|Our Favorite Family (shudder)|
If I were a more famous person, I would expect my post last week to be littered with comments along the lines of, "Eww, why are you starting your discussion of cartoons with 'The Simpsons?' That's blasphemy. You should be starting it with X instead." And where X is Looney Toons, Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat, Betty Boop, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, "Snow White," or, hell, even 'Fantasmagorie' for fuck's sake I could understand the argument.
And no, "The Simpsons" is not the most important cartoon of all time, nor the first, nor is it really where we would have to start our discussion on adult cartoons (not that I specified that adult cartoons would be the focus of Re-Animated, although largely it will be.) So why start with "The Simpsons," Steve?
Well, "The Simpsons" is, if nothing else, a watershed. I'm comfortable saying that there was animation before "The Simpsons" and animation after "The Simpsons" and never the twain shall meet. "The Simpsons" was what the Doctor would call a fixed point in time. There's no avoiding it.
So when I start to expand with this animation discussion, I'm going to expand in one of two directions: forward from "The Simpsons" or backwards from "The Simpsons." It always has been, and always will be, my North Star.
But you probably already guessed that coming from someone who wrote an actual book called BILLY AND THE CLONEASAURUS. Part of what's so important about "The Simpsons" is that it's the North Star for an entire generation. My generation, it so happens, whether you want to call that Millennials, Echo Boomers, Gen X, or god knows what all else they're calling us now in the fucking Chicken Little old guard press.
I read once that Baby Boomers knew they had ascended to power when Beatles lyrics began to be quoted in newspaper headlines and that my generation would know we had ascended to power when "Simpsons" quotes were the source of newspaper headlines. Of course, we don't really have newspapers anymore, but the point remains: "The Simpsons" was our cultural touchstone. It was the thing everybody watched and everybody understood and everybody could unite over.
So where did this peculiar (and make no mistake, it was damn peculiar, both for the time and still today) TV show come from? Well, imagine a time before streaming services had supplanted cable, when cable had not yet even supplanted broadcast networks. TV was broadcast by towers...okay, maybe I'm going to deep into it.
Here's the deal: there was this asshole named Rupert Murdoch. He's still alive today unfortunately. He had made his bones as a newspaperman, but had recognized by the '80s that TV would be the source of future public opinion. He started a network called Fox, and in the early days Fox was notable only for being raunchy and crass. Shows like "Married With Children," which were considered the zenith of humor, were how Fox was trying to make a name for itself. While the Big Three broadcast networks (ugh, okay kids: NBC, CBS, and ABC) considered themselves respectable to one degree or another, Fox was like the kid who didn't mind eating worms in the playground as long as someone was watching him, for Christ's sake.
"The Tracy Ullman Show" was a skit show and was what passed for a hit in the early days of Fox programming. "Tracy Ullman" was a "throw the spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks" kind of show, and one particular piece of spaghetti was a weird little interstitial segment that featured a crudely drawn family of yellow-skinned freaks.
Like "Pinky and the Brain" (which we'll get to...uh...sometime) "The Simpsons" quickly eclipsed the popularity of its host show. To this day I can still remember playing around the house until my parents called me because a "Simpsons" skit was on. The rest of "Tracy Ullman" was dull as dishwater to a kid my age. I didn't even get it.
Fox took what was a wild gamble at the time. Because, honestly, what did they have to lose? As a bottom-dwelling network with abysmal ratings, what did it matter what they did? Like Tracy Ullman, they could afford to throw spaghetti against the wall. And since people were sort of talking about that weird animated skit on one of their more popular programs, the Fox execs decided to take a chance and ordered a full half hour comedy series from "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening.
There was a certain genius to this move, but also a certain amount of crazy, one-in-a-trillion luck. It's hard to explain it now when adult animation is everywhere, but in the late '80s there was quite simply no such thing. Cartoons were for afternoons and Saturday mornings when kids watched TV. Just like soap operas were for weekday early afternoons, news was for 6pm, and primetime was for cops and lawyers. To order a cartoon show and play it in primetime was just insane.
And somehow, by some combination of genius and luck, the closest thing I would call a miracle in my short little lifespan, "The Simpsons" became the voice of a generation. Overnight. The President of the United States was talking about "The Simpsons." Negatively, of course, but still. How many shows are deemed important enough for the president to talk about?
Bart Simpson shirts were banned in schools. I remember this. Can you even imagine now? Bart didn't swear or say anything racy or profane. His catchphrases were (and I quote) "Don't have a cow, man" and "Eat my shorts." If a kid said "eat my shorts" to me today - or in 1989, to be quite frank - I'd probably chuckle at how quaint it was.
"The Simpsons" smashed through the wall of adult animation like the Kool-Aid man. Suddenly every network was desperate to find a "Simpsons"-style hit...which we'll talk about in another segment or two. But looking back at those first two seasons of "The Simpsons" only when I'm feeling charitable can I say that they're watchable. They captured the Zeitgeist of the late '80s/early '90s, to be sure, but were it not for the entrance of two very important people into our tale, I suspect "The Simpsons" would languish as a relic of a bygone era. I mean, honestly, when was the last time you watched "Wings" or "Northern Exposure" or "Beverly Hills, 90210?"
But what happened with "The Simpsons" was a wunderkind writing duo entered stage left as the new showrunners: Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein. And from give or take 1992 to give or take 2000 "The Simpsons" went from being a weird, crass, Frankenstein's monster to the most sublime television show possibly in history. I'm not exaggerating to say the Oakley/Weinstein era was one of sheer genius. Quote almost any line of dialogue from almost any episode to someone of my generation and they will never fail to respond with the next.
And so "The Simpsons" hadn't just kicked in the door, it had turned into a juggernaut. I could go on. I could go on and on. I could talk about the decline and (still not yet!) fall of the once mighty "Simpsons." I could talk about how it influence every speck of animation that came afterwards. But I have the rest of the year and an as-yet undecided amount of future Re-Animated posts to do that. For now, let's just kick off the first part of my recurring series with a salute to "The Simpsons:"
The cause of...and solution to...all of life's problems.