It feels like The Simpsons has been on the air forever, doesn’t it? Since the very first short premiered on April 19th, 1987, a lot has happened. The Berlin Wall came down, the Kardashians rose. Six US Presidents–and two impeachments. Y2K, September 11th, and the launch of Facebook. It’s been a wild three and a half decades and through it all, Homer, Marge, Bart, Maggie, and Lisa have been there.
How ‘The Simpsons’ Began
Matt Groening started his career as a cartoonist with a self-published comic book called Life in Hell, a surreal satire of his time in Los Angeles featuring a cast of anthropomorphic bunnies. What began as a photocopied booklet he sold for $2 eventually turned into a nationally syndicated comic strip, catching the attention of producer James L. Brooks.
Brooks wanted Groening to turn Life in Hell into an animated short for The Tracey Ullman Show. However, Groening was worried that he’d end up losing the rights to his original characters, so he dashed off a script about a dysfunctional nuclear family called The Simpsons. He named the characters after his own family members–except Bart, who is a stand-in for Groening himself.
The animation style evolved over the years, as you can see in the very first short:
The voice cast hasn’t changed much, however, with Dan Castellaneta and Julie Kavner voicing Home and Marge from the very beginning. Those actors were already part of the cast on The Tracey Ullman Show. Nancy Cartwright (Bart) and Yeardley Smith (Lisa) auditioned for each other’s roles before being cast. Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer wouldn’t join the cast until it was spun off into the half-hour series we know and love in 1989.
A Billion-Dollar Empire
Who would have thought that a handful of animated shorts on a mostly forgotten sketch comedy show would become one of Hollywood’s biggest moneymakers? Long after The Tracey Ullman Show was canceled in 1990, The Simpsons is still going strong.
If you grew up in the 90s, then you know that Simpsons merchandising was everywhere for most of the decade. Bart was the breakout star–remember all those t-shirts that said “Eat My Shorts”–but the show was wildly popular and remained so for more than a decade. The golden era featured incisive social commentary and a who’s who of guest stars.
Since then, though, a thinkpiece about the decline of The Simpsons seems to get published at least once a year. The sequel to the 2007 feature film (which grossed more than half a billion dollars) has languished in development for years. After mounting public pressure, Hank Azaria decided to step down as the voice of Apu, acknowledging that his portrayal of an Indian character was problematic. The producers also decided to permanently consign the 1991 episode featuring Michael Jackson, “Stark Raving Dad,” permanently to the vaults. It will not appear on Disney Plus, the home of every episode of the show since Disney acquired Fox’s catalog in 2019.
I would argue that the decline of The Simpsons hinged on two things that happened within a year of each other. In 1998, Phil Hartman passed away, and the recurring characters of Tr0y McClure and Lionel Hutz were lost forever. Then Matt Groening turned his creative attention to Futurama in 1999. Although he had stepped down as showrunner, passing the torch to Al Jean and Mike Reiss at the start of season 3, 1990 was the point at which the show started to feel a little stale. Still creative, still funny… but perhaps not as fresh or innovative as it once seemed.
Without The Simpsons, half-hour animated sitcoms never would have become a thing. No King of the Hill. No Family Guy, no Bob’s Burgers. And likely no Big Mouth or BoJack Horseman, either. Although he didn’t know it at the time time, Matt Groening created an entire genre when he first sketched the awkward, spiky characters that would one day be the Simpson family.
More ‘Simpsons’ Through 2023 at Least
The Simpsons has been on the air continuously for 32 seasons and, to date, 702 episodes. And good news for fans of the show: It was renewed last month for seasons 33 and 34.
Groening quipped, “Everyone at The Simpsons is thrilled to be renewed once more, and we are planning lots of big surprises. Homer will lose a hair, Milhouse will get contact lenses, and Bart will celebrate his tenth birthday for the thirty-third time.”
Even though the quality of the show may have gone up and down over the years, The Simpsons still holds its ground as one of the most successful and culturally important TV shows ever. These days, you can see Matt Groening’s latest project, Disenchantment, on Netflix–and you can binge-watch all 32 seasons of The Simpsons on Disney Plus.