TV’s longest-running animated family kicks off with a Christmas bang
Not the actual episode title. Read on to find out why..
After earning himself a grassroots fanbase, Matt Groening was approached by James L. Brooks to turn his Life is Hell comic strip characters into interstitial cartoons for The Tracy Ullman Show. Not wanting to fork over controlling rights to his original creation for an unpredictable shot at TV stardom, Groening deftly concocted a last minute idea just moments before the pitch meeting: A dysfunctional family named after members of his own immediate family.
The stars of Life in Hell and their creator
The first Simpsons short premiered on April 19, 1987, and it’s hard to say whether or not it was a hit, since few people were even watching the then fledgling Fox network.
The original Simpsons designs were allegedly crude because the animators simple traced Groening’s concept drawings
Either way, faith in the property led to the decision to give The Simpsons their own half hour show in 1989. Unfortunately, difficulties in the animation’s production caused numerous delays and the series fell short of its fall premiere. It was decided that the show would debut that Christmas, and an appropriate episode was selected to unveil The Simpsons to the world on December 17, 1989.
Almost everything a fan could want
At close to 500 episodes, The Simpsons holds the record of being the longest running American cartoon show and the longest running sitcom in television history. Time magazine called it “the best show of the century,” and the program has since gone on to win twenty-seven Emmys, a prestigious Peabody award, produce one theatrically-released film, video games, a Universal Studios theme park ride, and a billion dollar merchandising empire.
I won’t pretend for a second that a majority of you people haven’t seen this thing. This is for those of you who bitch every December when “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” comes on instead of a regular episode that’s either newer, or easier for you and your buddies to quote.
Right up there with a crooked tree and shooting your eye out
But we owe so fucking much to The Simpsons! Apologies if I’m restating the obvious, but it changed the shape of television programing, and it brought animation back to prime time in a way that hadn’t been done since The Flintstones.
Oh yeah, and the way you and your buddies joke in forums, and internet comedy in general? You’re pretty much Xeroxing beats established in the first fucking episode of one of television’s longest running institutions.
Quite simply, you’re not a Simpsons fan unless you know this Christmas special by heart. Add to that, a true fan will find so much cool shit to see here.
Behold: Characters that’d never be seen again! Click to enlarge
Read not a word I have to write other than this: You’ll be astounded by just how much The Simpsons established in their inaugural full-blown episode, and we’re talking stuff that would eventually become series staples for the next twenty years. Familiar settings and the first appearances of many characters and themes abound here, so have a look:
Boo-urns! Smithers isn’t seen, but he’s heard on an intercom
Patty and Selma
Principal Seymour Skinner
The Happy Little Elves!
And of course…
Santos L. Halper
However… if it looks like The Simpsons Christmas ep hit the ground running, it’s because Simpsons Roasting On an Open Fire was actually the 8th episode produced for the show’s first season.
This always bothered me. It’s as if I’m being forced to look at Lisa’s Va-JayJay
There’s no opening sequence, chalkboard and/or couch gags (although you can still hear variations on Danny Elfman’s Simpsons theme,) but I love that you can clearly see a vision set in place for the show… even though everything looks a tad rudimentary when compared to how the show’s looked for the last two decades.
The tattoo sequence is classic Simpsons all the way
And it should be noted that the first season was animated by Klasky Csupo, best known for Rugrats, and that style is fairly evident here, so feel free to blame them. Here’s some stuff they hadn’t quite nailed yet:
Moe’s hair is jet black, and his bar’s interior is blue
Barney is blond, or perhaps The Simpsons’ equivalent of albino
Lewis changes from black to white like an alien shapeshifter!
Facepalm! Marge’s necklace is occasionally white
But they worked it all out eventually. Fandom aside, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” is the reason other Christmas specials feel slow and phony to so many of you. Matt Groening has stated it was his intention to make an antidote to the “mainstream trash” then polluting the airwaves, but even through its infancy and 20 years worth of hindsight, the special has more than earned the right to be called groundbreaking on every conceivable level.
“Ow! Quit it. [repeat]”
As stupid and unfounded as The Simpsons controversy appears when looking back, it was there for a reason. (Although I truly hope both the press and moral police who were outraged back then feel as dumb as we perceived both then and now.)
Can’t afford a tree? Steal one!
While most of the ire was focused on the ill-behaved and foul mouthed Bart, a never-before-depicted portrait of youth, I think what really bothered folks was that the Simpson family was a much more honest portrayal of American life than anything that’d been seen before on TV.
Coveting thy neighbor (Click to enlarge)
Sure the show’s mostly satirical slapstickery these days, but I still believe the early episode’s authentic take on middle class life cut like a knife through a populace weaned on idealized sitcoms and sanitized subversity.
Your dad’s a drunk idiot whose job sucks as much as he does at it. Your son is a career D student with little hope for the future. Your mother is naively co-dependent and your prodigal middle child is consistently ignored. Oh and there’s a baby in there somewhere.
The star suit went on to almost define Maggie even though she’s only worn it a handful of times
Without a laugh track tossed in there to tell people how to feel about the Simpsons’ heartbreakingly genuine scenarios – the first season alone dealing with repeating a grade, marital infidelity, and fucking suicide! – I’m guessing many TV viewers had no idea what was a joke and what was condemnation.
Because not all families get along. Not even at Christmas!
There’s nothing fake about Homer’s Christmas bonus getting cut and his not being able to afford presents for the family, which we all probably know too well now, after living through one of the worst economic periods in our country’s history.
A shit job, but Homer has to do it
I still find Bart’s assumption that his mother will beam with pride at the site of her name tattooed on his arm hilarious, but the way its surgical removal cuts out Marge’s Xmas present budget too… it’s technically no different than an unexpected car repair or a trip to the emergency room: That shit happens.
Unlike other specials, there’s no hope, no shot at a Christmas miracle on the horizon – the family’s pretty much fucked, and grows ever more so (comedically!) following each and every attempt to salvage some sort of Christmas.
Like Homer’s frustrating necessity to get a job as a mall Santa just to make extra cash, I too know the tear-inducing anger of busting your ass for a minimum wage paycheck, desperately needed for an immediate goal, only to find it chipped away to nearly nothing by taxes and cruelly hidden costs.
Definitely an unlucky number
And while I’ve never had to bet my Christmas on a dog race, I love that Homer’s situation essentially is so screwed beyond repair, and that Bart has become so unwittingly aware of it, he no longer cares about any stigma involved with talking his kid to the dog track to hang out with degenerates and alcoholics on Christmas Eve. As if to say “May as well prepare the boy, his future’s looking no better than mine.”
Kiss the ticket
Of course, they bet on the losingest mutt in town, but at least they get to take him home as a consolation prize! You know, I’ve always wondered why the lower income households I grew up around kept procuring animals when they can barely afford to feed themselves, but I realize now that it’s pretty much the cheapest gift you can give when you’ve got nothing else.
Desperate times, even more pathetic measures
For me, Lisa’s response is enough to validate the gift Homer didn’t even know he was giving. After all, aren’t pets are constantly uplifting… despite technically being a ten to fifteen year investment. But hey, the interest isn’t all that different from what you’ll pay with a credit card. Plus they’re way easier to get for the poverty stricken, and unlike debt, they’ll eventually die.
“All right, A dog! Way to go, Dad”
Some, but almost all of it exudes from the aura of Ned Flanders, Springfield’s mustachioed embodiment of Christ!
You’ll find several dozen approximations during Homer’s mall training, which just so happens make for some of the funniest moments in the entire episode.
I find this image alone hysterical
Just wonderful. I used to groan when this episode ran instead of something from the later seasons, but part of that was because I taped it (despite never once seeing The Tracey Ullman Show?) and watched it a billion times, sometimes daily. That was a long time ago. In terms of Christmas entertainment, simply calling “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” a “new classic” still feels like underselling it. (I’m baffled as to why Fox doesn’t run annually along the lines of A Charlie Brown Christmas or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, in lieu of literally nothing else!) Every moment is immensely enjoyable, and even the ones that come off shaky offer a treasure trove of nerdy, historical value. Watch it to see how clear and confident the showrunners were with the comedic voice they were pioneering. Watch it to see how The Simpsons kick started a new movement of mainstream adult animation and entertainment in general. Watch it because it’s still awesome after two decades dammit!
PRODUCT INFORMATION (Shop Amazon through us – it helps!)
“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” is available on The Simpsons: The Complete First Season, as well as the standalone The Simpsons Christmas DVD with several other Holiday-flavored episodes, like the phenomenal “Mr. Plow” and “Miracle of Evergreen Terrace.” (Of course, I encourage all fans to get the Season DVD sets, as they’re loaded with rarities, deleted scenes and commentary on every episode.) But if you just want to narrow it to The Simpsons and Christmas, here’s another disc for ya: The Simpsons Christmas 2.