30 Years Later, 'The Simpsons' Are A Part Of The American Family

Apr 19, 2017
Originally published on April 19, 2017 9:54 am

On April 19, 1987, a momentous event happened: America was introduced to one of its most enduring families, The Simpsons.

Bart, Homer, Marge and the rest of the family first appeared in 48 short filler segments on the sketch comedy program The Tracey Ullman Show, but those first characters were very different from the Simpsons of today.

"At first they were what we call bumpers that went between The Tracey Ullman Show and commercial breaks," says Maureen Furniss, an animation historian who teaches at the California Institute of the Arts.

"The Simpsons were very quick little segments that were united by some particular theme," she says.

For Furniss one particular segment, where Bart and Lisa are having a burping contest, stands out as a depiction of what early versions of the characters were before the standalone show began.

When Matt Groening created The Simpsons, Furniss says, people were excited to see what the cartoonist would do within the field of animation. With the show, she says Groening set a new standard for animation on TV, especially when it came to shows that were more crass and humorous.

"When The Simpsons came out, people were so worried about the crude behavior," Furniss says. "But they didn't have any idea that South Park or Beavis and Butt-head were on the horizon and would be much more outrageous in a lot of ways."

Since the days of the early filler segments and The Simpsons' launch as its own show in December 1989, the town of Springfield and its yellow inhabitants have managed to become TV's longest-running, prime-time scripted entertainment series.

With such a long history, it's no surprise that there have been more than a few times when The Simpsons were the subject of a story here at NPR. Below you'll find a sampling of this work, with an assurance that there's always more to come — so long as Homer and Co. continue to let us into their world on Sunday nights.

In 2016, NPR's Bob Boilen went to Springfield and hung out with the locals. Over the years plenty of celebrities have made cameos as themselves, but during the 27th season of the show Boilen was cast as a radio host of "Mountain Trax," a local Springfield program. All Things Considered host Robert Siegel also has made an appearance, along with the familiar opening tune to NPR's program.

In 2015, we all learned a bit more about Bart — or rather, about the woman who gives the mischievous 10-year-old his voice, Nancy Cartwright. NPR's Danny Hajek interviewed Cartwright about how she started on The Simpsons. She actually didn't intend to audition for Bart's role, but can you really imagine him sounding any other way?

While the show is full of humor and references to current events ranging from politics to religion, it also consistently has featured classical music. Before the start of a 12-day marathon of every single episode in 2014, NPR's Mark Mobley created "A Perfectly Cromulent Classical Guide To 'The Simpsons' Marathon" that goes through the references chronologically.

Throughout the years different members of the cast and even the creator of the show have talked with NPR. In an episode of Fresh Air, host Terry Gross revisited interviews with creator and cartoonist Matt Groening, showrunners Al Jean and Mike Reiss, and several of the show's actors.

The Simpsons has been making news since the show's beginning, and continues to do so. Last week the Oxford Dictionaries embiggened its collection with the words "embiggen" and "cromulent," which the show introduced as Springfield-specific terms. Even decades-old one-off jokes have staying power for the 619-episode-and-counting show.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Thirty years ago today, TV watchers met one of America's most enduring families, "The Simpsons."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW")

JULIE KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) Hold on, all of you. There's no need to slurp your soup so loudly.

DAN CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) She's right, you little slobs.

KAVENER: (As Marge Simpson) Let's try a little dignity around here.

NANCY CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) Okie dokie, Mom.

(SOUNDBITE OF GULPING)

INSKEEP: Marge, Homer, Bart, Lisa, Maggie - "The Simpsons" began their existence just filling time. They appeared in 48 little filler segments on the sketch comedy program "The Tracey Ullman Show." And they were different from "The Simpsons" we know today.

MAUREEN FURNISS: At first, they were what we call bumpers that went between "The Tracey Ullman Show" and the commercial break.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

That is Maureen Furniss. She teaches animation at the California Institute of the Arts. We were talking to her on Skype.

FURNISS: "The Simpsons" were very quick little segments that were united by some particular theme. One that stands out in my mind is the burping contest. The kids are drinking sodas and belching. And poor Marge is trying to get them to stop.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW")

KAVENER: (As Marge Simpson) Bart, are you burping again?

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) Maybe.

KAVENER: (As Marge Simpson) What is it with this burping?

YEARDLEY SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) It's fun.

KAVENER: (As Marge Simpson) I absolutely forbid burping in this household.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) How's it going, everybody?

(SOUNDBITE OF BURP)

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Oops, pardon my French (laughing).

GREENE: No, Steve, stop. We are not having a burping contest in here. Now, the animation back then...

INSKEEP: (Laughter) When the microphone is off...

GREENE: Yeah, the animation way back then, it was cruder than it would become. The characters - I mean, they almost looked scribbled. They were the creation of a newspaper cartoonist Matt Groening. His comic strip "Life in Hell" featured a neurotic rabbit, his illegitimate son and their gay friends.

FURNISS: Everybody was very eager to see what Matt Groening was going to do with animation. And "The Simpsons" made a new bar for TV animation, especially things that were much more crude humor. When "The Simpsons" came out, people were so worried about the crude behavior. But they didn't, you know, have any idea that things like "South Park" or "Beavis And Butt-Head" were on the horizon and would be much more outrageous in a lot of ways.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW")

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) Don't shove Maggie. She's just a little baby.

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Don't hit your little sister. She's a girl.

(As Grampa Simpson) Keep your hands off him, Homer.

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) Apology accepted, Homer. I'd forgive you, too, if you used a breath mint.

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Why, you little...

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson, choking).

CASTELLANETA: (As Grampa Simpson) Homer.

INSKEEP: Homer and Bart have had a chokehold on television ever since they got their own show in 1989. Sometimes they're kind of profound, literary. And they're now the longest-running situation comedy in television history, real or animated. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.