Archives on TV: The Simpsons, "Sideshow Bob Roberts"
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
It's an election year and, wouldn't you know it, The Simpsons has an episode from its first Golden Era - 1994, to be exact - that is absolutely applicable to the current political situation we find here in the United States in the year of our Lord 2020.
Huh. Weird, right? Not really. No.
I was but 10 years old when "Sideshow Bob Roberts" aired on television, so a lot of the political humor went over my head. As an adult, however, I can much better appreciate the satire and pop culture influences of the episode. I do think the best political satire was the "Citizen Kang" segment of "Treehouse of Horror VII" back in good ol' 1996! In this house, we vote Kodos!
But that's not the point. The point is voter fraud within the microcosm that is the town of Springfield, USA. In yet another stunning return, Sideshow Bob (Kelsey Grammer) calls into conservative radio host Birch Barlow's (a Rush Limbaugh stand-in) show to complain about being unfairly imprisoned for attempted murder. Barlow encourages the townsfolk to pressure Mayor Quimby into releasing Bob, which happens because Quimby is an easily manipulated elected official. Upon his release, Bob is recruited by the Springfield Republican Party to run against Quimby to become Mayor. Bob does so and wins. It isn't until Bart and Lisa start investigating the voter rolls that they discover the dead citizens and pets of Springfield managed to vote for Bob. The charmingly egotistical genius is tricked into confessing to voter fraud and is once again imprisoned as the town returns to its status quo.
True to form, The Simpsons' writers don't hold back in their depiction of the Republican Party, but neither do they slouch on criticizing Democrats. Springfield's Republicans may have their terrifying headquarters atop a freaky lightning struck and clearly evil mountain, but the resident Democratic mayor is still corrupt and ineffectual. Quimby's just a benign public official that Springfieldians comfortably tolerate. Sounds familiar.
Bob even makes a point of producing his own evidence showing Quimby's corruption as his justification for stealing the election in the first place.
Your guilty conscience may force you to vote Democratic, but deep down inside you secretly long for a cold-hearted Republican to lower taxes, brutalize criminals, and rule you like a king. That's why I did this: to protect you from yourselves. - Sideshow Bob
The discovery of the voter fraud scandal, however, is contingent on Lisa and Bart's diligence in searching through the Hall of Records. Though they get a push in the right direction from Smithers, it's the relentless nature of the Simpson siblings that brings Sideshow Bob to justice yet again. Of course, it wouldn't be The Simpsons if the writers didn't get their digs in, no matter what the building or its importance.
Yep, we get it, the Hall of Records is a boring place to be unless you're a history nerd. Well joke's on you because I am a history nerd and I think the Hall of Records sounds fascinating! It's also the most important place in the city if you want to prove that Republicans are stealing your elections!
Not that we have to worry about that right now. Oh, wait...
There's an argument to be made here that the use of records as evidence is more performative than it is revelatory. Lisa and Bart have proof of voter fraud, but Bob has proof of corruption. In the end, nothing changes. Bob's back in prison, albeit a low-security prison, and Quimby's still the mayor. I'm not sure if that was the intention of the writers at the time, but it's a bit of a gut punch on my end as an archivist and records manager. The records are there, they've served their purpose, but the world is no better or worse for it.
It just is. Welcome to my existential crisis.
Also, vote as early as you can and support the Post Office for the love of all that is holy in this world!