Cartoonists like Matt Groening have made it big through cartoons like “The Simpsons.” Mark I. Pinsky has found fame not be creating a cartoon, but by writing about them. Pinsky is an investigative journalist who has spent a large chunk of his writing career delving deeply into the connection between religion and animated entertainment. More specifically, Pinsky has been made famous for his publication of two books: One that focuses on religious depiction in the television series, “The Simpsons.” The other is an analysis of religious themes in Disney animated movies.
Coming to Seattle for the first time since he was youngster in United Synagogue Youth back in the ’60s, Pinsky will discuss his book “The Gospel According to The Simpsons” at the Stroum Jewish Community Center on Sunday, May 4. As part of the SJCC’s Jewish Touch series, Pinsky will talk primarily about how Jews and Judaism are represented in one part of popular culture: Television sitcoms.
Back in 2001, Pinsky released the first edition of “The Gospel According to The Simpsons,” which was so popular that he rereleased the book in 2006 with additional analysis based on new animated series that had modeled their episodic layout after the Simpsons.
“Primetime sitcoms in American television history stayed away from religion in its earlier years,” says Pinsky. “Advertisers were afraid if you put religion in it would alienate and marginalize viewers; there was no real upside for the ratings. They also felt that if they put religion in the shows [religion] would be watered down and would not appeal to religious viewers.”
When “The Simpsons” first aired in December 1989, Pinsky’s children, then 8 and 11, expressed interest in watching the “adult” cartoon that had a prime time slot on FOX. Skeptical, he allowed them to watch with him and told them he would turn off the TV if he deemed anything inappropriate. Instead, the level of sophistication in the writing surprised him, and he noticed something unique and groundbreaking: The writers incorporated religion in an intelligent, socially comical way that he had never before seen done.
“The writers began incorporating religion into the show more and more,” says Pinsky. “It simply is an element, not focused on religion all the time. But there are a couple of episodes that focus specifically on religion.”
The writers would introduce non-majority faiths into the show and then incorporate them into the series’ fabric.
“It’s a part of their cosmos,” he says.
In the case of “The Simpsons,” Pinsky explored the introduction of the character of Krusty the Clown, his religious struggle and affiliation with Judaism that was the focus of one episode, and from there became a part of the show’s landscape.
The second Jewish episode, which Pinsky describes as not only intelligent, but also revolutionary, was show’s annual Halloween episode, which one year dedicated a segment to the lore of the golem.
“The episode was really well written and clever,” Pinsky says. “It really knocked my socks off that they were able to do this. They really kicked in the door for making it okay to talk about religion in a funny way in an animated television show. “
Pinsky revisits some of his previous assertions in his 2006 re-release, this time focusing on newer animated sitcoms such as “Family Guy,” “King of the Hill,” “American Dad,” and “South Park.”
“By the time you get to ‘South Park,’ you’re getting into some more heavy considerations of what Judaism in America is about,” Pinsky says. “The episode ‘South Park’ did about Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ was very critical and really analyzed the issues involved in a sophisticated way.”
At Pinsky’s May 4 presentation, he plans to discuss some of the ways in which both “The Simpsons” paved the way for positively weaving religion into mainstream television and how other shows have sometimes missed the mark. He will also discuss some of the observations he makes in his second book, “The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust and Pixie Dust.” In this book, Pinsky explores many popular Disney films, as well as some of the more political aspects of the conglomerate, such as the 1990s boycott of Disney by the Southern Baptist Convention and the role that figureheads like Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg played in the resurgence of the company since the mid-1980s.