Man Who Set Himself on Fire at Trump Trial Believed Intricate ‘The Simpsons’ Conspiracy Theory

The man who set himself on fire outside Donald Trump’s trial in Manhattan, Max Azzarello, appears to have left behind a Substack, titled “The Ponzi Papers,” that points to a variety of interconnected conspiracy theories — including a complex one involving “The Simpsons.” He even cites specific episodes. Azzarello wrote that drawing attention to these ideas is why he decided to self-immolate on Friday.

Azzarello initially survived, but later died at the hospital.

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Among other allegations made in the manifesto of his final post, titled “I have set myself on fire outside the Trump Trial,” he argues that Harvard University is an organized crime front. He connects that with “The Simpsons” due to the large number of Harvard graduates used to staff the show’s writers’ room.

Azzarello wrote, “So I asked myself the question: If ‘The Simpsons’ served the interests of organized crime, how would it do so?”

The evidence he points to is that it presents “a dysfunctional family suffering from moral decay, a community incapable of solving its problems, a worker drone who slaves away for an evil billionaire and cathartic laughs for our poor collective circumstances.”

Few would argue that this is not, in fact, a somewhat accurate description of the show and the source of much of its humor. But citing criminal motivations as being the reason for the show’s approach isn’t something for which Azzarello seems interested in providing further evidence.

Showing that he at least knows how his ideas seem, he writes, “These claims sound like fantastical conspiracy theory, but they are not. They are proof of conspiracy.” He adds that once you learn in-depth about Ponzi schemes, “You will discover that our life is a lie.” Those concerns for his own state of mind go back as far as his first post from April 2023, in which he wrote, “You would do well to question my sanity, just as I have.”

Azzarello’s Substack includes photos of pamphlets he’d published to spread his ideas — the NYPD noted that Azzarello had thrown pamphlets out before lighting himself on fire. The pamphlet published online also includes a section titled “The Simpsons is Evil Brainwashing,” claiming the show is made for Harvard graduates to “serve their criminal interests through popular media.”

The alleged goal, Azzarello writes, is: “Tell us the American Dream is dead because we’re too oafish, divided and morally decayed while big business and government bleed us dry.”

In his manifesto, he calls out “post-truth America,” an idea which has been connected with former President Donald Trump, which may indicate part of why he chose the setting for lighting himself on fire that he did. His vast conspiracies also include many connected with Trump, as well as claims that the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are false distinctions, with those in power secretly working together.

Azzarello cites the inciting incident in his own “research” as being billionaire Peter Thiel’s involvement with a bank run on Silicon Valley Bank, which he found suspicious. He connects that with cryptocurrency, billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, COVID-19, pro wrestling and more. Azzarello mixes a handful of facts together while waving his hands at details that would support the conspiracy he alleges.

He describes cryptocurrency itself as a Ponzi scheme, which many mainstream observers would agree with, given its apparent lack of strong real-world applications. But Azzarello takes that further, claiming that the currency was “expressly created” to serve as a “planetary multi-trillion-dollar Ponzi scheme” and attributes it to rich and powerful people who graduated from or are otherwise connected with Stanford and — bringing us back to “The Simpsons” — Harvard.

The creator of cryptocurrency remains anonymous and unknown, but there has been little evidence to date connecting it with those whom Azzarello cites.

Azzarello spends a good portion of his note getting into specific episodes of “The Simpsons” — including “Marge vs. The Monorail” and “Lisa the Iconoclast.”

A man in a red jacket and bowtie sings loudly in front of a group of men singing in colorful vests, on stage.
Conan O’Brien as The Simpsons’ Lyle Lanley at the Hollywood Bowl (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

For the legendary monorail episode, notably written by Harvard grad and late-night icon Conan O’Brien, he points to the Simpsons’ town of Springfield falling prey to Lyle Lanley and his monorail scheme. Obsessed with the notion of Ponzi schemes, Azzarello labels Lanley’s scam “a bogus monorail Ponzi scheme.”

Ponzi schemes involve using the profits from later investors to pay back those who invested early, known to be a scheme that is difficult to sustain long-term. Lanley’s plan in the episode doesn’t appear to be a fit with the traditional interpretation of Ponzi schemes, as his plan involved taking money from towns but delivering shoddy, poorly staffed monorail systems.

Using his initial claim to justify this assertion, Azzarello writes, “When we know that the show is closely linked to an organization that invests billions of dollars in Ponzi factories, this becomes quite damning.” It’s unclear how making an audience aware of the danger of conmen would actually make them more susceptible to said scam artists.

In the other episode specifically cited, “Lisa the Iconoclast,” it is revealed that town founder Jebediah Springfield is another con artist, meaning the town’s people believe in a lie. Azzarello notes that when Lisa Simpson discovers this, she tries to get people to believe her, but fails to break through.

“Ultimately, she realizes the town is so far gone that perhaps it’s better for them to be lied to by con artists, and she keeps the secret to herself,” he writes.

At this point, he connects himself with Lisa, noting that he’s been trying to get friends, family and the wider public to believe his own theories. He writes that this all leads to “the criminal truth of ‘The Simpsons’: Our elites are telling us that our eroding collective circumstances are our own fault, and we can’t do anything about it, while they steal the American Dream from us. It is, for lack of a more elegant word, brainwashing.”

Despite his belief in these widespread conspiracies, he did not cite the Stonecutters “Homer the Great” episode of the show — which featured a secret cabal controlling our reality — in his writings.

Again, pointing out to people that there are problems does not seem like a particularly likely way to get them to accept those problems; to believe that there is nothing behind them and to keep them from doing anything to resist.

He goes on to connect other pop culture with the conspiracy, including “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening’s “Life Is Hell” comic strips (which he also cites while sharing these conspiracy theories on Instagram), The Beatles, movies including “Do the Right Thing” and “Chinatown” along with numerous others. He offers extreme conclusions from the messages of these works of art, as online users have noted on social media.

Azzarello previously wrote at further length about his “Simpsons”-related beliefs in a post published in November 2023 simply titled, “How ‘The Simpsons’ Brainwashed Us.” He delves into what he sees as secret messages in other episodes of the show, including “And Maggie Makes Three” and its grim plaque given by Mr. Burns to Homer Simpsons which reads, “Don’t forget: You’re here forever.” Azzarello admits that many see Homer putting photos of baby Maggie over the sign to change its message to “Do it for her” as deeply touching, but in Azzarello’s mind, this is merely a tool to convince viewers that they “have no choice but to work for evil billionaires for the rest of our lives. And what is our great resistance? We get to put pictures at our cubicles.”

He also connects this with the German slogan “work sets you free,” posted at Nazi concentration camps. Other episodes whose messages he sees as part of these conspiracies include “The Computer Wore Menace Shoes,” “The Simpsons Movie” and the online meme of “The Simpsons” predicting world events. In his pamphlet about his ideas, he also noted the repetition of “Lisa needs braces/Dental plan,” which he describes as a “common, well-known refrain” which he argues is being used to tell the broader public they need to worry about these things.

That post is dedicated to Phil Hartman and his wife Brynn — whose deaths he believes are yet another conspiracy.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988, text “STRENGTH” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 or go to

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