30 Years Ago: ‘The Simpsons’ Avoids Disaster With First Regular Episode
When the first regular episode of The Simpsons aired on Jan. 14, 1990, viewers didn’t know it was the show's last chance. Until that point, Matt Groening’s animated characters had grown from one stage to another. Starting in a series of inter-sketch shorts on the Tracey Ullman Show in 1987, Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie Simpson had become popular enough to warrant their own show. So producer James L. Brooks sold the concept to the Fox television network.
It didn't go well at first. The opening episode of Season One was supposed to be “Some Enchanted Evening," but when Brooks and co-producers saw the results after visiting the Korean animation studio that handled the visuals, they described them as “shit.” Brooks wanted a strong visual style, distinct from the shorts as well as from the animated shows most people knew. He wanted something that, despite being hand-drawn, was also realistic in terms of physics so characters could be seen as real. What they got back included doors that bounced like rubber when closed, sound effects that made everyday moments seem like unconvincing attempts to be funny and an overall effect that was said to be 70 percent “appalling.”
Brooks decided if the second episode didn’t cut it, he’d abandon the show. But after receiving “Bart the Genius” from the animators, he realized it needed only minor repairs. His solution was to go back to Fox and ask to have The Simpsons rescheduled. Instead of starting its run with “Some Enchanted Evening,” the first full-length show to air was the holiday-themed “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” on Dec. 17, 1989.
Fox already had doubts. The network worried that audiences wouldn’t sit through a full-length adult animated show, and instead felt that three seven-minute shorts would work better. Brooks disagreed. So when the producer asked for a change of schedule, he was putting himself in the line of fire.
In the episode, Bart swaps intelligence-exam results with Martin Prince and is mistakenly labeled a genius. He’s promoted to a better school but soon discovers he can’t handle the pressure of heightened expectations and admits his wrongdoing, almost – but not quite – developing a better relationship with dad Homer in the process. Like most sitcoms, their world returns to where it started by the end of the episode.
Watch a Clip From 'Bart the Genius'
“Bart the Genius” introduced several concepts that became staples in the long-running show’s history, including the “chalkboard gag” and the “sofa gag” during the introduction sequence and Bart Simpson’s catchphrase “Eat my shorts!” The episode reveals some early stumbles, notably in some of the voices, but the creators took steps to improve things over the years. It ended up as one of writer Jon Vitti’s favorite contributions to The Simpsons.
“The episode quickly developed each character with brush strokes,” Den of Geek noted in 2019. “Homer and Bart are already more alike than either one would ever admit. Marge is looking for a better, classier life, like the Bouvier she is. She brings them to the opera, buys tickets to an artsy-fartsy foreign-film festival, all in the hopes of cultivating culture. Lisa is already the smartest person in the family, well on her way to being the smartest person in Springfield. The show has a conscience. At the end of the day, the Simpsons do the right thing, usually against their better judgment, which always turns out to be the best path.”
Groening himself had all manner of reservations as his creation became a bigger project. "The minute the show went on the air, it started deviating from my original vision," he said in 2001. “And that was painful at first. I'm the biggest fussbudget on the show, but I've discovered that things that bug me that everybody else laughs at, I eventually come around to liking.”
However, he maintained even then that Homer – named after his own father – was the key to the show’s success. “He's completely driven by impulse," he explained. "We're all momentarily driven by impulse, but we manage to put the brakes on, and it's fun to watch a character who just doesn't have any brakes. Homer's emotions turn on a dime, and Dan Castellaneta, who does the voice, is just fantastic."
Unlike Bart, “Bart the Genius” lived up to expectations was initially watched by 24.5 million viewers, scoring a Nielsen rating of 12.7, the second-highest Fox show of the week. The long title sequence, which featured the two gags changing from week to week to keep it fresh, was allowed to stay. Even though Vitti was told to avoid catchphrases, “Eat my shorts!” stuck, and contributed to the “Bartmania” that soon followed.
Secured by the episode’s achievements, the first season of The Simpsons was nominated for five Emmys and won one, for "Life on the Fast Lane.” When the final episode of the season aired, research showed that 85 percent of Americans were aware of the Simpsons characters, compared with just 14 percent during its run as a series of shorts. A further 33 Emmys would follow as the show became the longest-running scripted series on U.S. TV.