How Bob’s Burgers can stay fresh longer than The Simpsons did
This author winced for one or two seconds while watching this year’s Easter episode of Bob’s Burgers. Linda dangled five toes over the line when she spent multiple sentences referencing Kelly Ripa.
It was not the first time a present-day real-life figure has received a mention on the ordinarily wholly-separate-universe Fox animated sitcom. But Linda had brought up a seasoned, contemporary morning talk-show host. As such, it put the program in a perilous position to date its setting, thereby nudging its appeal closer to a hard expiration date.
Thankfully, for the series’ sake, such references have been few and far between through seven seasons. In the same vein, it is vital to note that the defining animated series of another decade, The Simpsons, hit its peak of quality around the same mark of its run.
For the latter’s seventh and eighth seasons and their neighbors (but especially their predecessors), once solid has long proven always solid. But everything that has followed in its 28 years as a standalone series looks like a piteous reboot.
Save for steadfast loyalists, it is hard to imagine many viewers sustaining their appetite when Homer and Marge’s teenhood flashbacks are taking place in years where they were once supposed to exist with their three children.
Part of the problem was that, while no sitcom stays fresh forever, The Simpsons set itself up to go dry a little sooner than it needed to. The practice of placing a given episode in its real-world production era and depicting, if not enlisting, celebrity guests had that side effect.
No level-headed fan would trade in “Homer at the Bat,” “Krusty Gets Kancelled,” “$pringfield” or “The Springfield Files.” But by the time of “When You Dish Upon a Star,” “Beyond Blunderdome” and “Treehouse of Horror X,” the reliance on guest stars had strung out.
So too had the show’s ability to generate top-shelf material. Real-world figures were becoming more integral to plots more often, so much so that a person’s name and Simpsonized likeness were the hook on the promos for the premiere.
To its credit, the show realized that there is no turning back. And it has obviously fed enough fans to sustain demand, and therefore sustain itself through this year and beyond. But it has long lost, and will never recover, the soul of the ’90s that will always define its best era.
Bob’s Burgers — which quickly burgeoned as the clear-cut animated network sitcom of the 2010s after Family Guy, American Dad! and King of the Hill erratically tried to match The Simpsons’ ceiling during the ’00s — can learn and stave off the slide for longer. It can assert itself right into the 2020s by quitting the contemporary allusions while it is ahead.
To date, no voice artists or other real-life figures have appeared as themselves in the Belchers’ universe. But plenty of A-listers have offered their talents to one or more recurring characters. Kevin Kline, Megan Mullally, Sarah Silverman, Bill Hader and several others are doing for Bob’s Burgers what Kelsey Grammer, Joe Mantegna and the late Phil Hartman did for The Simpsons.
So far, the onscreen celebrities have been perfectly fictitious and have made their claims to fame in perfectly ambiguous eras. The Simpsons may have hit its stride by rolling out a lineup of nine Hall of Fame-worthy (minus the steroids) Major Leaguers in their prime during the third season. But Bob’s Burgers closed out its partial first season with an episode featuring the fabricated Torpedo Jones, whose moment of glory is supposed to have simply occurred “15 years ago,” as Bob fondly reflects.
For that show, that approach with do. If one is going to keep the tradition of never-aging cartoon characters while expecting to prolong the series for a decade or more, then no calendar years should exist either. And real-life entities may enter the equation on the condition that they are completed before the show’s time.
Perfect example: Season 2’s “Moodie Foodie,” which contained references to Borat and Tin Cup, the latter including an impersonated voice of Kevin Costner. Both films were released and had faded from the central sunlight before Bob’s Burgers saw any light. The same goes for “when Shelley Long left Cheers,” a development Gene mentions in passing more than a quarter-century after the fact. And who can forget the Die Hard musical clash with Working Girl?
Historical references. That is the key. That is the where the boundary sits.
Stay within that boundary, and the show will remain mainstream television’s purest form of escapism. For a program of Bob’s Burgers’ ilk, there is no stronger preservative than that status.
And maybe the most encouraging news is Live!’s recent renewal through at least 2020. Provided Ripa is still hosting or co-hosting, Linda’s torch-juggling stunt can leave everyone unscathed going into the next decade.