This year marks the 20th anniversary of America’s longest-running sitcom, The Simpsons.
In fact, this week way back in 1989, creator Matt Groening and his team were hard at work on the first season. Unbeknown to them, they were about to unleash a yellow-tinged phenomenon that would assault pop culture for the next two decades…
1. The Tracey Ullman Years
In 1987, James L Brooks – veteran TV producer (Taxi, The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and award-winning writer/director (Terms Of Endearment, Broadcast News) – was brought in to produce The Tracey Ullman Show for the fledgling Fox network.
A half-hour sketch show showcasing the characters of Brit comedian Ullman, Brooks needed a device to break up the skits. Having been impressed by Groening’s Life Is Hell comic strip, he decided that a series of animated segments was the way to do it.
Unwilling to hand Fox the rights to his own popular satire, Groening instead offered to create new characters for Brooks’ show, based on his own family (dad Homer, mum Majorie, sisters Lisa and Maggie). And so The Simpsons were born…
Brooks and Groening recruited Ullman Show regulars Dan Castellaneta and Julie Kavner to voice Homer and Marge respectively. Squeaky-voiced actress Yeardly Smith nabbed the role of Lisa, while professional voice artist Nancy Cartwright was a shoe-in for Bart (“That’s it. That’s him. That’s Bart!” Groening declared immediately after meeting her).
With the voice cast and animation studio Klasky-Csupo on board, Groening set to work on a series of minute-long ‘bumpers’ – stopgaps that would end up getting the biggest laughs of the show…
Next: Simpsons go primetime [page-break]
2. Welcome To Springfield
The Tracey Ullman Show was a critical success, but it wasn’t a huge ratings winner. The well-liked Simpson family stayed with Ullman until her penultimate third season, during which they graduated from a number of mini-shorts into one, longer story per episode.
Then, in 1989, Groening and Brooks decided to give The Simpsons their own show. “I designed The Simpsons to be a TV series,” said Groening.
“That was always my secret plan. The idea of putting animated characters on at primetime was controversial. I was worried that just having one shot at getting people’s attention wouldn’t do it.”
Fox wasn’t sure. There hadn’t been a successful primetime animation since The Flintstones in the ’60s, so the suits needed some convincing.
Brooks used his considerable Hollywood clout to back the move and – spurred on by interest from rival network ABC and the thumbs-up from the boss, News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch – the Fox execs gave The Simpsons the green light.
With experienced TV writer Sam Simon on board and some much-improved animation, The Simpsons debuted on 17 December 1989 with Christmas special ‘Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire’ – in which the family recruited pet pooch Santa’s Little Helper.
The realistically flawed-yet-likeable characters and subtle satirising of the American Dream had critics and audiences raving, but the country’s staunch right-wingers were far from impressed…
Next: Heroes (and villains) [page-break]
The Simpsons’ first series was one of the 1989-90 TV season’s 30 highest-rated shows – a first for the Fox network. Not everyone was a fan, though.
President George HW Bush infamously said that American families should aspire to be “a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.”
Most of the Republicans’ vitriol was aimed at Bart, the show’s rebellious, underachieving lead. Bart was accused of being a bad role model for the youth of America – a claim the makers unashamedly rebuffed in season two opener, ‘Bart Gets An F’.
In the episode, Bart is faced with repeating the fourth grade until his prayers for a snow day are answered, giving him time to study for a fateful history test.
A whopping 33.6m viwers tuned in (as of 2009, it’s still the highest-rated episode in the show’s history) to support the prank-calling tyke.
“I think it’s important that Bart does badly in school,” James L Brooks announced. “There are students like that. You don’t run across that many role models in real life. Why should TV be full of them?”
The Simpsons merchandising juggernaut generated around $2 billion in revenue over the show’s first couple of years, with Bart as the poster boy.
During ‘Bartmania’, the character featured on millions of lunch boxes, pencil cases and T-shirts, spouting defiant catchphrases like “Eat my shorts” and “I’m Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?”
He even released a chart-topping single (co-written by Simpsons fan Michael Jackson), ‘Do The Bartman’.
Next: From strength to strength [page-break]
4. The Golden Age
With the show hitting its stride in season two, Brooks, Groening and Co ushered in the start of what came to be known as the ‘Golden Age’ of The Simpsons.
Casting the net wider, the writers introduced us to a colourful cast of Springfield residents (most of whom voiced by comedians Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer).
From mummy’s boy Principal Skinner to evil tycoon Mr Burns, grizzled barkeep Moe Szyslak to painfully inept lawman Chief Wiggum, each of the lovingly developed support players had their own moments to shine.
Cleaned-up animation and changes in season showrunners (starting when Groening, Brooks and Simon handed the baton to Al Jean and Mike Reiss for season four) also kept things fresh, resulting in some of The Simpsons’ best episodes: ‘Kamp Krusty’, 'Cape Feare' and ‘Who Shot Mr Burns?’ (Parts 1 and 2) to name but a few.
These golden years also saw Homer take over as star of the show, the dumb-yet-loveable patriarch heading up a slew of episodes that dealt with more ‘adult’ issues like vigilantism (‘Homer The Vigilante’), the dangers of excess (‘Duffless’) and extra-marital relations (‘The Last Temptation of Homer’).
Critics and viewers couldn’t get enough, while the show boasted a yearly haul of Emmys, ‘Annies’ and other top TV awards. But the love wasn’t to last…
Next: Dropping the ball [page-break]
5. The Backlash Begins
With some critics already moaning that The Simpsons was starting to lose its mojo, 1997 saw the debut of season nine under new showrunner Mike Scully.
While the accolades kept coming, many viewers were disappointed with the new episodes – which favoured wacky stories and increasingly surreal parodies over the more (in Simpsons terms, anyway) realistic, character-driven plots of old.
Some fans were even more outraged when the show started to ‘jump the shark’, with many feeling that ninth-season episode ‘The Principal And The Pauper’ – in which Seymour Skinner was outed as an imposter – was one change too far.
It didn’t help that The Simpsons was starting to face direct competition from the very shows it inspired – South Park, Family Guy and even Matt Groening’s own Futurama all seemed to bare far sharper satirical teeth.
The Simpsons looked like it was edging closer to the retirement home.
In 2004, cast regular Harry Shearer (the voice of Skinner) spoke out, saying: “I rate the last three seasons as among the worst.” But Homer himself, Dan Castellaneta, leaped to the show’s defense.
“I think Harry's issue is that the show isn’t as grounded, that it’s gotten crazy or a little more madcap. I think it organically changes to stay fresh.”
If nothing else, The Simpsons had managed to remain a consistent part of pop culture for much longer than most US sitcoms.
A huge international audience were still tuning in to the Simpson’s (mis)adventures, while DVD boxsets of earlier seasons were selling by the truckload.
In 2006, the show won its ninth Emmy for ‘Outstanding Animated Program’, while 2007 saw it reach the 400-episode milestone with ‘You Kent Always Say What You Want’. So, where next for the Springfield five? The big screen, of course…
Next: The Simpsons’ Movie [page-break]
6. Simpsons Go Celluloid
Mooted since the show’s first season, The Simpsons Movie was finally released in July 2007. James L Brooks and Matt Groening shepherded it to the screen, gathering a dream team of past and present Simpsons writers and hiring veteran animator David Silverman (who even worked on the Ullman shorts) to direct.
“The movie is a big celebration,” explained Groening. “It’s a way of honouring the animators, the writers and all the great actors.”
With studio Fox going on an all-out marketing offensive, the hard work paid off. Costing less than $100 million to produce, The Simpsons movie debuted with a US opening weekend of $74 million and went on to earn $526 million worldwide, more than enough to justify a sequel.
The movie was mostly greeted warmly, if not hugely enthusiastically. But while some thought it was a return-to-form, up there with the classic Simpsons episodes, others thought the largely recycled plot wasn’t really epic or funny enough to successfully expand the show to movie-size.
Nevertheless, the environmentalist-riffing tale was as relevant as ever, while the film gave us some of the best visual gags in Simpsons history – Bart’s naked skateboard ride, the Disney-parodying bedroom scene, ‘Spiderpig’…
The film’s success proved that there was still a legion of Simpsons fans out there who hadn’t abandoned Homer and Co just yet.
Next: The Sequel [page-break]
7. The Simpsons Strike Back?
So, with The Simpsons 20 years old and showing no signs of stopping on the small screen, will a feature-length sequel ever reach our multiplexes?
After all, there are plenty of Springfield residents that didn’t make it into the first flick, including TotalFilm.com fave Sideshow Bob (Kelsey Grammar).
Currently broadcasting its 21st season, The Simpsons is now America’s longest-running primetime TV show. There are two more seasons on order.
In a climate where US series are axed the moment they stop securing ratings, The Simpsons’ longevity means there’s certainly still an audience. Not to mention the $526 million haul from their last cinematic outing.
According to creator Matt Groening though, a movie follow-up isn’t on his to-do list – and if The Simpsons 2 does happen, it won’t be until the show finally ends.
“It took us 18 years to get around to doing the first movie," Groening told Variety. “We got very frustrated. We thought it would take two years but it ended up taking four. Some day maybe we'll do another one. But don't hold your breath…”
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