The animated comedy The Simpsons has been on the air for so long that it’s easy to forget just how groundbreaking it initially was. When it premiered in 1989, it was popular with both audiences and critics because no other comedy on television skewered politicians, corporations, religion and pop culture the way this show did. In fact, the show was obsessed with pop culture and packed with so many references and homages that it often felt like a Mad Magazine cartoon come to life.
It also hit the cultural zeitgeist at just the right time, being the first popular animated series to appeal to Generation X. The troublemaking character Bart Simpson embodied this rebellious attitude and became a huge star in the early nineties as a result. Before this show, television animation was largely seen as a juvenile medium ignored by the Gen Xers who were paying more attention to Star Wars, MTV and Pac-Man, but here finally was a cartoon that appealed to the cynical and pop-culturally savvy youth of the eighties and nineties.
The three primary people responsible for creating The Simpsons are cartoonist Matt Groening, and TV producers James L. Brooks and Sam Simon.
Matt Groening was born in Portland, Oregon in 1954, growing up obsessed with TV and comics and as a class troublemaker who played pranks (a regular Bart Simpson). When he was 18 he enrolled at the liberal arts school Evergreen State College where he became editor of the school newspaper, and after graduating in 1977, he moved to Los Angeles seeking creative fulfilment, which he did not find. Unhappy in California, he spent most of his time hanging out with friends and drawing comics, his desire to make cartoons inspired by the Disney film One Hundred and One Dalmatians and his comedy inspired by Peanuts and Monty Python.
Once Groening discovered L.A.’s indie art scene, he found his purpose. The seventies and eighties were particularly lucrative for underground comics when a large group of comic book fans began to get tired of superheroes and began creating comic books and graphic novels that were more personal and adult-oriented.
Groening sold copies of his own Life in Hell comic strip (a comic based on his feelings about living in L.A.) finding success in the early eighties having his strips distributed by the Los Angeles Reader and soon licensing it nationally to numerous weeklies and college papers.
The comic Life in Hell was popular enough that James L. Brooks was made aware of it, and luckily he was looking for a cartoonist to create animation for a new sketch comedy show he was working on in the eighties called The Tracey Ullman Show.
James L. Brooks, the TV producer behind The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi and the film director behind Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News, asked Matt Groening to lend his characters from Life in Hell to animated interstitial shorts that fit inbetween the sketches in Tracey Ullman, but Groening’s anti-authority attitude (which any Life in Hell reader would not be surprised by) was telling him not to sell his characters to a big corporation like 20th Century Fox, so instead he created new characters especially for the show. He scribbled a family of humans: Homer Simpson, his wife Marge Simpson and their three kids Bart, Lisa and Maggie Simpson.
The crudely designed characters were introduced in The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987 and the shorts starring the Simpsons were indeed the highlights of the series. Which is why when FOX decided to cancel Tracey Ullman, animation supervisor David Silverman proposed the idea of spinning the characters off into their own animated series. Animation is expensive, and if not for the clout of James L. Brooks, FOX would have likely passed on the show, but Brooks knew he had something with The Simpsons.
The experience Brooks had making TV shows taught him that creative freedom leads to the best results, and that’s what he fostered at his production company Gracie Films, and it led to one of the best written comedies on television at that time. But that’s not all Brooks did. Brooks was adamant that the show featured heart in addition to laughs. Emotion was wisely injected into the show to go with Groening’s rebellious satire, for Brooks understood that if the Simpsons didn’t truly love each other deep down, no one would want to watch them.
Sam Simon, writer and producer of Cheers who also worked with Brooks on Taxi and Tracey Ullman, became the showrunner and was responsible for assembling the writing team, which featured a lot of Harvard alums who wrote for the Harvard Lampoon humor magazine (future Simpsons writer Conan O’Brien was president of the Lampoon when he went to Harvard) and a lot of TV alums who wrote for Saturday Night Live and Late Night with David Letterman. The now legendary group of men who wrote the first season of The Simpsons includes Robert Cohen (The Big Bang Theory), the writing team of Al Jean & Mike Reiss (The Critic, The PJs), Jay Kogen (Frasier), George Meyer (SNL), John Swartzwelder (SNL), Jon Vitti (The Larry Sanders Show, King of the Hill, The Office) and Wallace Walodarsky (The Oblongs).
Sam Simon was responsible for expanding the Simpsons world beyond Matt Groening’s vision, designing characters like Mr. Burns and Chief Wiggum and even giving Krusty the Clown his sleazy personality.
Observant fans have pointed out that Matt Groening’s satire, James L. Brooks’ heart and Sam Simon’s character-based humor were the three ingredients that made the show initially so great, and when the three men eventually let go of the reins, the show started to become a shadow of its former self (Sam Simon was unhappy with Matt Groening receiving so much credit, Groening was unhappy being left out of the writers’ room and Brooks disengaged with the show after a few years), but the show has been running for 30 years, and with many of the writers involved in the first season gone, these days The Simpsons feels more like a corporate product than a comedy.
But it’s hard to overstate just how much of a phenomenon the show was in the nineties. In the early days of television into the Reagan era, shows targeted families with harmless content. With the rise of cable in the seventies, the idea of appealing to certain demographics instead of entire families began to take shape. The slacker generation, which was brought to the spotlight in indie films from Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino, were being brought to the forefront of television for the first time in a startlingly refreshing way, in an animated series no less! Strengthening the reputation of animation with adults alongside the Disney films Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Little Mermaid while simultaneously paving the way for more bold comedy in television thanks to its biting satire, criticism of long-respected institutions and its portrayals of flawed and immoral characters who strangled their kids, talked back to their parents and got drunk at bars. The fact that the show didn’t have a laugh track was enough to make it interesting.
The Simpsons helped usher in the era of cartoons aimed at teenagers and adults which led to Beavis and Butt-Head, The Critic, King of the Hill, South Park, Futurama, Family Guy, American Dad! and Rick and Morty.
The series was also one of the first TV shows to be released in the internet era and as it received cult status as a smart and funny program, internet forums full of Simpsons fans were some of the first TV fansites on the web. This worldwide devotion from fans alongside the huge commercial institute the show has become since its early days has contributed to its popularity.
The reason why I like any TV show is because of the characters, and the ones in this show are so three-dimensional that they often felt more real than the characters in live-action sitcoms.
Homer Simpson is a bumbling buffoon who is largely interested in helping himself rather than helping others, but he was likable because the writers made him funny. But that wasn’t the only reason why people liked the show so much. Homer Simpson was himself a satire of Americans, and that sly humor was what made the show so popular with audiences, critics and awards shows.
The sly satire working in tandem with the heart that made the citizens of Springfield feel like real people with hearts and souls is why The Simpsons is one of my favorite shows of all time. In fact, many of my favorite characters on this show are living parodies of the world we live in.
Mr. Burns is a parody of greedy businessmen who have no sympathy for the employees breaking their backs to help make their bosses rich.
Springfield Elementary is a parody of underfunded public schools and their clueless ineptitude towards dealing with the increasingly rebellious youth culture of the nineties.
The way the Simpsons treat Grampa Simpson (Homer’s dad Abe) is a parody of the way elderly people often get ignored, not only by grandkids bored of listening to stories about the good old days but by their adult children who sometimes resent them.
Marge’s sisters Patty and Selma are a refreshing parody on nagging in-laws after the mother-in-law trope had already grown stale by the time The Honeymooners and Bewitched ended their runs.
Krusty the Clown is a parody on the double lives of celebrities.
The donut-consuming Chief Wiggum is a parody of the police force and their reputation as inept law enforcers.
The two-faced Mayor Quimby is a parody of corrupt politicians.
The list goes on. The portrayal of Barney Gumble is a parody of drunks. Ned Flanders is a parody of conservative Christians. Itchy and Scratchy are a parody of cartoon violence. Kent Brockman is a parody of the vanity and sensationalism of television news reporters. Comic Book Guy is a parody of nerd culture. Cletus and Brandine are redneck parodies. Fat Tony is a mafia parody. And then there’s the international parodies of India (Apu), Scotland (Groundskeeper Willie), Italy (Chef Luigi) as well as the times the show made fun of England, Ireland, China, Japan, Australia and everything else in pop culture in much the same mad spirit of an issue of Mad Magazine (which many of the Simpsons writers grew up reading). The show’s satire may have lost its edge in recent seasons but it paved the way ahead in the nineties and helped alternative comedy go mainstream in prime time.