THE SIMPSONS

U.S. Cartoon Situation Comedy

The Simpsons, longest-running cartoon on American prime-time network television, chronicles the animated adventures of Homer Simpson and his family. Debuting on the FOX network in 1989, critically acclaimed, culturally cynical and economically very successful, The Simpsons helped to define the satirical edge of prime-time television in the early 1990s and was the single most influential program in establishing FOX as a legitimate broadcast television network.

The Simpsons' household consists of five family members. The father, Homer, is a none-too-bright safety inspector for the local nuclear power plant in the show's fictional location, Springfield. A huge blue beehive hairdo characterizes his wife, Marge, often the moral center of the program. Their oldest child, Bart, a sassy 10-year-old and borderline juvenile delinquent, provided the early focus of the program. Lisa, the middle child, is a gifted, perceptive-but-sensitive saxophone player. Maggie is the voiceless toddler, observing all while constantly sucking on her pacifier. Besides The Simpsons clan, other characters include Moe the bartender; Mr. Burns, the nasty owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant; and Ned Flanders, The Simpsons' incredibly pious neighbor. These characters and others, and the world they inhabit, have taken on a dense, rich sense of familiarity. Audiences now recognize relationships and specific character traits that can predict developments and complications in any new plot.

The Simpsons is the creation of Matt Groening, a comic strip writer/artist who until the debut of the program was mostly known for his syndicated newspaper strip "Life in Hell." Attracting the attention of influential writer-producer and Gracie Films executive James L. Brooks, Groening developed the cartoon family as a series of short vignettes featured on the FOX variety program The Tracey Ullman Show beginning in 1987. A Christmas special followed in December 1989, and then The Simpsons became a regular series.

Despite its family sitcom format, The Simpsons draws its animated inspiration more from Bullwinkle J. Moose than Fred Flintstone. Like The Bullwinkle Show, two of the most striking characteristics of The Simpsons are its social criticism and its references to other cultural forms. John O'Connor, television critic for The New York Times, has labeled the program "the most radical show on prime time" and indeed, The Simpsons often parodies the hypocrisy and contradictions found in social institutions such as the nuclear family (and nuclear power), the mass media, religion and medicine. Homer tells his daughter Lisa that it is acceptable to steal things "from people you don't like." Reverend Lovejoy lies to Lisa about the contents of the Bible to win an argument. Krusty the Clown, the kidvid program host, endorses dangerous products to make a quick buck. Homer comforts Marge about upcoming surgery with the observation that "America's health care system is second only to Japan's ... Canada's ... Sweden's ... Great Britain's...well, all of Europe."

The critical nature of the program has been at times controversial. Many elementary schools banned Bart Simpson T-shirts, especially those with the slogan, "Underachiever, and Proud of It." U.S. President George Bush and former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett publicly criticized the program for its subversive and anti-authority nature.

In addition to its ironic lampoons, it is also one of the most culturally literate entertainment programs on prime time. Viewers may note references to such cultural icons as The Bridges of Madison County, Ayn Rand, Susan Sontag and the film, Barton Fink, in any given episode. These allusions extend far beyond explicit verbal notations. Cartoon technique allows free movement in The Simpsons, and manipulation of visual qualities, often mimicking comic strip perspectives and cinematic manipulation of space creates an extraordinary sense of time, place, and movement. On occasion The Simpsons has reproduced the actual camera movements of the films it models. At other times the cartoonist's freedom and ability to visualize internal psychological states such as memory and dream have produced some of the program's most hilarious moments.

The unique nature of The Simpsons reveals much about the nature of the television industry. Specifically, the existence of the show illustrates the relationship of television's industrial context to its degree of content innovation. It was a program that came along at the right place, the right time, and appealed to the right demographic groups. Groening has said that no other network besides FOX would have aired The Simpsons, and in fact conventional television producers had previously turned down Groening's programming ideas. The degree of competition in network television in the late 1980s helped to open the door, however. Network television overall found itself in an increased competitive environment in this period because of cable television and VCRs. The FOX network, specifically, was in an even more precarious economic position than the Big Three. Because FOX was the new, unestablished network, attempting to build audiences and attract advertisers, the normally restrictive nature of network television gatekeeping may have been loosened to allow the program on the air. In addition, the championing of The Simpsons by Brooks, an established producer with a strong track record, helped the program through the industrialized television filters that might have watered down the program's social criticism. Finally, the fact that the program draws young audiences especially attractive to advertisers also explains the network's willingness to air such an unconventional and risky program. The "tween" demographic, those between 12 and 17, is an especially key viewing group for The Simpsons as well as a primary consumer group targeted by advertisers.

The Simpsons was a watershed program in the establishment of the FOX network. The cartoon has been the FOX program most consistently praised by television critics. It was the first FOX program to reach the Top 10 in ratings, despite the network's smaller number of affiliates compared to the Big Three. When FOX moved The Simpsons to Thursday night in 1990, it directly challenged the number one program of the network establishment at the time, The Cosby Show. Eventually, The Simpsons bested this powerful competitor in key male demographic groups. The schedule change, and the subsequent success, signaled FOX's staying power to the rest of the industry, and for viewers it was a powerful illustration of the innovative nature of FOX programming when compared to conventional television fare.

The Simpsons is also noteworthy for the enormous amount of merchandising it sparked. Simpsons T-shirts, toys, buttons, golf balls and other licensed materials were everywhere at the height of Simpsonsmania in the early 1990s. At one point retailers were selling approximately one million Simpsons T-shirts per week.

The Big Three networks attempted to copy the success of the prime-time cartoon, but failed to duplicate its innovative nature and general appeal. Programs like Capital Critters, Fish Police and Family Dog were all short-lived on the webs.

-Matthew P. McAllister

 


The Simpson

CAST (voices)

Homer Simpson.................................. Dan Castellaneta
Marge Simpson ...........................................Julie Kavner
Bartholomew J. "Bart" Simpson............ Nancy Cartwright
Lisa Simpson........................................ Yeardley Smith
Mrs. Karbappel ......................................Marcia Wallace
Mr. Burns
Principal Skinner
Ned Flanders
Smithers
Otto the School Bus Driver
  (and Others)..........................................Harry Shearer
Moe
Apu
Chief Wiggins
Dr. Nick Riviera.......................................... Hank Azaria

PRODUCERS   Larina Adamson, Sherry Argaman, Joseph A. Boucher, James L. Brooks, David S. Cohen, Jonathan Collier, Gabor Csupo, Greg Daniels, Paul Germain, Matt Groening, Al Jean, Ken Keeler, Harold Kimmel, Jay Kogen, Colin A.B.V. Lewis, Jeff Martin, Ian Maxtone-Graham, J. Michael Mendel, George Meyer, David Mirkin, Frank Mula, Conan O'Brien, Bill Oakley, Margo Pipkin, Richard Raynis, Mike Reiss, David Richardson, Jace Richdale, Phil Roman, David Sachs, Richard Sakai, Bill Schultz, Mike Scully, David Silverman, Sam Simon, John Swartzwelder, Ken Tsumura, Jon Vitti, Josh Weinstein, Michael Wolf, Wallace Wolodarsky

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

FOX
December 1989-August 1990                Sunday 8:30-9:00
August 1990--                                   Thursday 8:00-8:30

FURTHER READING

Berlant, Lauren. "The Theory of Infantile Citizenship." Public Culture: Bulletin of the Society for Transnational Cultural Studies (Chicago), Spring 1993.

Coe, Steve. "Fox Hoping Simpsons Will Boost Slow Start." Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 8 October 1990.

Corliss, Richard. "Simpsons Forever!" Time (New York), 2 May 1994.

Elder, Sean. "Is TV the Coolest Invention Ever Invented? Subversive Cartoonist Matt Groening Goes Prime Time." Mother Jones (Boulder, Colorado), December 1989.

Freeman, Mike. "Fox Affils Deal for Radical Dude: Simpsons Pricing Appears to Remain Apace of Big-Ticket '80s Sitcoms." Broadcasting & Cable (Washington, D.C.) 1 March 1993.

Henry, Matthew. "The Triumph of Popular Culture, Situation Comedy, Postmodernism and The Simpsons." Studies in Popular Culture (Louisville, Kentucky), October 1994.

Larson, Mary Strom. "Family Communication on Prime-time Television." Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media (Washington, D.C.), Summer 1993.

McConnell, Frank. "'Real' Cartoon Characters: The Simpsons." Commonweal (New York), 15 June 1990.

Ozersky, Josh. "TV's Anti-families: Married....With Malaise." Tikkun (Oakland, California), January-February 1991.

Rebeck, Victoria A. "Recognizing Ourselves in The Simpsons." Christian Century (Chicago), 27 June 1990.

Waters, Harry F. "Family Feuds." Newsweek (New York), 23 April 1990.

Zehme, Bill. "The Only Real People on TV" Rolling Stone (New York), 28 June 1990.

 

See also Brooks, James L.; Cartoons; Family on Television; FOX Broadcasting Company