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
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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.
Simpson.................................. Dan Castellaneta
Marge Simpson ...........................................Julie
Bartholomew J. "Bart" Simpson............ Nancy Cartwright
Lisa Simpson........................................ Yeardley
Mrs. Karbappel ......................................Marcia
Otto the School Bus Driver
Dr. Nick Riviera..........................................
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,
December 1989-August 1990 Sunday
August 1990-- Thursday
Lauren. "The Theory of Infantile Citizenship." Public Culture:
Bulletin of the Society for Transnational Cultural Studies (Chicago),
Steve. "Fox Hoping Simpsons Will Boost Slow Start." Broadcasting
(Washington, D.C.), 8 October 1990.
Richard. "Simpsons Forever!" Time (New York), 2 May 1994.
Sean. "Is TV the Coolest Invention Ever Invented? Subversive Cartoonist
Matt Groening Goes Prime Time." Mother Jones (Boulder, Colorado),
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.
Matthew. "The Triumph of Popular Culture, Situation Comedy, Postmodernism
and The Simpsons." Studies in Popular Culture (Louisville,
Kentucky), October 1994.
Mary Strom. "Family Communication on Prime-time Television."
Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media (Washington, D.C.),
Frank. "'Real' Cartoon Characters: The Simpsons." Commonweal
(New York), 15 June 1990.
Josh. "TV's Anti-families: Married....With Malaise." Tikkun (Oakland,
California), January-February 1991.
Victoria A. "Recognizing Ourselves in The Simpsons." Christian
Century (Chicago), 27 June 1990.
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.
James L.; Cartoons;