The Simpsons is an American animated sitcom created by Matt Groening for the Fox Broadcasting Company. The series is a satirical parody of a working-class American lifestyle epitomized by its family of the same name, which consists of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. The show is set in the fictional city of Springfield, and lampoons American culture, society, television and many aspects of the human condition.
The family was conceived by Groening shortly before a pitch for a series of animated shorts with the producer James L. Brooks. Groening created a dysfunctional family and named the characters after members of his own family, substituting Bart for his own name. The shorts became a part of The Tracey Ullman Show on April 19, 1987. After a three-season run, the sketch was developed into a half-hour prime time show and was an early hit for Fox, becoming the first Fox series to land in the Top 30 ratings in a season (1989–1990).
Since its debut on December 17, 1989 the show has broadcast 483 episodes and the twenty second season started airing on September 26, 2010. The Simpsons Movie, a feature-length film, was released in theaters worldwide on July 26 and July 27, 2007, and grossed US$527 million worldwide.
The Simpsons has won dozens of awards since it debuted as a series, including 27 Primetime Emmy Awards, 27 Annie Awards and a Peabody Award. Time magazine’s December 31, 1999 issue named it the 20th century’s best television series, and on January 14, 2000 the Simpson family was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The Simpsons is the longest-running American sitcom, the longest-running American animated program, and in 2009 it surpassed Gunsmoke as the longest running American primetime entertainment series. Homer’s exclamatory catchphrase “D’oh!” has been adopted into the English lexicon, while The Simpsons has influenced many adult-oriented animated sitcoms.
Groening conceived of the idea for the Simpsons in the lobby of James L. Brooks’s office. Brooks had asked Groening to pitch an idea for a series of animated shorts, which Groening initially intended to present as his Life in Hell series. However, when Groening realized that animating Life in Hell would require the rescinding of publication rights for his life’s work, he chose another approach and formulated his version of a dysfunctional family. He named the characters after his own family members, substituting “Bart” for his own name, adapting an anagram of the word “brat”.
The Simpson family first appeared as shorts in The Tracey Ullman Show on April 19, 1987. Groening submitted only basic sketches to the animators and assumed that the figures would be cleaned up in production. However, the animators merely re-traced his drawings, which led to the crude appearance of the characters in the initial short episodes. One of the earliest jobs of the Klasky Csupo company was creating animated sequences for The Tracey Ullman Show which led to the start of The Simpsons. The animation was produced domestically at Klasky Csupo, with Wes Archer, David Silverman, and Bill Kopp being animators for the first season. Gyorgyi Peluce was the colorist and the person who decided to make the characters yellow.
In 1989, a team of production companies adapted The Simpsons into a half-hour series for the Fox Broadcasting Company. The team included what is now the Klasky Csupo animation house. Jim Brooks negotiated a provision in the contract with the Fox network that prevented Fox from interfering with the show’s content. Groening said his goal in creating the show was to offer the audience an alternative to what he called “the mainstream trash” that they were watching. The half-hour series premiered on December 17, 1989 with “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”, a Christmas special. “Some Enchanted Evening” was the first full-length episode produced, but it did not broadcast until May 1990, as the last episode of the first season, because of animation problems. In 1992, Tracey Ullman filed a lawsuit against Fox, claiming that her show was the source of the series’ success. The suit said she should receive a share of the profits of The Simpsons—a claim rejected by the courts.
The Simpsons takes place in the fictional American town of Springfield in an unknown and impossible-to-determine U.S. state. The show is intentionally evasive in regard to Springfield’s location. The name “Springfield” is a common one in America and appears in 22 states. Springfield’s geography, and that of its surroundings, contain coastlines, deserts, vast farmland, tall mountains, or whatever the story or joke requires. Groening has said that Springfield has much in common with Portland, Oregon, the city where he grew up.
The Simpsons uses the standard setup of a situational comedy, or sitcom, as its premise. The series centers on a family and their life in a typical American town. However, because of its animated nature, The Simpsons’ scope is larger than that of a regular sitcom. The town of Springfield acts as a complete universe in which characters can explore the issues faced by modern society. By having Homer work in a nuclear power plant, the show can comment on the state of the environment. Through Bart and Lisa’s days at Springfield Elementary School, the show’s writers illustrate pressing or controversial issues in the field of education. The town features a vast array of media channels—from kids’ television programming to local news, which enables the producers to make jokes about themselves and the entertainment industry.
Some commentators say the show is political in nature and susceptible to a left-wing bias. Al Jean admitted in an interview that “We [the show] are of liberal bent.” The writers often evince an appreciation for liberal ideals, but the show makes jokes across the political spectrum. The show portrays government and large corporations as callous entities that take advantage of the common worker. Thus, the writers often portray authority figures in an unflattering or negative light. In The Simpsons, politicians are corrupt, ministers such as Reverend Lovejoy are indifferent to churchgoers, and the local police force is incompetent. Religion also figures as a recurring theme. In times of crisis, the family often turns to God, and the show has dealt with most of the major religions.
The Simpsons‘ opening sequence is one of the show’s most memorable hallmarks. Most episodes open with the camera zooming through the show’s title towards the town of Springfield. The camera then follows the members of the family on their way home. Upon entering their house, the Simpsons settle down on their couch to watch television. The opening was created by David Silverman, the first task he did when production began on the show. The series’ distinctive theme song was composed by musician Danny Elfman in 1989, after Groening approached him requesting a retro style piece. This piece has been noted by Elfman as the most popular of his career.
One of the most distinctive aspects of the opening is that three of the segments change from episode to episode: Bart writes different things on the school chalkboard, Lisa plays different solos on her saxophone, and different gags accompany the family as they enter their living room to sit on the couch. On February 15, 2009, a new opening credit sequence was introduced to accompany the switch to HDTV. The sequence had all of the features of the original opening, but added numerous details and characters.
The special Halloween episode has become an annual tradition. “Treehouse of Horror” first broadcast in 1990 as part of season two and established the pattern of three separate, self-contained stories in each Halloween episode. These pieces usually involve the family in some horror, science fiction, or supernatural setting and often parody or pay homage to a famous piece of work in those genres. They always take place outside the normal continuity of the show. Although the Treehouse series is meant to be seen on Halloween, in recent years, new installments have premiered after Halloween due to Fox’s current contract with Major League Baseball’s World Series.
The show’s humor turns on cultural references that cover a wide spectrum of society so that viewers from all generations can enjoy the show. Such references, for example, come from movies, television, music, literature, science, and history. The animators also regularly add jokes or sight gags into the show’s background via humorous or incongruous bits of text in signs, newspapers, and elsewhere. The audience may often not notice the visual jokes in a single viewing. Some are so fleeting that they become apparent only by pausing a video recording of the show. Kristin Thompson argues that The Simpsons uses a “…flurry of cultural references, intentionally inconsistent characterization, and considerable self-reflexivity about television conventions and the status of the programme as a television show.”
One of Bart’s early hallmarks were his prank calls to Moe’s Tavern owner Moe Szyslak in which Bart calls Moe and asks for a gag name. Moe tries to find that person in the bar, but soon realizes it is a prank call and angrily threatens Bart. These calls were based on a series of prank calls known as the Tube Bar recordings. Moe was based partly on Tube Bar owner Louis “Red” Deutsch, whose often profane responses inspired Moe’s violent side. As the series progressed, it became more difficult for the writers to come up with a fake name and to write Moe’s angry response, and the pranks were dropped as a regular joke during the fourth season. The Simpsons also often includes self-referential humor. The most common form is jokes about Fox Broadcasting. For example, the episode “She Used to Be My Girl” included a scene where a Fox News van drove down the street while displaying a large “Bush Cheney 2004” banner and playing Queen’s “We Are the Champions”, in reference to the 2004 presidential election.
The show uses catchphrases, and most of the primary and secondary characters have at least one each. Notable expressions include Homer’s annoyed grunt “D’oh!”, Mr. Burns’ “Excellent…” and Nelson Muntz’s “Ha-ha!”. Some of Bart’s catchphrases, such as “¡Ay, caramba!“, “Don’t have a cow, man!” and “Eat my shorts!” appeared on t-shirts in the show’s early days. However, Bart rarely used the latter two phrases until after they became popular through the merchandising. The use of many of these catchphrases has declined in recent seasons. The episode “Bart Gets Famous” mocks catchphrase-based humor, as Bart achieves fame on the Krusty the Clown Show solely for saying “I didn’t do it.”
Influences on culture
A number of neologisms that originated on The Simpsons have entered popular vernacular. Mark Liberman, director of the Linguistic Data Consortium, remarked, “The Simpsons has apparently taken over from Shakespeare and the Bible as our culture’s greatest source of idioms, catchphrases and sundry other textual allusions.” The most famous catchphrase is Homer’s annoyed grunt: “D’oh!” So ubiquitous is the expression that it is now listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, but without the apostrophe. Dan Castellaneta says he borrowed the phrase from James Finlayson, an actor in early Laurel and Hardy comedies, who pronounced it in a more elongated and whining tone. The director of The Simpsons told Castellaneta to shorten the noise, and it went on to become the well-known exclamation in the television series.
Groundskeeper Willie’s description of the French as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” was used by National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg in 2003, after France’s opposition to the proposed invasion of Iraq. The phrase quickly spread to other journalists. “Cromulent”, a word used in “Lisa the Iconoclast” has since appeared in the Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English. “Kwyjibo”, a fake Scrabble word invented by Bart in “Bart the Genius”, was used as one of the aliases of the creator of the Melissa worm. “I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords”, was used by Kent Brockman in “Deep Space Homer” and has become a common variety of phrase. Variants of Brockman’s utterance are used to express mock submission, usually for the purpose of humor. It has been used in media, such as New Scientist magazine. The dismissive term “Meh”, believed to have been popularized by the show, entered the Collins English Dictionary in 2008.
The Simpsons was the first successful animated program in American prime time since Wait Till Your Father Gets Home in the 1970s. During most of the 1980s, US pundits considered animated shows as appropriate only for children, and animating a show was too expensive to achieve a quality suitable for prime-time television. The Simpsons changed this perception. The use of Korean animation studios for tweening, coloring, and filming made the episodes cheaper. The success of The Simpsons and the lower production cost prompted US television networks to take chances on other animated series. This development led US producers to a 1990s boom in new, animated prime-time shows, such as South Park, Family Guy, King of the Hill, Futurama, and The Critic. “The Simpsons created an audience for prime-time animation that had not been there for many, many years”, said Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. “As far as I’m concerned, they basically re-invented the wheel. They created what is in many ways—you could classify it as—a wholly new medium.” South Park later paid homage to The Simpsons with the episode “Simpsons Already Did It”. In Georgia, the animated television sitcom The Samsonadzes, launched in November 2009, has been noted for its very strong resemblance with The Simpsons, which its creator Shalva Ramishvili has acknowledged.
The Simpsons has also influenced live-action shows like Malcolm in the Middle, which featured the use of sight gags and did not use a laugh track unlike most sitcoms. Malcolm in the Middle debuted January 9, 2000 in the time slot after The Simpsons. Ricky Gervais has called The Simpsons a major influence on his British comedy The Office, which also dispenses with a laugh track. Fellow British sitcom Spaced was, according to its director Edgar Wright, “an attempt to do a live-action The Simpsons.”
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