I try not to be a walking Simpsons encyclopedia in moments that don’t call for it; consequently, every moment of my life is an exercise in restraint. (Or subterfuge: if anyone asks me “Have you ever seen [X]?” I secretly relish the opportunity to reply, “Yes, once!”) But today, there is an article on the internet where I am free and encouraged to let my Homer-quoting flag fly. Brian VanHooker at MEL Magazine has provided devotees with an oral history of “Steamed Hams”, three minutes of Simpsons ephemera that has been meme’d, reimagined, and replayed so much across the last quarter century that the clip’s origins as a one-off season 7 gag have been eclipsed by the pop cultural legend it’s become. For the uninitiated, here’s the exceptional excerpt known as Steamed Hams.
According to Bill Oakley, writer of the famed sketch and a Simpsons showrunner from 1995-1997, “Steamed Hams” took years to catch on as an internet darling. But once it did, it was like wildfire. The clip spent a decade percolating as a growing in-joke among people who purchased whole seasons of Simpsons DVDs in (much-loathed) character-shaped novelty boxes, and phrases like “Not in Utica, no—it’s an Albany expression!” gained traction as the shared vernacular of a particular stripe of geekdom. Eventually, “Steamed Hams” became a canvas for the creative and technologically savvy: There were clips of the sketch repeated 10 times, reimagined by different animators, hammered into music videos, you name it. (And the oral history names a lot more.) VanHooker consults the creators of various Simpsons fansites and the experts at KnowYourMeme, as well as everyone from astrophysicists to personal trainers, to trace the history of this ultra-slow-burning cultural phenomenon.
“I’m delighted that people actually did think the sketch was funny, because it took me approximately 20 years to find out that people liked it,” says Oakley, who clarifies that he loves all the remixes and memeifications of his original sketch. “It pushes that nostalgia buzzer... It’s become like a code word for Simpsons fans that then snowballed and fed upon itself and became a microcosm of Simpsons nostalgia.”
Read the entire winding oral history here, and remember to practice caution around the Northern Lights.