Inspiration Behind The Simpsons Twenty-Six Year Success Story

Love or hate them, The Simpsons unique brand of comedy and satire has been infused into popular culture the world over. When compared to other long-running prime-time players like America’s Funniest Home Videos or Cops, The Simpsons still stands alone. Matt Groening deftly utilizes the power of televisual parody to combine complex sociological analyses with fart jokes and farm animals – much to international audience’s delight. In all, the show has won 31 Emmy awards, 30 Annie Awards, seven Environmental Media Awards, ten Writers Guild of America Awards, six Genesis Awards, five People’s Choice Awards and three British Comedy Awards.

Initially developed as short cartoons featured between segments on the Tracy Ullman Show, The Simpsons took to prime-time in January of 1990. When it aired, it was the first animated series to appear on American television in over two decades. The Flintstones, and Rocky and Bullwinkle behind them, were earlier animated fare, but their influence was largely limited to children and their babysitters. The Simpsons reintroduced adults to the notion that cartoons can be thought-provoking, captivating vehicles for both comedic and dramatic plotlines.

In 1987, James L Brooks of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Terms of Endearment fame was hired to produce the Tracey Ullman Show for the young FOX network. Having seen Groening’s comic strip “Life is Hell”, he brought Groening on to create an animated segment to break up Ullman’s comedy skits. The family of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie stayed with Ullman for three seasons before taking off on their own.

But The Simpsons comedy does not operate inside a vacuum. At its network introduction it was already amazingly popular, largely because of it’s clever intertextual commentary.

The show is host to a number of easily recognizable spoofs and references. Fans of The Twilight Zone find familiar themes in the Treehouse of Horror episodes, and there is not a Star Trek fan who hasn’t tuned in to see their favorite explorer in animation (unless your favorite is Captain Kirk – William Shatner reportedly turned down multiple invitations to guest star). A hodgepodge of cultural references, James Earl Jones has made appearances, and Cheers star Kelsey Grammer voices the part of Sideshow Bob, avowed foe of Bart. The list of famous actors playing an alternate version of their character from other various hit television series is extensive. By depicting these rolls through the funhouse mirror of cartoonish parody, The Simpsons revels in life’s ironic complexities.

Some may still think that cartoons are mindless entertainment, but the fact is that The Simpsons (and it’s spawn South Park, Family Guy, American Dad!, etc) offer some of the most sophisticated commentary on modern society. With sharp wit and talented voice artists, The Simpsons and it’s peers place viewers in a world that resembles their own, while weaving in familiar themes borrowed from elsewhere in pop culture. The Star Trek episodes are an example, as they borrow elements from show’s rich pool of plot lines and characters (Leonard Nimoy has personally voiced his character, Spock, on multiple occasions) to create a space where social norms can be comfortably mocked.

As recent twelve-day, “Every Simpsons Ever” marathon of the program on cable channel FXX proved, even after nearly three decades fans still find a reason to love this show.  It’s influence on the prime-time landscape is obvious – stations like FOX play an almost entirely animated line up of shows on certain nights, and new cartoon programming appears almost every month. FXX, a channel available with most cable packages (more info here), will now play the show for 20 hours each week, giving Simpsons lovers more opportunities to bond with the yellow-skinned Springfieldians.

The realistically flawed characters and hilarious plot lines have had most viewers raving, but other critics have been far from impressed.  No one is indifferent to this wacky family; fans can recite from memory their favorite episode while others roll their eyes and change the channel at the first sight of spiky, yellow hair. Some social commentators have been vocal at times about their disapproval of Bart’s hijinks as an underachiever, but after 26 seasons, over 500 episodes, and no signs of slowing down, it’s a fact that The Simpsons has become one of the cultural touch points of our time.

Kate Voss

Kate Voss is a freelance entertainment blogger living in the Windy City. She is an MSU alum with a love for creative writing, reading and restoring antique furniture.

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