'Simpsons' Writer Calls Perversion of Classic Episode During Coronavirus Outbreak "Gross"

"I don't like it being used for nefarious purposes," Bill Oakley tells The Hollywood Reporter.
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'The Simpsons'

While The Simpsons seems to make headlines on a regular basis for seemingly predicting the future, the recent perversion of one classic episode by Internet trolls is both "terrible" and "gross," the episode writer says. 

On May 6, 1993, the episode titled "Marge in Chains" aired. The 24th episode of the fourth season of the iconic Fox cartoon revolved around an exhausted Marge Simpson getting arrested for accidentally shoplifting while she is getting supplies for her sick family, who all have the "Osaka Flu." The episode opens in Japan where an ill factory worker coughs into boxes which are to be used to ship a popular juicer everyone in Springfield orders. The town — six to eight weeks later, for shipping and delivery — then becomes ill. 

Episode co-writer Bill Oakley told The Hollywood Reporter that he has not thought about the previously innocuous episode for years. That is, not until he began to see memes online with "Osaka Flu" replaced with "Coronavirus," the pandemic that has spread around the world, causing mass panic. In addition, internet trolls have used the episode for racist propaganda in response to the coronavirus outbreak. 

"I don't like it being used for nefarious purposes," Oakley told THR of "Marge in Chains," which he wrote with Josh Weinstein. "The idea that anyone misappropriates it to make coronavirus seem like an Asian plot is terrible. In terms of trying to place blame on Asia — I think that is gross." 

Oakley and Weinstein were charged with writing the episode by longtime showrunner Al Jean. The main idea was for Marge to be arrested and jailed, but how she got to that point was up to the guys, Oakley explains. 

"I believe the most antecedent to [Osaka Flu] was the Hong Kong flu of 1968," Oakley says, adding he was aware of that flu from news headlines during childhood. "It was just supposed to be a quick joke about how the flu got here."

He continues, "It was meant to be absurd that someone could cough into a box and the virus would survive for six to eight weeks in the box. It is cartoonish. We intentionally made it cartoonish because we wanted it to be silly and not scary, and not carry any of these bad associations along with it, which is why the virus itself was acting like a cartoon character and behaving in extremely unrealistic ways." (At one point, one cloud of the virus waits at a red light when another cloud goes down the street with a green light.)

The Simpsons gets too much credit for predicting the future, Oakley argues, even when it is funny — like Disney buying 20th Century Fox and smartwatches — but especially when the so-called claim is used for harmful purposes. 

"There are very few cases where The Simpsons predicted something," Oakley says. "It's mainly just coincidence because the episodes are so old that history repeats itself. Most of these episodes are based on things that happened in the '60s, '70s or '80s that we knew about." 

The Simpsons is currently in its 31st season. The entire library is available to stream on Disney+.