OK, let's put together the perfect TV sitcom.
You'd want it to be funny, of course, and not just joke-funny. You'd want strong characters with emotional honesty. And you'd want the show's structure to be limber enough to support situations of all stripes, from dramatic to absurd.
You'd want it to appeal to as many people as possible: young, old, white, black, American, international. And to be timeless, so the show wouldn't get stale or look dated. While the tone would have an attitude, it wouldn't be sarcastic or snide. A good-natured sensibility would make the characters lovable, make viewers feel at home. The show should also look sharp and sound swell.
And you'd have . . . "The Simpsons"?
Sure, "The Simpsons." Why not? Matt Groening's animated fave meets all those qualifications. Heck, it regularly exceeds them. So regularly that this week marks 10 years of network success since the show's arrival Dec. 17, 1989, when Fox aired the warped Christmas special "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire."
The new Fox network was taking a chance back then on this twisted-family cartoon, expanded from brief commercial "bumpers" on its "Tracey Ullman" sketch series.
"They were a total of 60 seconds a show. And they tested really badly, by the way," recalls Garth Ancier, now NBC's chief programmer, then filling the same role at Fox. Yet his 3-year-old netlet decided "The Simpsons" was "a really interesting shot to take. Why not see if an animated family show works? We broke the form with 'Married . . . With Children,' " and its caustic family takeoff lured millions of viewers.
Ancier took "a leap of faith" by ordering 13 "Simpsons" episodes, though prime time hadn't had an animated hit since "The Flintstones."
"The Simpsons" sure looked different--spiky yellow heads, blue hair--and it acted different. But TV comedy had broadened in the late '80s with "Roseanne" and "The Wonder Years," and audiences responded. The Sunday series was an overnight smash and a bonanza of merchandising.
They weren't your everyday tube family. Their adventures were, uh, unusual. In the pilot alone, fourth-grader Bart gets a tattoo, Homer steals a Christmas tree, and together they hit the dog track. The Simpsons are also utterly addicted to TV. This was subversive stuff.
Yet "The Simpsons" at its heart wasn't all that divergent from "The Flintstones," or any live-action familycom. Indeed, part of Groening's original inspiration "was just an attempt to justify all the wasted hours of watching television" growing up, the creator says. "I was a big fan of 'Leave It to Beaver' and 'Ozzie and Harriet.' "
Groening's goal was to "put into the show the kind of stuff I wanted to see on TV. And didn't."
And some of that he did. After all the anarchy, it's ultimately the sitcom staples of family, love and man's essential goodness that save the day. "The Simpsons" wraps unsophisticated emotions in a sophisticated package--so sophisticated that first reactions ranged from enthusiasm to misunderstanding. TV critics celebrated the show's satiric density. Indignant parents who missed the satire warned American society was going to, well, hell by taking Groening's unruly tyke as a role model.
But what really makes "The Simpsons" soar--still today, nearing 250 episodes--is that they can do anything. Bart, Homer, mom Marge, sister Lisa, Mr. Burns, Apu the clerk, Ned Flanders, everybody is animated. Rather than using the form to ape reality, "The Simpsons" employs cartooning to deepen and expand the sitcom's parameters to sharpen the satire. Guiding Groening from the start were James L. Brooks ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Taxi") and Sam Simon ("Cheers"), his series co-developers.
Brooks made sure the show had heart. The show's voice casting was crackerjack, some of it favored by luck. But the secret weapon behind "The Simpsons" is scripts that aren't cartoony. "We are an animated sitcom," says current "Simpsons" executive producer Mike Scully, who's been with the show since season five (it's now season 11). Gags aren't its writers' stock in trade. Character is.
So writers can try wild ideas, leaping boundaries of reason and mixing odd storytelling rhythms. Ancier thinks that's the show's backbone: "What Jim and his group did was figure out how to use the animated form to tell stories at a much faster pace than traditional sitcoms."
"The Simpsons" truly reinvented TV animation. It's no accident that writers schooled here have gone to other series: Al Jean and Mike Reiss ("The Critic"); Greg Daniels ("King of the Hill"); Josh Weinstein and Bill Oakley ("Mission Hill"). Not to mention Conan O'Brien.
Would "South Park" exist without "The Simpsons"? Not likely. For that matter, would there be a Fox network without "The Simpsons"? The show was Fox's first true sensation, grabbing a first-season 35 audience share and rocketing into Nielsen's Top 30 (a feat Fox wouldn't repeat until six seasons later with "The X-Files").