|In the closing months of 1989, the Fox network aired commercial spots chronicling the great sitcom families of every decade since the 1950’s-the Nelsons, the Cleavers, the Bradys, the Huxtables. But the coming decade, the commercials promised, would belong to a very different kind of family-loud, sassy, yellow, and four-fingered… The Simpsons. At the time, it was merely network hype for a hopeful new series, the first prime time cartoon since the 1970's. But promotion turned into prophecy over the ensuing decade, as Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie Simpson became the definitive television family of the 1990’s.
Actually, the origins of The Simpsons stretch back much earlier than the series’ debut episode in January 1990. Cartoonist Matt Groening, whose Life in Hell comic strip had been around since 1977, introduced the Simpson family to television audiences in 1987. Groening had been hired to create animated shorts for Fox’s The Tracey Ullman Show, which would serve as transitions between Ullman’s live-action comedy segments.
Before long, Fox executives realized that Groening’s shorts had a greater potential, and he and Tracey Ullman Show producer James L. Brooks (who also produced The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, and many others) were signed to expand The Simpsons into a half-hour series. Groening’s irreverent humor and Brooks’ TV experience and story sense made them a dynamic team, and the fruits of their labors finally hit the airwaves on December 17, 1989, in a Christmas special titled “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire.” The series debuted four weeks later.
In the beginning, The Simpsons was dominated by a mischievous, potty-mouthed little scamp named Bart Simpson. The oldest child in the Simpson clan, Bart made a name for himself by, among other things, cheating on an intelligence test, decapitating the statue of town founder Jebediah Springfield, and making endless prank phone calls to Moe’s Tavern (“Hey, is there a Butz here? Seymour Butz? Hey everybody, I wanna Seymour Butz!”). Marge was the boy’s worrying, sensible mother, and Homer was the impatient, often violent doofus dad. Long-suffering sax player Lisa was the Simpson with brains, underappreciated by her nimrod family. And little Maggie simply sucked her pacifier, soiled herself, and fell down every time she tried to walk.
Within a single season, The Simpsons was the most popular show on Fox, and Bart-mania was seizing the nation. Simpsons tee shirts were everywhere, “Do the Bartman” was a modest hit on radio stations, and Bart’s catchphrases-“Eat my shorts,” “Ay, caramba!,” “Don’t have a cow, man!” and others-were being repeated in offices and schoolyards across the country. Naturally, the sassy shenanigans of a swearing ten-year-old didn’t sit well with TV activists, who were also up in arms about the ultra-violent cartoon-within-a-cartoon “The Itchy and Scratchy Show,” a Tom and Jerry-type spoof. All signs pointed to The Simpsons as a fad that would reach its prime, flame out quickly, then fade into pop culture obscurity faster than you can say “Achy Breaky Heart.”
But The Simpsons' brain trust did a very strange thing. Over the course of a few early seasons, the show’s focus shifted beyond fan favorite Bart to the entire Simpson family, especially the thick-skulled but ultimately soft-hearted Homer J. Simpson (who, in all fairness, had his own share of catchphrases-“D’oh!,” “Mmmmmmm…,” and so on). Whether it was Marge’s painting tyrannical nuclear power plant owner Mr. Burns as a nude, Lisa’s unwanted romance with nose-picking Ralph Wiggum, or Homer’s being tempted by belching, donut-loving co-worker Mindy (voiced by Michelle Pfeiffer), The Simpsons let its viewers into the lives of Springfield’s favorite family, making us actually care about these funny cartoon characters.
The strategy worked, and The Simpsons survived well beyond its initial “fad” phase. After more than a decade on the air, the show has developed one of the deepest casts of characters on prime time television-elderly Grampa Simpson, chain-smoking sisters Patty and Selma, endlessly upbeat next-door neighbor Ned Flanders and family, kids’ show host Krusty the Clown, Mr. Burns and his sycophantic assistant Mr. Smithers, police chief Clancy Wiggum, bartender Moe, belching barfly Barney, Indian convenience store owners Apu and Manjula Nahasapeemapetilon and their fraternal octuplets, the snide Comic Book Guy, Reverend Lovejoy and his gossipy wife Helen, Bart’s sarcastic teacher Mrs. Krabappel, straight-laced elementary school principal Seymour Skinner, fiery Groundskeeper Willie, school bully Nelson Muntz, goody-two-shoes Martin Prince, Dr. Hibbert, Dr. Nick, Lionel Hutz, Troy McClure (you might remember him from such films as…), and too many more to mention.
The reasons behind the enduring success of The Simpsons are vast and varied. The writers deserve a great deal of credit, managing to throw in dozens of pop culture references and satirical jabs per episode, all in the service of the story. The animation was similarly praiseworthy, taking advantage of the fact that The Simpsons weren’t bound by the physical limitations of live-action sitcoms. And surely theme composer Danny Elfman and series composer Alf Clausen (who wrote most of the show’s surprisingly frequent musical numbers) played their part as well.
Whatever the reason, The Simpsons was a hit, and a big one at that. Celebrities lined up to lend their voices to cartoon versions of themselves or other characters-everyone from Michael Jackson to Elizabeth Taylor to Aerosmith to Johnny Carson to Britney Spears. And like all successes, The Simpsons launched a flurry of imitators and admirers. The show paved the way for edgier animated fare like Ren & Stimpy and Beavis and Butthead, and it single-handedly revived the idea of animation in prime time. An initial wave of shows-Fish Police, Capitol Critters and others-ended in disappointment, but later successes like King of the Hill and Futurama proved that The Simpsons was no fluke.
In January 2000, after ten years of continued success, The Simpsons were rewarded with a well-deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the kick-off to a year-long “Simpsons Global Fanfest” (“Mmmmmmm…Fanfest”). Meanwhile, the show continues its remarkable run, the longest ever for a prime time cartoon (eclipsing by far the 166-episode mark set by The Flintstones in the 1960's). Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Maggie and the rest have already secured a place in history, but as long as The Simpsons remains hip to each new generation (it’s already passed from Gen-X to Gen-Y without missing a beat), they will continue to have a cherished place in the present.