media

The Ode: The Simpsons (1989-2014)

It’s the longest running sitcom in American history, a cultural phenomenon that made it OK for adults to watch cartoons.

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Photo: FOX/Global

The Simpson family made its television debut on April 19, 1987, as a series of animated shorts on The Tracy Ullman Show, a variety series airing on the then-upstart Fox network. Just over two years later, with a half-hour Christmas special pilot, The Simpsons became the first prime-time animated sitcom since The Flintstones left the air in 1966. But even as Homer, Marge and their three kids, Bart, Lisa and Maggie, surpassed the Stone Age family’s six-season run, no one dreamed the show would continue for a quarter of a century, giving it a second record as the longest-running scripted TV series in American history.

The Simpsons, who infiltrated a world of Huxtables, Seavers, Winslows and Tanners, was like no other family TV audiences had ever seen—and not just because they were yellow and featured a mom with a four-foot-tall blue beehive. After its first episode, the Los Angeles Times called the show “as smart and witty as television gets,” while USA Today asked, “Why would anyone want to go back to Growing Pains?”

Over the course of 22 seasons, the show has won 27 Primetime Emmys and is broadcast in 100 countries and 50 languages. It has also earned billions in merchandising, through T-shirts, videogames, toys and more. (Homer has even featured on a U.S. postage stamp.)

Though The Simpsons began as a funhouse mirror held up to everyday America—the doofus dad and mischievous son, the loving mom and brainy daughter, the nerdy neighbour—over the years the show has gone from reflecting culture to influencing it. Homer’s “D’Oh!” catchphrase is now listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, and a course titled “Simpsons and Philosophy” has been taught at UC Berkeley, not to mention the innumerable times average joes invoke the whiny condescension of Comic Book Guy or utter a Mr. Burnsian “Excellent.”

The series also inspired an entire genre, paving the way for other prime-time animated shows like South Park, Family Guy and King of the Hill. “It’s like what sci-fi fans say about Star Trek: it created an audience for that genre,” Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane once told Vanity Fair. “As far as I’m concerned, they basically reinvented the wheel.”

But over the past decade, the show’s viewership and influence have been in decline. Its U.S. audience has dropped steadily, now averaging about 7.1 million weekly viewers, down from an average 12.4 million a decade ago. Still, in 2007 The Simpsons Movie was released to theatres amid much fanfare and hype—including a marketing campaign that turned actual 7-Eleven stores into fictional Kwik-E-Marts—grossing more than $525 million at the box office.

Rumours of the series’ imminent demise circulated in early October, just after the start of its 23rd season, when 20th Century Fox Television hit a snag in salary negotiations with the show’s six principal voice actors. A new deal was reached on Oct. 7, and the studio confirmed it had renewed the series for its 24th and 25th seasons, which many industry observers now believe will be the last.

As a wise man named Homer once said, “The answer to life’s problems aren’t at the bottom of a bottle, they’re on TV!” If that’s true, television-watching society is in good hands. Between syndication deals that already make the show appear to be on 24 hours a day, and a rumoured all-Simpsons channel that will make that appearance a reality, expect to see The Simpsons on TV until somewhere near the end of recorded time.