Like many eleven-year-old boys in the late eighties, I was a big fan of the poorly rated FOX variety sketch program The Tracey Ullman Show. I was especially fond of the show’s animated bumpers, bite-sized nuggets of dark comedy and sly observational humor concerning a mustard-yellow brood known as The Simpsons.
The animated shorts were, in many ways, an extension of creator Matt Groening’s cult comic strip Life In Hell. Life In Hell used serrated sarcasm as a weapon in its never-ending war against the hypocrisy, insanity and cruelty of a vicious and ridiculous universe. The Simpsons shorts applied Life In Hell’s jaundiced, righteously cynical take on religion, sex, dating, capitalism and just about every other societal institution to the world of family comedy.
In a television realm of homogenized happy families flashing Colgate smiles, The Simpsons were weird, dark, ugly, desperate and poor, a shambling aggregation of misfits who just barely managed to make it from day to day. In other words, they were real. Growing up the underachieving progeny of a chronically unemployed single father, I related to the Simpsons on a profound level. It was incredibly liberating to watch a show about being poor and out of step with the rest of the world.
But when it was announced that The Simpsons would be spun off into its very own half-hour sitcom, I was skeptical. Sure, The Simpsons were great in tiny doses but could they sustain twenty-two minutes of prime-time comedy every week? Then again I walked away from Avatar convinced I’d just seen one of the biggest bombs in movie history so I tend to be wrong about some very big things.
As much as I loved the Simpsons on The Tracey Ullman Show I never could have imagined the profound impact The Simpsons would have on my psyche and pop culture as a whole. I couldn’t have envisioned that it would become a universe onto itself, that it would bind generations together and create a widely employed vernacular of quotes and references. I couldn’t have imagined how profoundly The Simpsons would change the way we saw ourselves and the world around us, how it would penetrate seemingly every facet of American life and become, in my opinion, the greatest television show of all time and arguably the greatest pop-culture milestone of the twentieth century.
When I interviewed Matt Groening a few years back I made him deeply uncomfortable by telling him that The Simpsons had brought more joy and happiness into my life than anything else. If I were to make a list of my ten favorite things in the universe, The Simpsons would easily rank in the top five.
That is why I am going to cover every episode of every season of The Simpsons for TV Club Classic. I’m going back to the source to examine how this most beloved of comic institutions became such a ferocious cultural force, how a modest animated show on a fledgling network attained a rare sort of comic perfection and irrevocably changed comedy forever.
I will begin, of course, with the beginning, "The Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire". On December 17th the vast percentage of the world that didn’t watch The Tracey Ullman Show was introduced to The Simpsons: bungling, beer-and-rage-addled patriarch Homer, endlessly kind and patient mother Marge, hellion Bart, brainiac do-gooder Lisa and baby Maggie.
In its first season, The Simpsons was deeply rooted in the terra firma of working-class American life. It hadn’t yet evolved into an all-encompassing satire with perhaps the richest, deepest supporting ensemble in television history but it was edging diligently towards greatness, even as it featured beloved characters in rough, embryonic form.
"The Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" is class-conscious in a manner that was rare in 1989 and remains rare today. The plot turns on Homer’s shame and embarrassment over not being able to provide his family with the kind of ritzy Christmas that is every American gentile’s inalienable birthright.
The complications begin when Homer is coldly denied the Christmas bonus he’s been counting on. Thankfully, Marge has squirreled away a big jar of cash for the family Christmas fund but when Bart, in a supremely misguided display of affection, attempts to get a “Mother” tattoo they end up using the entire fund to get the tattoo removed.
Homer is too proud to admit that he didn’t receive his Christmas bonus so he gets a second job as a mall Santa. Homer is not easily embarrassed, to put it mildly, but he is deeply ashamed when Bart discovers his father’s secret when he yanks his beard on a dare from his pals.
"The Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" derives much of its pathos and humor from Homer’s thwarted attempts to be a good provider. Homer can’t afford a tree so he steals one from a lot. He’s humiliated by the indignity of life as an easily-agitated Santa impersonator, especially when he learns that after costume, training and Christmas fund charges he’s netted exactly thirteen dollars for his labors. There’s a heartbreaking moment when Homer looks at neighbor Ned Flanders’ elaborate Christmas display—a gaudy exercise in empty spectacle that seems to mock Homer's poverty—and simply hangs his head in shame.
Being a Christmas special, albeit of the warped variety, the first full-length episode of The Simpsons is unusually sentimental and nakedly emotional. At one point Homer tells Bart, “Sometimes your faith is all that keeps me going.” It’s a line at once jarring and deeply powerful, jarring because subsequent episodes suggest Bart has no faith, in his father or anything else, and deeply powerful because it’s so incongruously tender and vulnerable and sad.
In a last-ditch effort to avoid the worst Christmas ever, Homer takes Barney’s advice and squanders his Santa money betting on a dog race with predictably disastrous results. In perhaps the first meta-textual gag in the show’s history, Bart says that television has taught him that miracles always happen to poor children on Christmas, as evidenced by the heartwarming Yuletide sagas of Tiny Tim, Charlie Brown and the Smurfs. It’s a line that allows the show to both acknowledge the often-hoary conventions of television and play against them.
Homer and Bart get their Christmas miracle, sort of, when the dog they’d bet on is booted out of the dog-race arena. The bane of the Simpsons’ Christmas becomes its unlikely savior when Homer decides that the dog is pathetic, a loser and above all else, a Simpson. Santa's Little Helper becomes the perfect Christmas present and Christmas is saved. The episode consequently gets to have it both ways: it slyly sends up the tear-jerking conventions of the Christmas special while simultaneously harnessing their power.
The first full-length episode of The Simpsons is naughty and nice. Homer loves Bart and he strangles him repeatedly. The episode ends with a crowd-pleasing rendition of “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” with naughty improvised lyrics thrown in at appropriate intervals. The show manages to appeal to a mass audience without losing its satirical edge.
The show would evolve dramatically. Compared to later episodes, “The Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” is methodically paced, stiffly animated and modest in its ambition. A show that would soon take on the sum of American life with blinding speed and preternatural comic density was still rooted in the comforting, familiar traditions of the family sitcom. Yet the humor, heart and subversion that would make The Simpsons such a towering achievement were evident from the very beginning.
—One down, four hundred and sixty three more to go!
—I had a friend recently tell me that I’d turned them on to The Simpsons. That blew my mind. It seems like the universe should turn people onto The Simpsons. That’s a little like being told you turned someone on to the cuteness of puppies and kittens or the beauty of a sunset.
—If you’re looking for a countdown to suckiness where I bemoan how poorly recent episodes compare to the show’s golden age you’ve come to the wrong place. I come here to praise The Simpsons, not to bury it
—Question of the week—what’s the tackiest piece of Simpsons paraphernalia you’ve ever owned? I had a bootleg tee shirt (picked up on Maxwell Street, aptly enough), a water bottle and the complete set of Burger King Simpsons dolls
—Yay! Simpsons! They’re great
—Homer still sounds an awful lot like Walter Matthau at this point
—Is it just me or is it super-jarring seeing Lisa in nothing but a shell bra and grass skirt during the opening Christmas pageant?