives in pop culture. The first is as “this incredibly deep satire that calls out American culture on its excesses,” he said. “But there’s also always been a superficial layer.” The Simpsons was a huge success when it started airing in 1989. It was always a smart show, but it made headlines back then because it was also a crude show.
It may seem ridiculous now, but a 10-year-old boy telling his principal to “eat my shorts” struck some viewers as insidious and disgusting. In a People magazine interview, First Lady Barbara Bush said The Simpsons was the dumbest thing she’d ever seen. “If you weren’t an aficionado during the first four or five years, that was your understanding of the show,” Turner said. “It’s that show with the foul mouthed characters and the boy is unruly.” Turner said that the idea that The Simpsons can predict anything is drawn from this surface understanding of the show.
I loved watching The Simpsons as a kid, and I love rewatching it as an adult. What strikes me most about the show is not the hardline predictions it made, but how it’s dark satire of American culture still holds up. So many of the problems it identified are still problems today.
When Stampy the elephant rampaged through Springfield, he went through the GOP and Democratic conventions. “We want what’s worse for everyone, we’re just plain evil,” the signs in the GOP convention read while people cheer. “We hate life and ourselves, we can’t govern!” The democrat signs read while people boo. When the people of Springfield are faced with a choice between voting for two monstrous aliens, they still can’t break out of the two party system. “Don’t blame me, I voted for Kodos,” Homer said as a whip cracked into his back.
“The Simpsons is one of a number of examples of the limits of satire,” Turner said. “There’s a tendency to think that by pointing out how ridiculous a thing is, it will somehow fix it. A more extreme version of this is John Stewart and Stephen Colbet’s Rally to Restore Sanity.”
Using The Simpsons as divination is also fun. It helps people make sense of a chaotic world. It functions in the same way a good conspiracy does—picking through the tangled mess of modern life and putting it in order. Qanon isn’t that different. The people who follow Q do their “research” and sort through cultural detritus, images, news stories, and half remembered anecdotes to build a narrative that helps them make sense of the world. It’s funny, but it’s also disturbing that humans can connect the dots of disparate pieces to tell whatever story they want. The Simpsons is just a more visible, and more benign, version of this kind of thinking.
If The Simpsons was ever a warning or prophecy, it was a warning about trusting authority.
“There’s a certain segment of society, a very small segment, that read Mad Magazine or watched The Simpsons and got a point of view and developed a skepticism of what authority figures might say,” Oakley said. “There’s 80 percent who didn’t, never gave a shit, and didn’t pay attention to anything. And those people vote and now I’d say we’re paying the price.”