Back in those halcyon days when I had home-recorded VHS tapes and late-night cartoon marathons in lieu of summer jobs and print deadlines, my sister and I would exhaust each and every Simpsons videotape we owned, to the point where we could no longer attribute the loud wheezing of our long-abused VHS player to poor craftsmanship. Of course, my father, our Homer, who habitually joined us in our nonstop binge-watches, had no one to blame but himself.
We knew each joke by heart, every episode by its opening couch gag, and each film reference by instinct — even if we hadn’t yet seen the films they were referencing. Many young people of our age (millennials, as we’ve been unwillingly labelled) likely have similar stories of lazy Sunday pajama-clad Simpsons sprees.
Despite occasional maternal hand-wringing and the often over-our-heads political barbs, The Simpsons were my teacher, my mother, my secret lover. They taught me more about the nuances of family, culture, and society than public schooling or an emaciated prepubescent social life ever could.
Straight out of the gate, The Simpsons established an immutable presence in the pop culture of the era.
Twenty years and a dizzying dip in quality later, it’s become increasingly hard to think of a time when The Simpsons legitimately held claim to the title of the greatest TV show of all time. But those of us who grew up with Homer, Marge, Lisa, Bart, and Maggie remember how the show once blended self-aware humour, biting social commentary, and unashamed slapstick to make for one of the most well-realized explorations of the human condition this side of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
Occasionally, shades of the old Simpsons — the family my generation and my parents’ fell head over heels for — will shine through, but by and large, their glory days are far behind them. Thankfully, the show’s 25th anniversary this December inspired FXX to air the entire series in a blissful two-week marathon, introducing a new generation and reintroducing an older one to the glory days of primetime TV’s greatest achievement.
In honour of the show we grew up with, The Peak is taking a look back at the show’s beginnings, as well as its lingering effects on the language, TV, and culture of the present day.
Imagine a time when there was no Breaking Bad, no Sopranos, no Orange is the New Black — where the best you could expect on the tube was the sort of wholesome, saccharine sitcoms we now know only as the subject of merciless satire for better shows: The Cosby Show, Full House, Growing Pains, and so on. Sure, there was a hint of subversiveness in shows like Cheers and Roseanne, but the sort of challenging, intellectual fare we’re accustomed to now would have been unheard of in the pre-Simpsons era of TV.
Enter Matthew Groening (it’s pronounced Gray-ning): a bearded comic book nerd and cartoonist at the Los Angeles Reader, an alternative rag for which he also delivered papers and answered phones. Groening’s strip, Life in Hell, featured anthropomorphic bunnies and explored themes of religion, philosophy, culture, and language. Though unmistakably neither yellow nor human, Groening’s rabbits were Simpsonian both in vibe and aim; a tongue-in-cheek send-up of everything from love and sex to death and morality.
Among the many fans of the strip was James L. Brooks, a Hollywood bigwig and famed writer on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, one of the gems of TV’s first Golden Age. After winning multiple Oscars for writing and directing the maudlin 1983 hit Terms of Endearment, Brooks found his way back to television with The Tracey Ullman Show, a fledgling primetime sketch comedy program hosted by a British comic relatively unknown in Canada or the States. Among the show’s variety of segments were elaborate musical numbers choreographed by a then-unknown Paula Abdul; sketches tailored to show off Ullman’s talent for vocal mimicry; and, of course, the occasional animated short.
The story has since become apocryphal. Groening, encouraged to pitch Brooks his Life in Hell characters as an animated segment for the Ullman show, was hesitant to hand over the rights to Fox. “I was made aware that I might lose ownership of whatever I pitched [to the network],” Groening told The Hollywood Reporter. “Instead of pitching Life in Hell, I drew new characters on the spot. I’d had them in mind for a while but had never drawn them.”
In Brooks’ waiting room, minutes before the pitch, he scribbled down his new idea for a series of shorts: a family of five, named after his own family — except, of course, for Bart, a stand-in for Matt.
Premiering on April 19, 1987, The Simpsons shorts quickly became the breakout hit of the show; their popularity inspired Fox to feature the clips alongside trailers before movies. “I went to a theater, and the moment The Simpsons came up on the screen, the audience burst into applause,” said Groening. “That was the first major indication of, ‘Whoa, we have something here.’”
The popularity of the shorts led Fox to consider the possibility of a full-length show; it would become the first animated sitcom since The Flintstones, more than three decades earlier. According to Brooks, animator David Silverman — who’d go on to be one of the show’s biggest creative influences — cornered him drunk at a party, begging him to give the Simpsons their own slot.
Luckily, the network was hungry for a hit, as shows like Ullman were suffering from low ratings despite critical acclaim. With Brooks’ backing, the show was picked up for a 13-episode debut season, with Groening, Brooks, and Brooks’ longtime collaborator Sam Simon as executive producers.
On December 17, 1989 (just under 25 years ago today), The Simpsons debuted on primetime with an episode-length Christmas special, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire.” Sporting subversive, anti-authoritarian humour, casually crude animation, and brief hints of the sort of introspective genius that would become commonplace in the series’ own Golden Age, The Simpsons proper became an immediate and all-consuming hit.
Though The Simpsons’ first two seasons were immensely popular, controversy and strife festered behind the scenes. Animation flubs were common in the show’s early days, and commentators were quick to criticize the show’s supposedly amoral messages.
Sam Simon, who was responsible for much of the show’s early success — assembling its impressive team of nerdy, Harvard-educated writers; editing and re-editing and then re-editing scripts; encouraging voice talent to record their lines together in one room rather than separately — suffered strained relations with creator Groening. Simon resented receiving less credit than the show’s official creator, whereas Groening was critical of Simon’s creative fingerprint on the series.
Simon left during the show’s fourth year, though he retained a producing credit and received royalties for the series long after his departure. The Simpsons would switch showrunners every two seasons during its best seasons — generally agreed as occurring between 1991 and 1997 — and these would become the seasons that established it as the unique, genre-bending masterpiece it’s now considered to be.
Straight out of the gate, The Simpsons established an immutable presence in the pop culture of the era. The early seasons cast Bart Simpson, the flippant daredevil of the family, as the show’s protagonist, much to the ire of conservative critics and families fearing their children might ape his penchant for bad behaviour. Tongue-in-cheek catchphrases such as “Don’t have a cow, man” and “Eat my shorts!” only heightened the cultural tensions spurred by Bart’s devil-may-care attitude.
The cultural outcry against Bart’s antics went hand in hand with an influx of Bart-themed merchandise — hats and shirts which eventually moved to the black market as more and more teachers began to ban the spiky-haired troublemaker’s image in their classrooms. At the peak of Bartmania, Michael Jackson even offered to write a novelty song in honour of the character. “Do the Bartman” would go on to top the UK charts, though it was never officially released overseas.
As the show gained more popularity and both its animation and writing improved, Groening, Brooks, and Simon passed the baton to Al Jean and Mike Reiss, who served as showrunners during the show’s third and fourth seasons. These are generally agreed to be the first seasons in the show’s Golden Age — writers like John Swartzwelder, David M. Stern, and a young Conan O’Brien worked with Reiss and Jean to create some of the show’s most legendary episodes, such as “Kamp Krusty,” “Homer at the Bat,” and “Marge vs. the Monorail,” respectively.
The next seasons polished the show’s mix of subversive humour, broad comedic situations, and emotional gravitas. The show won multiple Emmys and critical acclaim across the board, becoming so famous as to warrant a public denunciation from then-president George H. W. Bush. In 1999, Time magazine rated the show as the best in television history, and even saved a space for Bart among its 100 most influential people — despite the show’s spotlight long ago having transferred to Homer, the series’ bumbling but well-meaning patriarch.
For Simpsons fans such as myself, these years exist encased in a sort of pop cultural amber. They’re untouchable. They didn’t just change the face of TV for good; they also changed us, and (mostly) for the better.
The influence of The Simpsons on today’s television landscape is hard to miss — Family Guy,South Park, Beavis and Butt-Head, Bob’s Burgers, King of the Hill, Futurama, and countless others have taken proverbial pages from the book of Simpson, to varying degrees of success. The calculated blow dealt to TV by that yellow fivesome meant an influx of shows which aimed similarly to challenge the status quo: The Office, Malcolm in the Middle, Married… with Children, and even The Daily Show followed in the footsteps of that Springfieldian family, and shades of its meta humour can be seen even in more recent fare like Community, Archer, and Rick and Morty.
But The Simpsons also introduced viewers both young and old to a radical, counter-cultural way of thinking, diametrically opposed to the milquetoast nuclear family values of The Cosby Show and Full House. Bart’s opposition to authority and gleeful taste for mayhem made him the poster-child for the MTV generation; Lisa’s uncommon intelligence and subsequent disillusionment with institutions betrayed the show’s own distrust of the powers that be; Marge’s gracefulness under the pressures of domesticity made her the unlikeliest of feminist heroines.
The show satirized the pillars of North American society — religion, media, politics, sex, race, class — with both wit and warmth.
For his part, Homer, the show’s breakout protagonist, was an all-out deconstruction of the classic family man of sitcoms past — simultaneously a source of humour and tenderness, bigotry and warmth, idiocy and insight. Though each member of the Simpson family has since been simplified and sterilized to the point of unrecognizability, there was a time when each stood as a sign both of the strength of the series and of the changing tides of 20th century society.
The show satirized the pillars of North American society — religion, media, politics, sex, race, class — with both wit and warmth. Episodes explored the characters’ faith and moral beliefs, as well as their prejudices and preconceptions, in a way that was both informative and insightful. The Simpsons’ creative use of language also had a lasting effect; phrases like “d’oh,” “yoink,” and “meh” have been popularized by the show, and quotes from its best episodes have found their way into the everyday slang of superfans and casual viewers alike.
Of course, the show’s best feature may well be its most obvious — it’s really, really fucking funny. In its heyday, The Simpsons combined self-referentiality, political satire, wordplay, slapstick physical gags, rapid-fire witticisms, celebrity impressions (sometimes done by the celebrities themselves), and off-the-wall absurdity, all making it the funniest show ever to air on primetime television. To watch these episodes now, many of the references seem dated or passé, but the show itself is still as laugh-out-loud hilarious as ever.
So — what happened?
The jury’s out on when The Simpsons officially ‘jumped the shark.’ Some cite the season 12 episode “Homer vs. Dignity,” in which Homer is implicitly raped by a panda at the Springfield zoo, as the series’ nadir; others mention the season nine bomb “The Principal and the Pauper,” where supporting character Principal Skinner is revealed to be an impostor, abandoning much of the series’ canon up to that point; and many diehards will go as far back as season eight — usually cited as part of the series’ Golden Age — and cite “Homer’s Enemy,” in which Homer indirectly causes the death of a rival at work then loudly snores through the funeral.
Each of these episodes shows a disregard for the emotional core of the series and a general lack of consistent characterization — whichever you may choose as the official point of no return, things were never the same for The Simpsons after about season eight or nine (depending, of course, on who you ask). Money disputes among cast and crew obfuscated the show’s creative integrity; constant changes in showrunners and writers resulted in a serious lack of consistency; and, frankly, they may have just run out of ideas after over 500 episodes and almost 25 years on the air. I know I would.
Just five years ago, The Simpsons beat out the legendary Western drama Gunsmoke as the longest-running scripted primetime TV series of all time; it also holds the title of longest-running animated series and longest-running sitcom. Its cast of recurring characters numbers in the hundreds, and its recycled plot points surely run a similar tally. If nothing else, FXX’s Simpsons marathon gives viewers ample opportunity to watch the steady decline of the series in real time — the jokes sag along with the verisimilitude and consistency of the characterization, and the cries of helpless fans echo soundlessly into the void.
But hey, maybe I’m being a little dramatic. If nothing else, a 25th anniversary celebration is a great chance to introduce the new generation to the show which ingrained the same sardonic indifference that launched a thousand anti-millennial op-eds. Once upon a time, The Simpsons was among the most ground-breaking, envelope-pushing cultural creations of all time, and its scope and breadth of vision remains impressive despite its inevitable decay.
So if you take one thing away from this piece, it’s this: watch the damn show. I’d be willing to go toe to toe with anyone who’d argue that South Park, Family Guy, or even Seinfeld can stand up to The Simpsons at the zenith of its creative quality. In the same way the show still links my sister and I, it links a generation of like-minded viewers together, yearning for donuts and slouching towards Sunday afternoon TV binges in a manner distinctly yellow in tone.