Holder of two Guinness World Records for the Longest-Running Primetime Animated Television Series and Most Guest Stars Featured in a Television Series. 129 awards, both domestic and international, covering 679 episodes across 31 seasons and counting. Distributed around the world for television specials, commercial advertising, a Hollywood movie, toys, music, comics, video games, clothing, theme parks, food, drink and collectables.
And all this from a 3-minute animated short from 1987 about your everyday American family.
As this global phenomenon arrives on Disney+, courtesy of the recent Fox acquisition, we invite you to discover all over again (or maybe for the very first time) … The Simpsons.
Thanks to this generation-defining new service, 30 seasons (minus the one currently broadcasting in America) are available on demand for European audiences for the very first time thanks to the House of Mouse. It’s the perfect chance to either rediscover the highly re-watchable animated antics, or if you’re in the lucky minority, experience what the town and citizens of Springfield have to offer for the very first time.
To help those maybe a little unfamiliar with the show, or those who haven’t watched an episode for a while, it’s my pleasure to walk hand in hand with you through a digestible introduction to The Simpsons including its background, impact on popular culture, the evident highs and lows of the show and a pick of 10 stand-out episodes that really capture that Simpson spirit.
So, grab a Duff and a donut or three and let’s go back to 1987.
Created by producer James L. Brooks and cartoonist Matt Groening, ‘The Simpsons’ was, for three years, a non-titled series of 3 to 4 minute crudely animated shorts to interlink between commercials during popular primetime hit The Tracey Ullman Show on Fox. It was Brooks’ idea to have a short animated skit during the show, and down to Groening to come up with the content. Based on his own family, even down to names, bar Bart, he came up with the likes of Homer, Marge, Lisa and Maggie as a representation of a dysfunctional but loveable everyday American family.
There was nothing fantastical or extravagant about this family. Even the animated style was patchy and cheap, lacking in real quality and detail, but compensating with simply, observational comedy and a talented voice cast including Dan Castellaneta as the cantankerous father, Homer, Julie Kavner as the loving mother Marge, Nancy Cartwright as cheeky son Bart, and Yeardley Smith as clever daughter Lisa. It was this charming mix of talent that helped capture the attention of audiences and buy into this family’s everyday shenanigans.
But when the smaller product of a show starts to eclipse the main in terms of comedy and originality, Brooks and Groening teamed up with Fox writer and producer Sam Simons to develop their creations – The Simpsons – into solo broadcasts for 20 minutes per episode running on their own show. This meant an increase in staff including animators, writers, directors and voice-actors to help bring the show to life and create a full season of 13 episodes. The first season ran from December 1989 to May 1990, launching with the heart-warming festive debut ‘Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire’.
What followed was television history in the making. Every year from 1990 onwards, a new season was released. The production team changed many times during the first decade, with new writers and producers coming in, bringing new ideas and talent to the existing format. Names that would become synonymous with the show such as Al Jean and Mike Reiss, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein and Mike Scully – all immense talents who worked with Groening, Simons and Brooks to continuously keep content fresh, current, relevant and cutting-edge. Into the 2000s, hand drawn animation, a charming and somewhat treasured art form nowadays, was retained, with slight computer enhancement and HD conversion for slicker scenes in the later years of the show.
And as the 31st season soon comes to a close, with a 32nd on the way, there’s no sign of America’s most dysfunctional family slowing down anytime soon for Fox / Disney.
One of the first traits that made The Simpsons identifiable as a domestic, and then international, phenomenon was the guest stars. Never before or since has a show attracted the calibre of guest stars to feature in often self-lampooning roles. With a strong core cast of actors populating the residents of Springfield, many special guest stars lent their voice to side-characters and incidental celebrity appearances. The likes of Kelsey Grammer, Jon Lovitz, Phil Hartman and Joe Mantegna soon became “mini-regular” cast members, having their characters return in numerous episodes across many seasons. But it’s the special guests that really prove the power of The Simpsons, featuring names such as James Earl Jones, Michael Jackson, Sir Tom Jones, Lady Gaga, Reese Witherspoon and Ricky Gervais… do I need to go on? Movie stars, politicians, singers, musicians, inventors, government officials. None of them could resist the pulling power of The Simpsons.
However, it wasn’t just the celebrity guests and media in-jokes that proved how much of an impact the show had on culture and society. What initially brought The Simpsons to the mainstream was 10-year old Bartholomew JoJo Simpson, also known as simply Bart. This show was one for the youth. For Generation X. And the representation of this youth, this very self-aware, headstrong, no-nonsense, confident, but always learning, generation was Bart. He said and did everything the youth wished they could do, and he made it cool. He made it cool to be cheeky, to be rad on a skateboard, to duck out of school, to make prank phone-calls, play gags on his family and go over and above in having fun with his friends. Nancy Cartwright provided his voice, and it was the voice of a generation. To this extent, Bart Simpson helped draw a line between the young and old of America, and then the world. Children wanted to be him, parents wanted them NOT to be like him.
Everything from his slogans such as “Don’t have a cow, man,” to the catapult he used to annoy the neighbourhood became popular. His cheeky but loveable face became hot property on toys and everything from t-shirts to lunchboxes. While Bart pushed many buttons and was responsible for the attitude of a new generation of youngsters, he was a kind-hearted and well-to-do son, brother and friend. There was something behind every action Bart did that was both funny but warming. His heart is always in the right place, and in such early episodes such as “Bart the General”, “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish” and “Bart’s Dog Gets an “F”, we see how hard it can be for a 10-year-old to face such emotional and important issues within society and a family. And these moments of heart helped push The Simpsons to new heights, away from just disposable comedy.
While full of observational comedy, pop culture references and cheeky content, what become clear from the debut season was that The Simpsons was a show about heart. A family who were closer than many, about a town that came together when needed, and individuals who faced great pain, sadness, loss or choice in order to come out better the other end. It was nothing heavy, but thanks to laying down templates for loveable characters and places, it wasn’t hard to get invested and feel for these people.
The stories were wonderfully written by the team to be relatable to many classes of audiences, of various race, sex, religion and age. More often than not, the ending of an episode could easily tug at your heartstrings and make you feel sentimental. This wasn’t due to forcing a subject on us, but by approaching it softly, with gentle humour to help with the characters we love experiencing it. Sure, Homer drinks beer, eats too much junk and isn’t the best father, but he tries, and he has a heart of gold. Lisa is academically gifted, and can solve most of life problems, but that’s not without her fragile youth often bearing the weight of the world on her small shoulders. They are cartoon characters, but they are more humane than most.
No topic is too bold for The Simpsons to tackle for a good story. Topics over the years have ranged from falling in (and out) of love, death, marriage, paternal highs and lows, health and wellbeing, faith, grief and politics. All of them wrapped up in that inimitable tongue-in-cheek Simpsons style, but never without hitting home the core message of what it means to be human and experience such emotions and milestones. The episodes would even be a comfort years later on re-watches, helping people understand how to deal with certain emotions and situations and come out smiling the other side. As well as being brave enough to tackle such stories and ideas, the show was always a comfort blanket to leave audiences with a smile and the notion that things will be ok by next week. This was a crucial target to hit week after week, drawing millions of viewers back without becoming a soap opera over a fun cartoon. And fun it was, even in the dips.
As of March 2019, Fox was brought into the Disney family, and in turn, The Simpsons became a property of the House of Mouse. The 31st season concludes broadcast in America during May 2020, and the 32nd season is due towards the end of the year.
With the current 30 seasons available to stream on-demand on the new Disney+ platform, there is no better time to discover the show that defined a generation and changed television forever. One episode however not in current circulation is the season three premiere “Stark Raving Dad” which features Michael Jackson as a guest star, following the scandals of the ‘Leaving Neverland’ documentary.
And if you only had time for ten episodes, here are my recommendations:
- ‘Homer The Heretic’ S4 E3
- ‘Bart the General’ S1 E5
- ‘Cape Feare’ S5 E2
- ‘Mother Simpson’ S7 E8
- ‘You Only Move Twice’ S8 E2
- ‘Lisa’s First Word’ S4 E10
- ‘Three Men And A Comic Book’ S2 E21
- ‘Bart Gets An F’ S2 E1
- ‘El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer’ S8 E9
- ‘Last Exit To Springfield’ S4 E17
Be sure to stock up on plenty of Duff, donuts, salted snacks, nachos, jelly beans (or any other equivalents) and settle in for The Simpsons!