Our favorite TV show of all-time is a quarter of a century old and it continues to inform and inspire everything we do and who we are.
Twenty-five years ago today, The Simpsons debuted it’s “first episode.” Please don’t rush to the comments. I’m more than aware of The Christmas Special. I’ve written about it at length. Blah, blah, blah, it was the 7th episode of their first season production order (and happened to be the episode that was most ready to air) and it literally bears a “Simpsons Christmas Special” title card in place of a couch opening. It’s not technically the first episode, but it was glorious. I watched it, I thought it was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. I taped it, I watched that tape 50 times that month. And like most of the 9-year-olds, I wasn’t reading entertainment trades or fucking Variety. This was a pre-internet world. Not only did I lack the ability to see if anyone else on the planet liked “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” as much as me, my dad and my friends did, not only was it next to impossible yell at the showrunners to make more on social media… I had absolutely no idea there was more Simpsons in store.
Then, if I’m not mistaken, Fox aired the Christmas special again (in my territory anyway.) As something of a Xmas special expert, please trust me I say that’s a rare thing, because ho man, this is already destined to be the longest introduction of all time, and more importantly, the re-airing seemed to confirm my suspicion that, YES, this was actually the greatest thing ever. It was the only indication I had that this foul-mouthed cartoon was, in fact, the phenomenon I was hoping for. HUZZAH! And during that second live viewing, you can’t imagine my surprise and fucking elation to see a promo for the first episode, of the first season of The Simpsons. The Show! Coming in January! Without a lot to compare it to, it was like knowing Santa got your letter. I think I danced. It’s the kind of reaction people film and put on YouTube today.
Homer was the star of the Christmas special, but on January 14, 1990, twenty-five years ago today, his son took center stage in “Bart the Genius.” He’d already intrigued me in the Xmas ep, but this confirmed he was exactly my age, in exactly the same grade, and Bart was a helluva lot more like me than any character I’d ever seen or read about. We were both getting into a lot of trouble and performing poorly in school, and a lot of people forget that these characteristics alone hadn’t really been portrayed on television before. I think the immediate merchandise tsunami that followed played up the “Underachiever and Proud of it” angle way more than the show originally did. When you watch those early episodes, you can clearly see the writers delighting in making Bart do bad things, but Bart didn’t necessarily. He showed regret and remorse, but he very much kicked many a hornets nest because that’s what kids that age do when they’re bored and looking for interesting shit to do. That was me.
Bart’s transition to self-realized badboy came later, because like me, he didn’t initially realize he was actually a “bad kid.” Before The Simpsons, I actually thought authority figures hated me, as in they chose to pick me out of a group of kids and dislike me, and that was why I constantly in trouble. I thought it was because I was ugly, or that I always had the only last name that ended in a vowel (in bum-fuck Florida, BTW.) It was depressing. “Why is the principal always asking to see me? Whatever, I wonder what that fire alarm sounds like.” Watching Bart organically fall into deep shit helped me recognize some of my own bad behavior, and yeah, at certain points… take a little pride in some of it. Jesus Christ, I swear I’m getting to the point here… THEME: It was Bart that pulled me into the show, and my age was important.
Age plays an important role here. I could probably write a billion clumsy words about The Simpsons debut coinciding at precisely the point and time when I was developing a greater sense of pop culture awareness. But thank God, I don’t have to: We did an entire podcast about it! Furthermore, The Simpsons is even bigger than that for all of us here. It is the Sun that Laser Time’s sense of humor and cynical worldview revolves around. It shaped our tastes, informed our sense of justice, and made us more curious about the world around us. So obviously, it’s been the subject of a podcast or two.
Our first episode specifically revolving around Fox’s First Family was a listening party we had with the album The Simpsons Sing the Blues, a hilarious little musical artifact. Home to genuine chart toppers like “Deep, Deep Trouble” and the Michael Jackson-penned “Do the Bartman”, Simpsons Sing the Blues we all owned but is so fucking weird it almost requires you crosscheck reality with your nostalgia. Did this actually exist, or is this just a joke from the show we’ve made a reality? Well, it totally happened, and it was sung by the show’s cast while The Simpsons phenomenon was at its apex. In this episode, not only do we revisit this excruciatingly sincere relic of the most 90s music you’d never want to listen to alone, the second part of our show unearths the rarely-mentioned second album recorded after Sings the Blues’ success, The Yellow Album. I’m guessing that as the show found its legs and the writers were gaining their confidence with the show’s voice, this album was deemed too embarrassing to release solely in the name of a quick buck. The Yellow Album was shelved for almost a decade, then quietly released in 1998, and it’s a wonderful bit of Simpsons schadenfreude every fan should experience. These albums are just so fucking bizarre, almost like a Simpsons joke gaining sentience.
Whenever folks asked me to do an entire Laser Time episode devoted to The Simpsons, my answer was always the same. “There have been 500 episodes of the show, half of which I haven’t seen. We need another detail or qualifier in there otherwise it’ll just be a bunch of 30-year-olds tossing out references from the first eight seasons.” So when it came time to decide on a topic for our landmark 100th episode, we chose to do just that. I couldn’t think of anything special enough to be our 100th topic, so hey, maybe on this occasion we deserved a self-serving episode? I can’t overemphasize how ingrained those first few seasons are in our brains, and I’m not exaggerating when I say the Laser Time hosts could, and occasionally do, speak in a language made up entirely of Simpsons references. There are so many thoughts and feelings we can convey to one another with 100% accuracy using a quote from Mr Burns, but I normally discourage that so the audience isn’t confused. Except for this one special time, as we tried to champion a single season of The Simpsons as its best. (I believe Season 8 won according to a reader poll.)
That’s it for Simpsons podcasts, strangely. However, we’ve done plenty of articles relating to TV’s first family. It’s really hard to be proud of this one. It’s without a doubt the most morbid and creepy thing I’ve ever done on Laser Time (with the possible exception of Actors Who Kill and Actors Who Died on Set) yet it’s one of our most consistently popular articles. Around Comic-Con of 2014, I had written something on the nature of whiny ass Simpsons fans and their refusal to understand how well The Simpsons has actually evolved as an animated show for the modern age, as a necessity, juxtaposed with the countless viewings of the first ten or so seasons we’ve all endured from a much more impressionable age. I mean, you’re aware the show’s been on a long time, but you really have nothing in pop culture history nor your live to compare it to. The article was bizarrely controversial. So, in order to further emphasize just how old The Simpsons is, and how old you’ve grown while watching it, I decided to make a list of Every Dead Celebrity Guest Star Ever. When you view the stretch of corpses, it’s much easier to see just how many cultural movements The Simpsons has Mr. Plowed through, and that the episodes many consider sacrosanct has a lot more to do with (although not everything to do with) timing and your personal worldview. How the era you consider special is but one of many. But yeah… dead celebrities. I’ve even kept it consistently updated. 62, including the recent passing of Jan Hooks, for those of you who refuse to click.
The Every Simpsons Ever marathon from last year was yet another thing associated with milestone for the show that’s utterly pop culturally unprecedented. Many of us can quote old Simpsons episode by heart, but due to the nature of their syndication, we as a nation have never had the luxury of watching these episodes together. For the first time ever, the 12-day FXX marathon had the Simpsons-lovin world watching the same episodes at roughly the same time and it was kinda beautiful. The closest approximation to seeing what it’d be like if Twitter existed when “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge” originally aired! Social media exploded with pictures and references newly remembered, it was fucking magical. So Dave and I attempted (poorly) to capitalize on that fan momentum with a week of Simpsons videogame streams. From the atrocious NES trilogy…
To the kinda-bad, wonderfully-fan-servicey The Simpsons game from 2007, which I’m betting will be the last Simpsons game you’ll play anywhere other than a phone.
Videogames have been a major part of my life, as have The Simpsons. Both have quite literally defined me. And yeah, it’s kind of fascinating to see how The Simpsons have wormed their way into the medium across so very many hardware generations. (Seriously, only a handful of characters born outside the interactive medium do that.) Admittedly, these games almost always suck, yet our continued logic-defying curiosity to dive in anyway is a wonderful testament to The Simpsons’ gravitational pull. I would never recommend anyone play these games, other than maybe the Arcade game or Hit N’ Run, but they’re definitely worth a watch.
I wish I could offer you more insight on this, but I didn’t actually write it. It’s the perfect counterpoint to people who want to write of the show just because it’s changed (and changing) and while I’ll admit that The Simpsons of today is filled with some agonizing moments and serious groaners, there are still three or four episodes a year that absolutely nail it. If you have a Hulu subscription, seriously go see for yourself. Or have you had enough Simpsons at this point? To quote Ralph Wiggum/George Washington:
GET SOME SIMPSONS AND SUPPORT LASER TIME!!