How The Simpsons Wrecked Ralph Wiggum
The rise and fall of a Valentine’s Day hero, and the sad demise of a classic TV comedy – we look at the downfall of The Simpsons and Ralph Wiggum
Poor Ralph Wiggum. He sits at the back of the class munching on crayons. His teacher has no time for him. Miss Hoover is as blunt as the scissors Ralph isn't allowed to use: "The children are right to laugh at you Ralph."
Broadcast 28 years ago, The Simpsons' I Love Lisa (1993) remains a peerless episode of comedy.
The story pairs Lisa Simpson – gifted, conscientious, kind – with Ralph, floundering in his absent-mind.
But this is no opposites attract rom-com. This is The Simpsons in bloom. Irreverent and subversive, the show's take on Valentine’s is instead about unrequited love. It's an episode that reaches a crescendo as level-headed Lisa explodes at her unwanted admirer while they're sat in the audience at Krusty the Clown’s anniversary show. And Ralph, navigating emotions he doesn't understand, has his heart ripped in half, live on prime-time TV.
The story, animation and voice acting conspire to make this one of the most hysterical sequences in sitcom. The absurd tragedy of the moment – Ralph's hurt and humiliation – only elevates him from oblivious dunce to an archetypal figure. Have you ever liked someone who didn't like you back? We're all Ralph Wiggum.
And Ralph Wiggum is someone to be. He spends the rest of I Love Lisa channeling his hurt into performance in the school play. Later he shows the rare maturity to respect and value the friendship of someone who didn't reciprocate his feelings. How many guys can do that? Unrequited love doesn't have to be so hard.
Ralph's appeal as a character soared after this breakthrough episode. His innocence and befuddled nature gave him some of the most memorable lines during The Simpsons' heyday: "Me fail English? That's unpossible."
He became something like a mascot. In The Simpsons Movie (2007), Ralph is the first character on screen, emerging from the 20th Century Fox logo before the feature starts. Promoting the film at the San Diego Comic Con, the show's creator Matt Groening named Ralph as his favourite character.
But while The Simpsons is the most-watched show on Disney Plus, it remains haunted by its former genius. The sitcom's evergreen and global reach means it's lumbered on and on. The inevitable downturn in quality has lasted two decades longer than its finest years.
Theories abound about why the best comedy on television went bad. Now in its 32nd season, The Simpsons has over 20 years' worth of problems to debate – an endless autopsy on a patient who isn’t dead. From Homer's personality changes to technical gaffes on streaming platforms, it's an intimidating discussion to enter if you don’t know your 'Jerkass' from your aspect ratio.
Some of The Simpsons' flaws stem from being a long-running show for the longest time, running out of plausible stories and ideas for its characters.
Sitcoms rely on stories starting anew from one episode to the next. It's why Bart Simpson has been ten since 1989, why Lisa can't keep a new friend, why Marge Simpson endures her reckless and impulsive husband, Homer. Over time, this stasis leaves fans and writers in perpetual frustration. Part of us wants the wisdom Homer gains one week to be permanent; another knows permanent wisdom would make Homer a snooze.
With our favourite characters unable to grow they instead regress into caricature. This is what has become of our Valentine's hero Ralph Wiggum. In addition, there's a lot of anaemic jokes that no-one seems to have thought through or made funny.
Ralph's role is usually restricted to comic relief, and as time goes on his one-liners become less integral to his character. Sometimes he sounds more like Forrest Gump: "Lies are like stars – they always come out." Other lines do capture something of Ralph: "Do alligators alligate?" Nice. But this wordplay is more of a literary device than a joke.
More troubling is an obsession with Ralph's toilet training. The examples are too many, too lame, to recount. But it gets uncomfortable: "I was so a-scared sour juice came out of my front tail." Grim.
This infantilised version of Ralph invites us to laugh for all the wrong reasons. His implied learning disabilities become a cruel punchline. It's not that comedy can’t be cruel – Ralph’s public heartbreak in I Love Lisa elicits the kind of laughter that makes your body shake. But the nuance The Simpsons has lost is that we didn't used to laugh at Ralph Wiggum. He wasn’t our target. What was special about Ralph was that he helped us laugh at ourselves.
The Simpsons seasons 1-31 are available to stream on Disney Plus; select episodes stream on All4