Twenty years ago yesterday--December 17th, 1989--a new TV show debuted on Fox, a network that was only two years old. This show was about a cartoon family, which had been featured in animated shorts on a short-lived sketch show for British commedian Tracey Ullman. This new show was called "The Simpsons".
Now, I took to the show pretty quickly--it was hard not to like the troublemaking kid and the idiot father, not to mention the various side characters who developed over time--Moe, the pathetic lowlife bartender, Barney, the chronic drunk, Mr. Burns, the evil capitalist boss, Chief Wiggum, the corrupt and incompetent police chief--and I watched the show regularly when it aired Thursdays and later on Sunday nights. I quoted Homer Simpson in my high school graduation speech, and in college the gang watched the show together in awed silence so that we wouldn't miss a funny line.
It was a show that started off pretty standard, and found its legs quickly, becoming absolutely hilarious for a several season stretch. Since the glory years of the early and mid-90s, the show has had some weaker episodes--often signs of weakness are gimmicks such as guest stars playing themselves ("hey, R.E.M. just happened to show up in Homer's garage!") or sending the Simpsons to some foreign country for quick sight gags ("hey, the Simpsons are now doing the samba in Brazil!"). "Thoughtful" or "political" episodes are generally weak too--Lisa Simpson should serve as a foil for Bart's troublemaking and Homer's latest bad idea, rather than the focus of an episode, and I don't need to see Marge's sister come out as a lesbian to know how I feel about gay marriage. But on the whole, the show has retained it's charm over the years, staying funny most of the time and frankly, even its weaker episodes are funnier than most of what's on TV now.
The Simpsons will shortly surpass "Gunsmoke" as the longest running prime time non-news show, and I figure by now they must have produced over 400 episodes--this means if you were to have a "Simpsons marathon" and watch every episode back to back, it would take you 200 hours, or over 8 days. Non-stop!
Consider--when the show started, George Bush SENIOR was in the first year of his term, Gorbachev was still heading the USSR, and Michael Jackson was just considered "a bit weird" rather than full-on crazy. No one had heard of Bill Clinton, and the Internet was a primitive form used only by high end techies. Hair metal bands were still the rage, and Johnny Carson and David Letterman were still on NBC. It was the Russians who were getting out of Afghanistan, not us getting further into it. And European countries hadn't developed the "Euro" yet--you'd have to get "francs" and "lire" and "deutchsemarks" when you travelled there. The Simpsons has been something most of us have grown up with.
Here's hoping for more great episodes ahead. It's been a good ride.
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