By Ryan Fleming
"Spare me the tiresome antics of the Simpson family!" - C. Montgomery Burns
What would the popular culture landscape look like without The Simpsons? Its popularity in the 1990s cannot be overstated, it captured the zeitgeist of the decade from its beginnings in the course changing the broadcasting world in not only its own country but in others. Its influence was felt in countless animated and live-action comedies, spawning numerous imitators. Many who worked on the programme went on the have an indelible impact on television and film in the United States. All this and we won’t even discuss its influence on vocabulary through a large number of neologisms that found themselves entered into the lexicon, or the infinite number of internet memes that continue to permeate online to this day often from its early run. It continues to this day as the longest running American sitcom in history, with its thirtieth anniversary coming in December of this year. When The Simpsons premiered in the United States in the closing weeks of the 1980s the television landscape was a very different place from the one that the programme would herald.
"Stupid TV! Be more funny!" - Homer Simpson
The world was first introduced to the Simpson family in 1987 on The Tracey Ullman Show, a variety show created in part by James L. Brooks and aired on the Fox network. Brooks reached out to cartoonist Matt Groening to develop animated shorts for the programme and using his own family as a template the Simpsons were born.
American sitcoms in the 1980s were broadly two categories – workplace and family. Though both were formulaic the latter was doubly so; the same character types of the wise and funny father, his supporting wife, and their brood of precocious tots. Some cosmetic changes to these archetypes was all the variety needed. Though the Simpsons may have debuted on a programme in the long-faded variety show genre, as they debuted in their own prime time show they were a conscious parody and subversion of these staid, conservative sitcoms like The Cosby Show, Family Ties, and Growing Pains.
The Simpsons was not without its antecedents. There had been prime time animated sitcoms before like The Flintstones and Wait Till Your Father Gets Home, though both had been off the air for twenty-three and fifteen years, respectively, by the time The Simpsons first aired. They were also both direct animated spins on existing sitcoms like The Honeymooners and All in the Family as opposed to ones of the genre itself. Subversive sitcoms had come before like Fox stablemates Married… with Children. Even the quick-fire comedy style of the programme had its predecessor in the short-lived police procedural parody Police Squad! Combining so many of these disparate elements together went some way to making The Simpsons the smash hit it was almost immediately.
Its success went some way to cement Fox as the fourth network in the United States, alongside established broadcaster’s ABC, CBS, and NBC. Though it may be difficult to imagine it now with Fox News being synonymous with some of the worst excesses of the American right, at the time the network was seen almost as a left-wing conspiracy. Able to reach most American homes thanks to the finances of Rupert Murdoch (the irony is palpable), the network succeeded by targeting the enormous gulf between what audiences wanted and what the established networks were providing. They catered to a diverse range of audiences offering programmes like The Simpsons, the aforementioned Married… with Children, and late-night talk show The Arsenio Hall Show. Without programmes like The Simpsons Fox might never have survived and evolved into Fox News, but at the dawn of the 1990s the American right had not a good word to say about the network.
One such figure who took exception to The Simpsons was the President of the United States, George H. W. Bush. Though The Simpsons, and in particular scion Bart Simpson, was enjoying the heights of popularity during his term, to the extent that bootleg Bart Simpson t-shirts became a staple of Gulf War veterans and a long-running urban legend held that during that conflict Iraqi propaganda told American servicemen that while they were fighting in Iraq “Bart Simpson is sleeping with your wife”, the President did not think much of the programme. At the 1992 Republican National Convention he told attendees that he wanted to make the American family “more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons.” His opponent in the upcoming presidential election had a month earlier joined such people as comedians George Lopez and Eddie Murphy, WWF wrestlers like Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage, and fictional serial killer Jason Voorhees in appearing on The Arsenio Hall Show. Bill Clinton’s saxophone rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel” went some way to appealing to the MTV generation. Though Bart Simpson might have done less to draw votes away from Bush than Ross Perot did, once the election results were in the results were clear – Americans saw themselves as more akin to the Simpsons than the Waltons.
Perhaps George H. W. Bush took some solace that eight years later the behemoth Fox had become played no small part in seeing his son elected over Clinton’s Vice President, Al Gore. Fox was not the only television company to expand its reach as a result of The Simpsons.
"The British tabloids will have a field day." - Homer Simpson
As part of Rupert Murdoch’s empire, Fox was part of a global conglomerate of media organisations. Other parts of this organisation were able to gain broadcast rights outside the United States to hits like The Simpsons, one of which was the United Kingdom’s Sky Television.
The Simpsons premiered on satellite television in the UK in September of 1990, ten months after its US debut. At a time when even the biggest American cinema releases could take a year or more to make it across the Atlantic this was a major coup. Original programme had never been an option for Sky or its satellite competitor, British Satellite Broadcasting, and ever attempt had poor results. Look up the execrable Heil Honey, I’m Home for an example. American imports had been popular on American television for a decade since the BBC’s Doctor Who fell in the ratings against US imports Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and then The A-Team on ITV. The Simpson sarrived on British television with such a hype not since replicated.
At the time of their debut in September BSB’s Galaxy was drawing a bigger audience and commanded higher advertising revenue than Sky. Sky One, where The Simpsons aired, saw their audience increase by over 10% and by November it was the winner of the satellite television competition. BSB merged with Sky that month, becoming BSkyB and keeping the Sky idents and branding. Combined with the Broadcasting Act 1990 earlier in the year, the merger of the two satellite companies under Murdoch’s purview and allowing his ambitions for British television to go ahead.
This monopoly on satellite broadcasting would also go some way to allowing BSkyB to win broadcasting rights for the newly formed English football Premier League in 1992 over ITV, which had played a major part in the development of the league. Without The Simpsons, the UK might still have a plethora of satellite dishes on homes but they might have been the square BSB ones rather than the round Sky ones.
Even with its post-Simpsons boom, and later its larger still post-Premier League boom, by the mid-1990s Sky was a presence in just 20% of British households. Not that the remaining 80% had no appetite, two-episode VHS tapes sold like hotcakes and the 1990 novelty single “Do the Bartman” spent three weeks at the top of the UK charts in 1991. The airing of its music video on the BBCs Top of the Pops was the first free-to-air broadcast of the characters. The BBC would gain the terrestrial broadcast rights in 1996 and airing on BBC2 opposite the news on both BBC1 and ITV allowed made it a cultural touchstone with children and cynical adults alike. However, its original airing at 5.30pm on Saturdays saw it beaten constantly by new episodes of Sabrina, the Teenage Witchon ITV. The move to weekdays at 6.00pm saw it reach an unprecedented audience in the UK, where its pairing with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air at 6.30pm is the source of much nostalgia for children of the 1990s. Except for viewers in Scotland who had Gaelic programming on Thursdays. The terrestrial audience peaked in the early 2000s, a time when every four-episode compilation VHS cracked the top ten chart in the UK, but by 2004 rising costs of licensing the episodes saw Channel 4 gain the rights to the programme from the BBC. A fact that may have contributed to the 10% drop in the BBC2 audience that year.
Before the 1990s had ended its creative influence was already being felt in the UK. The comedic tone, and in particular its referencing of famous film and television, was an influence on the Channel 4 comedy Spaced by Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson. It was the first venture for them and director Edgar Wright, who would go on with Pegg to create a trio of comedy films in the same tone – Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007), and The World’s End (2013). Wright would cite Spaced as an effort at doing The Simpsons live-action. Ricky Gervais, who would go on to guest write an episode of The Simpsons, has cited in on an influence on his seminal comedy The Office.
Long before The Simpsons began to influence British comedy, it had already spawned a host of imitators in the United States, which would diversify as the show progressed and would reach fever pitch as the programme neared the end of its first decade.
"It's like they saw our lives and put it right on screen." - Bart Simpson
As mentioned, The Simpsons was the first animated prime time sitcom in the United States for over a decade. Part of what made the Fox network so appealing was the thought that when one of the Big Three networks hit on a successful formula the others would immediately try to copy it. Something that would immediately happen to The Simpsons.
In the first years of The Simpsons existence, other television networks so its unparalleled popularity and thought “me too!” 1992 saw ABC launch Capitol Critters, about the various vermin that live within the walls of the White House. Literal vermin, that is. They aired seven of the thirteen produced episodes before pulling the plug. CBS also tried their hand in 1992 with Fish Police, based on a comic of the same name and aiming at a more mature demographic; they aired half of the six episodes produced before cancelling. In 1993 CBS tried again with Family Dog, which had Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton as executive producers and created by Brad Bird, a director on The Simpsons, but was met with much derision and cancelled after ten episodes. The most successful of these was Dinosaurs on ABC, first aired in 1991 but conceived by Jim Henson in the late 80s. The puppet programme lasted for three years and was even lambasted on The Simpsons as an imitator.
As the 1990s wore on more successful prime time animated programmes were created, off the Big Three networks and in several cases aiming at an even more adult demographic than The Simpsons. MTV hit on success in 1993 with Beavis and Butt-Head, created by Mike Judge. The programme courted enormous controversy but lasted for seven seasons and a theatrical film in 1996. Comedy Central joined in on the craze in 1997 with South Park, from Matt Stone and Trey Parker, like Beavis and Butt-Head it saw great controversy and like The Simpsons it is still airing to this day. Judge would come to Fox in 1997 joining forced with Greg Daniels, an experienced writer on The Simpsons, to create King of the Hill, which would last for thirteen seasons.
At the time King of the Hill premiered, there might have been some thought that it could be a replacement for The Simpsons. They had ended their eighth season that year, which was around as long as the most successful American sitcoms lasted at the time. The Cosby Show had wound up after eight seasons, Seinfeld was entering its ninth and ultimate last season around the same time, to last longer would be unprecedented. A lot of the writers seemed to think so, many departing in the space of a few years to go on to develop their own projects. Even Fox seemed to think the end might be nigh, since the end of the decade saw another swathe of similar programmes that might have replaced The Simpsons.
The twelve months between January 1999 and January 2000 saw no fewer than four programmes begin airing on Fox that could have served as replacements for The Simpsons. The PJs, a stop-motion series created by Eddie Murphy, Larry Wilmore, and The Simpsons writer Steve Tompkins premiered following Fox’s coverage of the NFC divisional play-offs. It aired for two seasons on Fox before moving to The WB network where its high budget and declining ratings contributed to its cancellation. Later in January, following the Super Bowl, Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy premiered. It would be resurrected for cancellation twice and still airs today. MacFarlane later developed American Dad and The Cleveland Show also for Fox. Matt Groening and David X. Cohen, both of The Simpsons, developed the science fiction animated sitcom Futurama. It would debut in March and like Family Guygo on to be resurrected from cancellation but first as straight-to-DVD movies then on Comedy Central. Finally, in January of 2000, the black comedy Malcolm in the Middle debuted on Fox. Created by Linwood Bloomer, unlike other programmes listed it was a live action sitcom. It was even launched in the UK explicitly as the “live-action Simpsons”. It would last for seven seasons.
None of these programmes may have existed were it not for The Simpsons blazing a trail for primetime animated sitcoms and its subversive brand of comedy. A lot of the credit for the latter has to go to the people behind the programme that made it the hit it became, many of whom would go on to have their on influence on popular culture distinct from the programme.
"Cartoons have writers?" - Bart Simpson
As The Simpsons went on, many of the writers and directors that graced it went on to do other things. A few have been mentioned as well, and this is in no way an exhaustive list, there are many examples of staff going on to develop their own films and television programmes independent of The Simpsons.
Part of the animation team on The Simpsons since the days on The Tracey Ullman Show, Brad Bird went on to other programmes such as King of the Hill before developing his first animated feature film in 1998 – The Iron Giant. It received critical acclaim but failed at the box office, likely from a complete lack of promotion from studio Warner Bros. It was enough for Steve Jobs to bring him over to Pixar, where he pitched to them The Incredibles. Bird would win an Academy Award for the film and would go on to make Ratatouille and The Incredibles 2 again for Pixar, in 2007 and 2018 respectively. He would also venture into live-action directing, helming both Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) and Tomorrowland (2015). Bird actually made the latter after passing on Disney’s first sequel to Star Wars that became The Force Awakens (2015).
Ironically one of the most famous former writers on The Simpsons was only there for a brief period before moving on to new things but managed to have a profound impact on the direction of the show. Conan O’Brien was one of the first people hired to the programme after the initial cohort, like many cutting his teeth on Saturday Night Live. His infectious sense of humour had a major impact on the tone of The Simpsons, with his episode “Marge vs. the Monorail” heralding its first moves away from a traditional family sitcom into more surreal territory. With the departure of David Letterman from Late Night producer Lorne Michaels reached out to Conan to replace him, and after an audition in front of an audience of The Simpsons writers his contract was bought out. It may seem as though O’Brien was destined to move on to bigger things, but he credits The Simpsons with saving him from a career slump without which he might not have been able to get his own talk show.
After developing King of the Hill with Mike Judge, the aforementioned Greg Daniels went on to develop two of the most successful American sitcoms of recent decades. In 2004 he adapted the BBC sitcom The Office for US television, and after some early mixed reviews it went on to garner major critical acclaim and run for nine seasons. In 2009, along with Michael Schur, he created Parks and Recreation, taking the portrayal of local politics in The Wire and taking a more comedic approach than the grim crime drama from which it was conceived. It too would overcome early dismissals to widespread critical acclaim and would last for seven seasons.
These are just three examples of the many works created by alumni of The Simpsons, most recently Matt Groening has teamed up with former The Simpsons showrunner Josh Weinstein to develop Disenchantment for Netflix. Bringing with them many former talents from The Simpsons and Futurama. None of them might have gotten their projects made were it not for The Simpsons and the creative freedom which it offered them.
"Are we there yet?" - various
The Simpsons was afforded an unprecedented amount of creative freedom by Fox early in its development, without it the personnel behind it might not have been able to develop the programme that would define the zeitgeist of the 1990s. Nor might it have allowed Fox and Sky to broaden their appeal in the US and UK. US television sitcoms might not have diversified from the plodding family sitcoms of the 1980s without The Simpsons. A smorgasbord of television programmes around the world might never have been made without The Simpsons proving a success or making the careers of so many different talents. These classic episodes from the programmes Golden Age are to the generation that grew up with them what the cartoons of Disney, Warner Bros., and Hanna-Barbara were to preceding generations. With the diversifying of culture across multiple platforms with the rise of the internet, it may be the last of its kind.
Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP