Numbers have a way of speaking for themselves. With 34 Emmy Awards, 34 Annie Awards, 8 People’s Choice Awards, a Peabody and a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, it’s not hard to see why The Simpsons is an undisputed cultural phenomenon. And yet despite its impressive list of awards achievement, it’s not the trophies that have made this show the king of TV animation, but its unique brand of social satire that remains unlike anything ever seen in the animated medium.
Premiering 30 years ago, on December 17, 1989, and now with an astonishing 670 episodes (and counting), The Simpsons stands not solely as the longest-running animated show in history, but an institution in itself. Inspiring a world of merchandise, fellow animators (Seth MacFarlane for instance), politicians, and our pop culture lexicon (with D’Oh officially appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary), this show about everyone’s favorite dysfunctional family continues to prove its lasting power with its eternally witty incisiveness of everyday Americana. Even if its comedic quality has declined in recent years, what is certain is that the day The Simpsons first appeared forever changed our TV sets and our pop culture psyche.
It is indeed hard to imagine a time when the show wasn’t on the air, and 30 years of continuous broadcast is a feat that is rarely seen if it all. In the case of the Simpson family they, in fact, have the distinction of being around longer than their respective series; first appearing in 1987 in a series of shorts to accompany the sketch comedy program The Tracey Ullman Show, the family escapades proved to be amongst the most popular segments of the show (which itself only lasted 4 seasons). Conceived by cartoonist Matt Groening and based on members of his own family, The Simpsons offered audiences a sincere, and yet simultaneously absurd snapshot of typical middle-class America.
And so it was that producer James L. Brooks, who saw potential for something bigger than just one-minute shorts, offered Groening the opportunity to expand the Simpsons into a full series for the then-new Fox Broadcasting Company.
When it premiered on that fateful day in December 1989, with a Christmas episode entitled “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”, The Simpsons was not an immediate success; for Groening and the showrunners the challenge of expanding the one-minute shorts to full half-hour episodes proved to be quite the formidable task, and it became clear that the Simpson family alone couldn’t sustain the show by itself.
Slowly, the town of Springfield began to be filled out with characters like Mr. Burns, Krusty the Clown, Principal Skinner and so many more, in the process creating what is probably the largest supporting cast of any television series. For Matt Groening, the show was his chance to create something that he says “was different than the mainstream trash”, but perhaps even he could not have imagined we would still be talking about it 30 years later.
But what is it exactly about The Simpsons that has made it so wildly popular and endearing? Surely its most enduring aspect is its role as a social commentator; deriving humor not only by parodying something in society, but providing witty and controversial critiques of those in power, the show has never shied away from pushing the envelope and sparing no one from its satirical bulls-eye. With heavy use of cultural references from all mediums (film, TV, music, history, etc.) to drive its point across, The Simpsons has always aimed to entertain, and even perhaps inform. While some episodes are most definitely more thought-provoking than others, many are generally funny even if they are not necessarily tackling any specific issue.
Add in numerous guest voice actors, memorable musical numbers in addition to the iconic theme song, and endless clever sight gags including the “Chalkboard” and “Couch” montages, The Simpsons displayed itself as ahead of its time not just for animation but for mainstream television. And while it may not be as sharp or groundbreaking as it once was, it continues the tradition of leading the charge on social satire that has inspired so many today.
Few TV programs can have the distinction of not just being on the air for so long, but of infiltrating our pop culture consciousness and creating a cast of characters, catchphrases and gags that nearly everyone can recognize. Even those who have not watched the show are sure to be familiar with its imagery; in fact, former US President George HW Bush once commented that “We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family and make them a lot less like the Simpsons.” (He would subsequently be lampooned in an episode, quickly becoming enemies with Homer.)
Whether one is a fan or not, the impact of The Simpsons is impossible to deny. So on this 30th anniversary here is a toast to Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Maggie and all the colorful denizens of Springfield for making the last 30 years of our TV watching and pop culture history such a great time of laughter.