It All Started with the Simpsons

A computationally generated compilation of references through animated shows.

The Simpsons on the iconic couch, overlaid by a network graph of yellow circles and white lines.

“It All Started with the Simpsons” is a remix video essay that journeys through references in animated shows to explore The Simpsons as a cornerstone of pop culture.

This project was inspired by a larger research project I’m pursuing, which aims to computationally identify references in transcripts and subtitles. I was intrigued by the YouTube channel Tv References, where a dedicated fan compiles pop culture references in media. I used youtube-dl to download every video from Tv References (up to date as of around May 7, 2020) and wrote a Python script that uses NetworkX to create a visual chart of animated TV shows that acknowledge, shun, or pay homage to each other through references. Borrowing Mike Calabro’s spoken essay on NowThis Nerd about The Simpsons’ “reference revolution” as a thematic guide, I used ffmpeg to sequence referentially consecutive clips, then overlaid an Illustrator-edited and After Effects–animated graph atop to guide the viewer through the journey.

I am fascinated with how creators care about media and pop culture, consciously and unconsciously incorporating their influences into their work and thus constantly contributing to a rich web of interwoven cultural production. Additionally, I hadn’t watched many of these shows before, but I have now had the chance to watch many video compilations and episode highlights of these celebrated cultural artifacts and my interest has been piqued—I feel inspired to devote more time to learning about and watching some of these shows.

Memo note with scribbled diagram
First diagram sketch: linear with lines looping back in the timeline
Memo note with scribbled diagram
Second diagram sketch: radial shape with lines looping back to the centre
Network graph
Initial network graph
Network graph
Network graph with variable circle sizes and line widths
Network graph
Network graph with lines annotated with their weight numbers
Network graph
Network graph with some more data
Network graph
Network graph, styled with type and colour
Network graph
Styled network graph with no overlapping lines