Matt Groening's The Simpsons is 30 years old today, its titular family having first appeared on the Tracey Ullman show in 1987 in a very weird short during which Homer and Marge put the kids to bed.
Since then it’s become a ubiquitous cultural force: a theme park ride, half a dozen different action figure series, several video games, a whole line of comic books, and of course 28 seasons – and counting – of television.
Originally, Groening was invited to pitch an animated version of his popular alt-weekly newspaper strip Life in Hell but balked when he realized he would have to sign over the rights to the whole thing to 20th Century Fox. Depending on who you believe, Groening either came up with the Simpsons family the night before he was due to give the “What else you got?” pitch to producer James L Brooks or in the lobby of Brooks’s office.
Groening had a dad named Homer Groening, a mom named Margaret Groening, neé Wiggum, sisters named Lisa and Maggie, and an aunt named Selma. He grew up in Portland, Oregon, where the town next door was Springfield, though the mystery of which state hosts the Simpson family’s home town is a running gag on the show.
But the Simpsons is far more than a sentimental look back on family life, though it is more often that than either its fans or its detractors believe. It's also an incredible patchwork of secondary and tertiary characters, many of them voiced by the omnipresent cast of Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Hank Azaria, and Harry Shearer – with the rare exception, Yeardley Smith voices only Lisa. Here are the show's key cultural milestones.
Animation problems pushed the series all the way to the end of the year from its original debut date in the fall of 1989. Episode 1 of season 1, Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire, airs December 17th.
The Simpsons landed its first renewal and began its second season, outdoing The Cosby Show with the season two premiere, Bart Gets an F.
George HW Bush addressed the Republican national convention by scolding the TV show and proclaiming his party’s desire to “keep trying to strengthen the American family, to make the American family a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons”. The show’s producers took enough umbrage to quickly record a new line of dialogue zinging Bush for the state of the economy at the beginning of a January rerun of the episode Stark Raving Dad . “Hey, we’re just like the Waltons,” says an offended Bart as he watched Bush’s speech. “We’re praying for an end to the Depression, too.”
Producers okay a crossover episode with Brooks’s other series, The Critic. Months later, Groening would publicly air his displeasure with Brooks, who developed and produces The Simpsons. The Critic was in need of a marketing push after its failure on ABC and subsequent hasty move to Fox. Neither man got much out of the showdown: The Critic was cancelled, though not without a cult following, and the episode – A Star Is Burns, set during a Springfield film festival – far from a monument to compromise, remains one of the series’ most beloved.
The show had heard the cries of parent groups and opportunistic politicians denouncing the excessive violence in the series, especially in its show-within-a-show, Itchy and Scratchy, a parody of classic smart mouse versus hapless cat cartoons. In response, writer David Mirkin packed the show’s 1995 Halloween special episode, Treehouse of Horror V, with as much violence as possible, including a short in which the teachers at Springfield Elementary murder and eat the students.
The Oxford English Dictionary capitulated: editions from 2001 forward define the word “D’oh” as “Expressing frustration at the realization that things have turned out badly or not as planned, or that one has just said or done something foolish.”
The final episode written by John Swartzwelder, The Regina Monologues, aired. Swartzwelder holds the record for most episodes written, 59, and maintains a mystique worthy of its own television show. In Mike Sacks’ book about comedy writers, Poking a Dead Frog, the head of David Letterman’s writing staff in 1983 claimed to have discovered him when Swartzwelder sent a single, perfect one-liner on a postcard. It read: “Mike Flynn’s much-publicized attempt to break every record in the Guinness Book of Records got off to a rocky start this week when his recording of White Christmas sold only five copies.”
The Simpsons Movie opened in theatres with a host of movie stars from Edward Norton to Tom Hanks to, of course, Kelsey Grammer as Sideshow Bob. It grossed $528 million (€491 million).
Voice actor Marcia Wallace, who gave elementary school teacher Edna Krabappel her trademark acerbic "Ha!", died of pneumonia at age 70. The Simpsons paid her tribute next year, with Ned Flanders remarking that he sure does miss her laugh. School bully Nelson demonstrated his own laugh ("Ha-ha!") before admitting: "I miss, her too."
Fox stopped producing DVDs of the series, pushing fans to the network’s digital platforms. The same year, Fox decided to syndicate the 500-plus-episode run of the series on FXX, a new network to which it hopes to lure younger viewers.
The show passed 600 episodes this year with its 27th Treehouse of Horror anthology. In celebration, the writers slipped in a triumphant declaration as part of the usual litany of Halloween names such as Bat Groening and James Hell Brooks: Al Jean went by Al “You’re next, Gunsmoke” – and indeed, barring the end of the world, or even less likely, the Fox network, The Simpsons will surpass Gunsmoke’s 635-show record for most episodes aired in a US primetime show ever.
– (Guardian service)