Unless you’re off the grid, trapped in a cave and/or adamantly opposed to all forms of modern media, you’ve encountered the animated sitcom The Simpsons at some point during the last 20-plus years the show has run on both prime time network TV and in endless re-runs.
The always irreverent comedy created a litany of memorable characters, introduced indelible catch phrases (“Don’t have a cow, man!”) and logged a veritable who’s who of celebrity guest appearances on the show. The Simpsons parodied life in Middle America with razor-sharp humor embodied in the adventures of the residents of fictional Springfield, USA, which resulted in various episodes over the years sparking boycotts and bans in China, Brazil, Russia and Australia, among other countries.
The show’s success also spawned such spin-offs as comic books, paperbacks, video games, a full-length movie, even a Simpsons ride at Universal Studios’ theme parks in California and Florida.
For better or worse, The Simpsons has become embedded in the cultural landscape as few other TV shows ever managed to do.
The creative “face” of the franchise has always been Matt Groening, whose “Life in Hell” comic strip was the original inspiration for the characters who eventually morphed into Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa. He certainly was one of the principals behind the show’s launch, but another of the “unsung heroes” involved early on was television writer-producer Sam Simon, the co-creator who retained an executive producer title (and a lucrative share of the ongoing profits) even after he left the show in the mid-1990s.
For those who don’t regularly read The Hollywood Reporter (which recently ran an in-depth interview with him), the 58-year-old Simon is a Stanford University graduate who grew up in Beverly Hills and got into show business at a young age: At 24 he became the “showrunner”—basically, the head writer and production manager—on the hit sitcom Taxi. He eventually shared in nine Emmy Awards for The Simpsons, went on to direct The Drew Carey Show, among other TV projects, and acknowledged that he earns “tens of millions” annually from Simpsons royalties.
As a result, Simon set up a foundation a few years ago with an endowment of more than $23 million. Like The Simpsons show itself, there’s a lot to like—and a lot to criticize—about the causes he supports, such as:
- Training rescued dogs to serve as companions for veterans and the hearing impaired
- Distributing free vegan groceries to families in need
- Rescuing dogs from shelters
- Providing no-cost spay and neuter programs for dogs and cats
Of particular note is the program to provide service dogs trained for veterans who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The Sam Simon Foundation website notes that those dogs are “trained to provide companionships and assistance for vets who may suffer from hearing loss, traumatic brain injury and physical disabilities due to service-related injuries.”
In fact, if Simon’s causes stopped with the list above, I’d be sending him Christmas cards in gratitude for his good deeds.
The good, the bad, the shameless
Unfortunately, his other pet charities include PETA, which in February 2013 rewarded his ongoing generosity by naming its Norfolk, Va., headquarters The Sam Simon Center. Likewise, the controversial Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the self-styled “global marine conservation organization” founded by radical activist (and indicted fugitive) Paul Watson, re-named one of its ships the “M/Y Simon” in 2012 as payback for his significant monetary support.
Of course, any discussion about Simon’s activism is tempered by his revelation in May that he’s been diagnosed with terminal colon cancer, thus lending additional drama to his charitable legacy.
And don’t get me wrong: Philanthropy is a powerful and positive force for social improvement and a far cry from what many entertainment industry multi-millionaires do with their wealth. For even setting up a foundation dedicated to supporting causes he cares about, Simon is to be commended.
But he’s upfront about his true philanthropic passion.
“One of the things about animal rights is that your money can bring success,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “There is stuff happening [with that cause], really good stuff.”
Some of that “really good stuff” is anything but. For example, consider these quotes from his interview:
- “I want medical experiments on animals stopped. They don’t do anything, and they don’t work.” (Yeah, I wish the surgeon who performed my open-heart operation a few years ago had been prohibited from practicing on dogs or pigs and was restricted only to computer simulations.)
- “Veganism is an answer for almost every problem facing the world in terms of hunger and climate change.” (No, veganism is a luxury enjoyed by a small slice of the world’s most affluent consumers and solves neither the challenge of food security nor the threat of climate change.)
- “When people do Meatless Mondays, that’s a PETA victory.” (Hate to deflate your love affair, Mr. Simon, but Meatless Mondays is not a PETA promotion for which that bunch of shameless, money-grubbing self-promoters can take any credit whatsoever.)
I applaud Simon for his generosity, and although I can’t relate to what he must be facing with a terminal cancer diagnosis, I must say that setting up a foundation long before he became ill speaks to the integrity he brings to his charitable commitments.
I don’t regularly watch The Simpsons, but I don’t begrudge him earning millions off the show.
I only wish he could have chosen his causes with as much acumen as he brought to creating the entertainment phenomenon that provided him the wherewithal to become a philanthropist in the first place.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.