The Simpsons is known for some surprisingly accurate predictions. In 1994, the Fox show predicted a 2013 incident in which horse meat was found in burgers. In 1997, The Simpsons predicted the 2014 ebola outbreak. And, perhaps most famously, in 2000, it showed a future under President Donald Trump.
Some have called it time travel. Others may call it coincidence. But after speaking to a former Simpsons co-executive producer, a statistician and a math professor, we’ve identified a few elements that made it possible for series to produce so many great calls about the dystopian hellscape we live in today.
1. The Simpsons has a massive collection of jokes — and thus more chances to be right.
The Simpsons has been on the air since 1989, and there have been more than 600 episodes so far. That volume of content alone has made the show more likely to make a bunch of correct predictions.
“We’ve made a zillion episodes of television, and so that’s a lot of at-bats, a lot of opportunity to make predictions,” Daniel Chun, former co-executive producer of The Simpsons, said in a phone call. “I don’t think anyone is talking about the predictions that The Simpsons has gotten wrong, but the list is many times longer than the stuff that they’ve gotten right.”
Just how many predictions has the show made overall?
Matt Zaremsky, an assistant math professor at the University of Albany, estimated that the show has made about 120,000 jokes in its 29-season run, assuming the show has kept up its pace of 8.54 jokes a minute from the first 12 seasons.
Zaremsky added up about 1,224 “explicit predictions about the future” on The Simpsons. “From the future-based episodes, I estimate 500 total. And from the regular episodes, I estimate about one per episode; that’s 624.” Out of all these, “people seem to think between 10 and 20” came true. “So let’s say 20 out of the 1,224. That is roughly a 1.6% success rate.”
“Statistics says The Simpsons just had so many jokes and so many predictions that essentially they got lucky,” Zaremsky said.
2. People are pretty generous with the word “prediction.”
Countless articles and videos have laid out successful Simpsons predictions. But some of these predictions aren’t necessarily shocking or specific to The Simpsons. Arguably, The Simpsons showing a phone on the wrist in a 1995 episode wasn’t all that original.
“The example … is that The Simpsons had something that looked much like an Apple Watch,” Gary Simon, a retired professor of statistics at New York University Stern School of Business, said in a Skype call. “Well, you know, a communications device on the wrist goes back to Dick Tracy, and the features on the Apple Watch are not going to match exactly the features that The Simpsons would have had on the watch. You have to decide whether that’s an effective prediction or not,” Simon said.
3. It’s a cartoon comedy set in the present.
Because The Simpsons is a cartoon, writers can put any real-life celebrities in the episodes they want. The writers can also create different realistic predictions because it takes place in a present-day reality very close to our own.
“A cartoon show can do more predicting about the future than some staged TV drama, certainly dramas set up in the past,” Simon said. He compared it to the period drama Downton Abbey, which is set in the early 20th century. That show could never make a prediction about the future, obviously, because it’s set in the past.
In general, comedy programs are written in a way that viewers tend to find more realistic, Chun explained. Many doctors say the comedy Scrubs is a more realistic view of life in a hospital than the drama ER, he said.
When writing a scripted drama, the writers are often “trying to be principled and depicting a society that really abides by morals and where everyone’s very serious and has a lot of integrity and acts on their integrity all the time,” Chun said.
4. Simpsons writers have always been cynical. It’s paid off.
“There happens to be a comic worldview that The Simpsons writers share, and there’s a couple of guiding principles or philosophies behind that,” Chun said.
What are those guiding principles? “People are greedy, corporations are terrible and they have a tendency to ruin everything but they are also incredibly lame,” Chun said. “Corruption is rampant and society as a whole has the memory of a goldfish.”
So as long as people keep being greedy and corporations keep being corrupt, The Simpsons’ predictions might end up coming true forever.