This is nothing!… They told me I couldn’t remake Moby Dick from the point of view of the whale!”
Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) in the hilarious political satire Wag the Dog (1997).
For a show so groundbreaking, iconic and influential, and the ultimate in social, cultural and political satire, it can be easy to forget just how humble the beginnings of Springfield’s finest dysfunctional family were.
This was no long and thought out process or a culmination of a life’s dream. What was to become America’s longest ever scripted tv show came about from a hurried idea of Matt Groening while waiting for a meeting with The Tracy Ulman Show’s producer James L. Brooks. Suddenly realising his original idea would require the rescinding of publication rights for his ‘Life is Hell’ Comic series, Groening instead came up with the idea of Homer and Marge, and their three children, Bart, Lisa and Maggie.
And the rest, after three series making up 48 short animated sketches, was history.
‘The Simpsons’ fully launched on 17 December 1989 with its first episode, ‘Simpsons roasting on an open fire’. Its ugly, crude animation could not betray a touching storyline about Homer struggling to afford to buy presents for the family after his work bonus is taken away. As Hunter Phillips pointed out in his shortly lived bloghttp://500daysofhomer.wordpress.com/, it was pretty rare for a sitcom at that time to focus on the financial struggles of a regular family. This was a cartoon that even at the very beginning was always going to be different and would reinvent the cartoon wheel.
This was no simple one dimensional comedy. The writers fully exploited the possibilities a cartoon could develop, with its visual gags, outdoor settings and wide supporting cast. And in turn, reminded everyone that there are no age restrictions with cartoons. There were jokes about everything. About Homer’s laziness at work, his glutinous love of food and his general stupidity, Bart’s pranks and rebellious attitude and Lisa being the know it all, precocious child who struggles to fit in at school and even in her own family. Not to mention all the film references, government and religious hypocrisy and social comment on mob mentality and petty neighbourhood squabbles.
Setting itself in Springfield, a name represented in 22 different US states, was no coincidence. With such a common name, it wasn’t about creating a magical world where viewers had their own entry into Narnia, Wonderland or Neverland. This was about being in a place where we could all relate to, with characters we could all recognise. Jaded teachers, deceitful politicians, unmotivated cops and unfulfilling and underfunded environments. It was all there.
And boy, when the jokes started, it was always worth watching more than once to pick up on all the film references, social questioning and character gags.
It’s hard to watch Patten with a straight face after Abe Simpson parodies the famous scene of America’s legendary war general smacking a soldier suffering from nerve damage. “You can push them out of a plane, you can march them off a cliff, you can send them off to side one some godforsaken rock, but for some reason you can’t slap them.”
It’s spoof of Indecent Proposal is up there too. When Marge’s old boyfriend Artie Schiff tries to rub his wealth in Marge’s face, Homer replies: “I’ll bet you’d trade it all for one night with my wife.” When Artie admits he probably would, Homer starts to consider the deal.
And its use of celebrities, long before it became tedious and forced in later episodes, was amazing.
In the earlier series were countless notable examples. Dustin Hoffman playing Lisa’s ideal teacher and father figure Mr Bergstrom, Harvey Fierstein starring as the wonderful Karl alongside a hair-filled Homer (in the wonderfully titled Simpson and Delilah), Danny Devito playing millionaire and Homer’s half brother Herb Powell are just some of the more obvious ones. Not to mention the legendary Michael Jackson one. And there were examples of celebrities voicing more than just one, or like with Herb Powell, being brought back for another episode. The much missed Phil Hartman provided the voice for host Troy McClure, and the legendary ambulance chasing lawyer Lionel Hutz, who later becomes an estate agent as most of his clients “end up losing their house anyway”. Frasier legend Kelsey Grammer uses his sumptuous voice to star as the erudite but undervalued Sideshow Bob who aims to take down Krusty the Clown. Joe Mantegna stars as mob boss fat Tony, revealing the shadier side of Springfield, and the even more inept side of the local police.
And with the gags continuing, and the character development expanding, it wasn’t long before lazy careless idiot Homer, his sympathetic homemaker wife Marge, mischievous 10 year old Bart, precocious eight year old Lisa and baby Maggie took over the world.
Its blend of imagination, cynicism, realism and most of all humour, soon meant that we the viewer were brought into their world. Homer’s continuous struggle to motivate himself at the power plant, Marge having to worry, Lisa’s constant issues in being smarter than everyone else and Bart’s skills in being the class clown and trying to avoid getting beaten up by the school bully. Not to mention all their problems as a family and within the wider society.
Not that everyone saw that as a good thing. In a world where Ren and Stimpy, Beavis and Butthead and South Park were to follow, it’s amazing to think there were teachers and parents who fiercely campaigned against Bart’s influence. Bart’s catchphrases like “Eat my shorts”, “Get bent”, and “Don’t have a cow man”, as well as his lack of respect for authority was seen to glamorise the rebellious lifestyle. And it wasn’t just sensitive parents.
In early 1992, then President George Bush (senior), made his famous comment of “We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons”. The show’s creators got their own back with a changed intro to their next shown episode before getting their full revenge in “Two Bad neighbours”, where George Bush Senior incurs the full ire of Homer and Bart.
Of course, it could never stay as its peak. The wheels had faltered slightly in series 8, with episodes started to fall off and run out slightly of energy and ideas, but it noticeably went off track with its first real nadir, “The Principal and the Pauper”. The second episode from the ninth season brought headteacher Seymour Skinner to the fore, revealing that Skinner was not who we were lead to believe, but in fact was an imposter called Armin Tamzarian. Believing the actual Skinner to be dead, he assumed his identity and had happily got away with it for 20 years. By the end, it is all supposed to go back to normal as the town prefers to the fake Skinner and the genuine one who spent five years in a prison of war camp, and then in a Chinese Sweatshop, goes away. There’s supposed to be message in that probably.
While that may have been when the “show got stupid”, as Guardian critic Ian Jones noted, episodes would continue to falter, before season 11 when it all got consistently poor and with few to any saving graces. As the quality has dropped, so the number of celebrity voices has grown and animation become more computerised. The less said about later storylines about Marge’s boob job, Homer as a Kurt Cobain style grunge rocker, Ricky Gervais’ attempt to write a wife-swapping episode and a device that means lorries can drive themselves, the better. Joking about how bad an episode is (“Worst show ever” t-shirt”) was neither cute or clever and just insulting to a far too loyal audience.
Rather than focus on the celebrities desperate to get on a backwards moving carousel and how there are now more bad series than good ones, sometimes it is just about acknowledging the greatest don’t always know when to stop raging against the dying of the light.
And what a success it has been. Beyond its 27 primetime Emmy Awards, the Hollywood walk of fame star, the merchandising, D’oh and all the other catchphrases it spawned and its financial film success, and countless fan forums, it can never be forgotten just how many great moments they have provided us with, and how it has inspired so many adult-oriented animated sitcoms.
For making Homer miss the canyon, getting both his arms stuck in vending machines, destroying a polygraph machine by his inept lying, and all the other incredible moments from Homer and co, thanks. Walt Disney may have said “A man should never exploit your family for business”, but when there is so much to exploit, it makes one heck of a show.
Mr Burns: If you’re not going to come in on Friday, don’t bother coming in on Monday
Homer: Woo hoo! Four day weekend
Homer: Lord help me, I’m just not that bright
Homer: Marge? Since I’m not talking to Lisa, would you please ask her to pass me the syrup?
Marge: Dear, please pass your father the syrup, Lisa.
Lisa: Bart, tell Dad I will only pass the syrup if it won’t be used on any meat product.
Bart: You dunkin’ your sausages in that syrup homeboy?
Homer: Marge, tell Bart I just want to drink a nice glass of syrup like I do every morning.
Marge: Tell him yourself, you’re ignoring Lisa, not Bart.
Homer: Bart, thank your mother for pointing that out.
Marge:: Homer, you’re not not-talking to me and secondly I heard what you said.
Homer: Lisa, tell your mother to get off my case.
Bart: Uhhh, dad, Lisa’s the one you’re not talking to.
Homer: Bart, go to your room.
Homer: I think I got promoted because of my motivational skills. People are always saying they have to work harder when I’m around.
Bart: Aren’t we forgetting the true meaning of Christmas? You know, the birth of Santa.
Marge: Homer, is this how you pictured married life?
Homer: Yeah, pretty much, except we drove around in a van solving mysteries.
Homer: So I said, “Look buddy, your car was upside-down when I got here. And as for your grandmother, she shouldn’t have mouthed off like that.”
Bart: Mr Hutz, when I grow up I want to be a lawyer just like you
Lionel: (sincerely) Good for you son, if there’s one thing America needs, it’s more lawyers
Homer: Son, if you really want something in this life, you have to work for it. Now quiet! They’re about to announce the lottery numbers.
Bart: What’s really amazing is this is exactly what Dad said would happen!
Lisa: Yeah, Dad was right!
Homer: I know, kids, I’m scared too!
Ned: It’s times like this I used to turn to the bible, but even the good book can’t help me now.
Homer: Why not?
Ned: I sold it to you for 7 cents
Homer: It was one of the worst days of my life when I realised I could do most things better than my father. Bart had that feeling when he was 4.
Homer: Where do you want to go?
Lisa: Anywhere that isn’t hamburgers, pizza or fried chicken.
Homer: Fine! We’ll go to Mars!”
Marge: You will find her [Selma] a man!
Homer: All right.
Marge: And not just any man.
Marge: He should be honest, and, and caring. And well-off. And handsome.
Homer: Hey! Why should she have a better husband than you do!?
Dan Castellaneta as (among others) Homer Simpson, Abe Simpson, Barney Gumble, Krusty
Julie Cavner as Marge Simpson, Patty and Selma
Nancy Cartwright as (among others) Bart Simpson, Nelson Muntz, Ralph Wiggum
Yeardley Smith as Lisa Simpson
Hank Azaria as (among others) Moe Syzlak, Chief Wiggum, Apu, Carl
Harry Shearer as (among others) Mr Burns, Smithers, Ned Flanders, Lenny
Years: 1989 –
Created by: Matt Groening
Number of Series: 24 (ongoing)
Number of Episodes: 522 (ongoing)
Emmys: 27 out of 74