On Dec. 17, 1989, The Simpsons debuted as its own half-hour show, beginning with a Christmas special episode, Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire. In the 25 seasons since, the program has aired 560 episodes during its run as both the longest-running prime-time animated series and longest-running sitcom in television history. Beyond longevity, the program has become a cultural touchstone, offering television’s sharpest satire of politics, religion, society and beyond – all while generating millions of laughs.
This week, Western News asked two Western academics to reflect on the series and its meaning a quarter of a century after it burst onto the scene. (After finishing this piece, read Bill Cameron’s Proudly wearing a badge of Generation Bart.)
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Hello Simpsons, My Old Friend
Mention 1989 and cleverer people will talk about when tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, or when the Exxon Valdez ran aground, or when the Berlin Wall started coming down. I remember these monumental events, but all seemed to be abstract and impossibly far away from my small life in the suburbs of metro Vancouver 25 years ago.
I was 13 years old. In the tumult of a lateral move from one nondescript suburb to another that year, a new school and the low-intensity bullying that came with relocating, I was just another weird, socially awkward kid trying to escape. A reliable distraction was the animated fare that aired after school and on Saturday mornings, a program mix that consisted mainly of formulaic, brainwashing dreck like He-Man, Jem and G. I. Joe.
Before long, though, I was bored of commercial taglines and public service announcements. I became a strategic cartoon junkie; I searched out reruns of classics like Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry in all their uncensored glory and watched bootlegged copies of My Neighbor Totoro and Fritz the Cat.
The overall terribleness and banality of was what readily available on TV motivated me quite early to be a more active and discriminating animated cartoon viewer. I wanted to watch something new that made me feel smart and adult. And I wasn’t alone.
I don’t think it’s an understatement to say The Simpsons changed everything in terms of what the animated TV series was – or was expected to be. I know that I’m far from the first person to notice how its creator, Matt Groening and his creative cadre permanently altered the cartoon landscape. However, when Groening developed The Simpsons in 1987 as a collection of animated shorts featured on Fox’s The Tracey Ullman Show, the endeavour must have seemed an absurd experiment: Fox was then a new and insignificant network; it had decided to gamble on a comedian whom virtually no one in North America knew; and Groening’s animated skits were meant to act merely as filler material between sketches in Ullman’s show.
Given its inauspicious beginnings, The Simpsons should never have worked. So the spinoff of this feature into a stand-alone animated series two years later was serendipity of the most cromulent order.
From the very start, the Simpsons writers knew what they didn’t want the show to be – kiddie programming. To this end, Groening and his team produced storylines that would speak to grown-up observations and sensibilities. The writing clearly aimed to invest viewers emotionally in outwardly ‘weird and grotesque’ characters – the opening episode, Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire, set this standard early by focusing on the Simpsons’ financial hardships and following Homer on his yuletide odyssey through Springfield to find gifts for his wife and children after his Christmas bonus is clawed back by his heartless boss, Mr. Burns.
Simultaneously, however, the show makes a point of pushing the boundaries of televised propriety. Impertinence, too, became an early hallmark of The Simpsons when Fox network censors expressed concern over the use of the word ‘groin’ in Open Fire, and the writers fired back with the line that launched a thousand school dress code violations:
“I’m Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?”
When I bring up The Simpsons now, someone will invariably point out that the show has ‘jumped the shark.’ I’ve come to expect the bored sniff followed by “Oh, you still watch that? I gave up following The Simpsons after Principal Skinner turned out not to be Skinner/the fifth clip show/Homer became ‘too stupid.’”
Admittedly, the show has joked openly about running out of steam since its 9th or 10th season, and it’s not that I haven’t noticed. It’s simply I consider these lapses forgivable, even expected, in an otherwise strong 560-episode run, especially given the winking, meta way in which the writing feels free to wallow in its own crapulence. Considering that in 1989 it was doubtful that The Simpsons could hold viewers’ attention for a single half-hour block, the few mediocre jokes that found their way into the total 280 hours produced seem negligible.
Soon, the series will be 25 years old; that’s a full quarter-century of free comic entertainment that’s paralleled the trajectory of my life from adolescence to early middle age. Due to my long-term attachment to the show, it’s quite impossible for me to separate its cultural significance from the influence it has had on me directly.
The Simpsons will always be my show. It is the program that defines my social generation and gives a language to its peculiar psychic cocktail of hope, snark and lowered expectations. And because life imitates art more than art imitates life, we live in a world where ‘D’oh’ appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, Glasgow and Aberdeen both continue to claim Groundskeeper Willie as a native son, and the audience that the series built and nurtured for itself still watches the one show it can count on to reward it for paying attention.
Keep coming up Milhouse, old friend.
Hi, I’m Elle Ting. You may remember me from such educational articles as ‘Unbending the Wookie’ and ‘A Connoisseur’s Guide to Squishees.’ I completed my Media Studies PhD at Western in 2009 and currently chair the Humanities Department at Vancouver Community College.