Tompkins grew up Episcopalian in an upscale Massachusetts town, attending the same church as the novelist John Updike. He remembers a childhood of watching Davey & Goliath, an early animated show produced by Lutherans, before leaving for church on Sunday mornings. Tompkins drifted from faith in his 20s. Tompkins had what he calls a "reconversion experience" while writing for The Simpsons, though he emphasizes it was unrelated to his work.
Tompkins showed clips from Simpsons episodes when he spoke as part of Fuller Theological Seminary's Reel Spirituality series last fall. His topic: "Does God Have a Sense of Humor?" Writing for Homer, Marge, Bart, and Lisa was a challenge. "There were some rabid atheists at The Simpsons," he says, but "no matter how twisted the story, no matter how profane the jokes, goodness wins, goodness prevails. No matter how much those writers pride themselves as being atheists, probably deep down they're not.
"At The Simpsons you are reined in," he says. "You can't stick your neck out and do anything that's overtly religious on its face. You must undercut it. There's a gag reflex in comedy writers to undercut any honest religious sentiment. It is easier to pass a camel through the eye of a needle than it is to make a comedy writer quote Scripture with a straight face."
The key, he says, is "respecting the faith of the characters because it's true to the characters. I think that's what's going on in the best moments of The Simpsons. … Marge's faith is respected because that is a huge part of who she is as a character. Homer has no faith, so we use him to tromp over Marge's faith, or whatever needs to be done comedically."
Tompkins worked on several Simpsons episodes that dealt with Christian faith, including "Hurricane Neddy," in which Ned has his faith tested in Job-inspired proportions. "There is a tremendous amount of affection for Ned" among the writers, he says.
Tompkins says he is a mostly secular writer. "I had no ax to grind at The Simpsons," he says. "I believe the quality of humor is in indirect proportion to one's true belief. … The more those beliefs are put in, the less funny it gets."
These days, Tompkins' greatest source of pride is The PJs, a prime-time Sunday show on the WB Network that he created with comedian Eddie Murphy. Tompkins says that including a spiritual dimension on The PJs presents a different challenge than on The Simpsons. The PJs focuses on the life of Thurgood Stubbs, an African American who works as a building superintendent in an inner-city housing project.
Last year Tompkins shepherded to the screen what he calls "the most manifestly Christian episode that has aired in television history." It was inspired by a screening of Robert Duvall's feature film, The Apostle, at an earlier event in the Reel Spirituality series. What the comedy writer had in mind for Thurgood, a rough-edged, occasionally profane man, was nothing less than a direct encounter with the divine, one in which "the character had faith and never questioned it."
Thurgood's encounter with God "wasn't a mistake," Tompkins says. "It was not a delusion from mixing Clorox bleach and ammonia. … I was going to give him a real conversion experience—born again. I didn't try to second-guess it or minimize it or undercut it. He saw God. He did not ask himself, 'Am I going crazy?' What he said was, 'I saw God. Now what do I do with it?'"
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See ChristianityToday's related stories "Saint Flanders | He's the evangelical next door on The Simpsons, and that's okily dokily among many believers" and "How Big is TheSimpsons? | The show's popularity goes beyond its 10th anniversary star on Hollywood Boulevard."
To learn more about The PJs, visit the WB's official site.
Tompkins and seven other top animation writers discussed their trade—including responses from religious viewers—for Written By.
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