The Simpson family as they first appeared on The Tracey Ullman Show
The following is reprinted from Uncle John's Ultimate Bathroom Reader
It may be the most popular prime-time cartoon in history. But how did such an outrageous show make it onto the air in the first place? Read on.
OFF THE WALL
In the mid-1980s, producer James L. Brooks was hired to develop a comedy series called "The Tracey Ullman Show" for the fledgling Fox TV network. Ullman was immensely popular in England ... but Brooks wasn't sure her humor would play well in the United States. He figured that inserting short cartoon segments between her comedy sketches might help keep the show interesting to American audiences.
Brooks was a fan of counterculture cartoonist Matt Groening [wiki] (pronounced Graining), whose weekly cartoon strip Life in Hell runs in The Village Voice and more than 200 other "alternative" newspapers. He had a Life in Hell poster in his office, and one day he remarked to an assistant, "We should get this guy and have him animate for us."
LOST IN SPACE
So Fox officials approached Groening about animating Life in Hell and making its characters - two humans named Akbar and Jeff and three rabbits named Binky, Sheba, and Bongo - part of the show. At first, Groening agreed. Then he ran into a problem: "Fox told me outright, "We must own the characters and the marketing right.' The studio was still getting over the fact that a few years ago it gave George Lucas all the licensing rights to Star Wars."
Groening was making a pretty good living licensing the Life in Hell characters for calendars, mugs, T-shirts, etc., and didn't want to give it up. But rather than walk away from Fox's offer, he came up with another idea. He dashed off a short story based on his real-life family - Homer and Marge Groening (his parents); Lisa and Maggie (his sisters); and an autobiographical character named Bart (an anagram of the word "brat"). He proposed using them instead of the Life in Hell characters, Fox agreed o give it a try.
A NEW FAMILY
As Groening developed these characters for TV, they began to lose their resemblance to his real family. (His father, for example, isn't bald, and his mother no longer wears "big hair.") He changed their last name to all-American sounding "Simpson," and fashioned their lives after old sitcom characters. "I used to spend hours transfixed in front of a TV set watching family situation comedies," he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1990. "It's no accident that the Simpsons live in Springfield - that's the town in "Father Knows Best.'" Later, he added: "What is "The Simpsons' but a hallucination of the sitcom? And that has to be the ultimate American nightmare."
The original sketches were only 15 to 20 seconds long, so Bart was the only well-developed character. "He was like what would have happened if ‘Leave It to Beaver's' Eddie Haskell got his own show," Groening says. "He was a deviant." Homer - his voice, at least - was a Walter Matthau impersonation, Lisa was supposed to be a "female Bart," and Marge and Maggie weren't much more than backdrops for the other characters.
BUST AND BOOM
The "Tracy Ullman Show" debuted in 1987. It was a critical success, but ratings were terrible. Despite this, "The Simpsons" attracted a huge cult following, and Fox responded by increasing the length foot the sketches from 20 to 90 seconds. Then they introduced a line of Simpson s T-shirts, posters, and other items to cash in on the fad.
But the biggest boost to the Simpsons' popularity came from a candy bar company. The makers of Butterfinger and Baby Ruth licensed the Simpson characters for their candy bar ads--which aired on network TV. So kids who'd never heard of "The Tracey Ullman Show" (or Fox, for that matter) finally got a glimpse of Bart and his family. Their popularity grew.
ON THEIR OWN
In 1988, Fox decided to spin "The Simpsons" [wiki] off onto their own show. It was scheduled to premiere in September 1989. But when the initial 13 came back from Korea, where they were being animated, Groening discovered that the director had added a few unauthorized "jokes" of his own. In one episode, for example, when the Simpsons were watching a TV show called "The Happy Little Elves Meet the Curious Bear Cubs," the animators inserted a scene in which a bear cub rips off the head of an elf and drinks its blood.
"Not exactly a minor addition," Groening told The New York Times in 1990. "When we watched it, we sat in the dark for about two minutes in silence. Then we ran for the door. I thought my career in animation had sunk to the bottom of the sea. Had that gotten on the air, there would be no show today." The director and animators were fired, and the show was postponed until January 1990 while new animators fixed the episodes.
"The Simpsons" as we know it today finally made it onto TV on January 13, 1990. It earned the second-highest ratings in its time slot-pretty impressive when you consider that Fox didn't have as many affiliates around the country as ABC, CBS, or NBC. ("The Tracey Ullman Show" went off the air five months later.) "The Simpsons" went on to become Fox's highest-rated show. In March 1990, it placed 20th in the weekly Nielsen ratings, and in June went all the way to #3. It has, without question, played a key role in establishing Fox as a viable fourth network.
In 1992, Tracey Ullman filed suit against Fox for $2.25 million, arguing that since "The Simpsons" got their start on her show ("I breast-fed those little devils," she told a reporter), she was entitled to a share of the merchandising profits. In court, however, she admitted that she did not create "The Simpsons," write any of the shows, or take part in any of their merchandising. She lost the case.
"The creativity of the way people respond to the show is fantastic. You should see the fan mail. Kids send in their pictures of Bart beating up other cartoon characters."
- Matt Groening