Homer might become a braniac, Marge might develop a gambling addiction or nerdy Lisa could find herself among the cool kids for a half-hour, but by the end of each episode of The Simpsons — which first appeared 30 years ago as short segments on The Tracey Ullman Show — the family and its hometown of Springfield resets to status quo.
Courtesy of Fox
On April 19, 1987, a momentous event happened: America was introduced to one of its most enduring families, The Simpsons.
Bart, Homer, Marge and the rest of the family first appeared in 48 short filler segments on the sketch comedy program The Tracey Ullman Show, but those first characters were very different from the Simpsons of today.
“At first they were what we call bumpers that went between The Tracey Ullman Show and commercial breaks,” says Maureen Furniss, an animation historian who teaches at the California Institute of the Arts.
“The Simpsons were very quick little segments that were united by some particular theme,” she says.
For Furniss one particular segment, where Bart and Lisa are having a burping contest, stands out as a depiction of what early versions of the characters were before the standalone show began.
When Matt Groening created The Simpsons, Furniss says, people were excited to see what the cartoonist would do within the field of animation. With the show, she says Groening set a new standard for animation on TV, especially when it came to shows that were more crass and humorous.”When The Simpsons came out, people were so worried about the crude behavior,” Furniss says. “But they didn’t have any idea that South Park or Beavis and Butt-headwere on the horizon and would be much more outrageous in a lot of ways.
“Before Bart, Homer and Marge had their own show, The Simpsons looked a bit different and were segments that were played between The Tracey Ullman Show and commercial breaks.Courtesy of Fox
Since the days of the early filler segments and The Simpsons’ launch as its own show in December 1989, the town of Springfield and its yellow inhabitants have managed to become TV’s longest-running, prime-time scripted entertainment series.
With such a long history, it’s no surprise that there have been more than a few times when The Simpsons were the subject of a story here at NPR. Below you’ll find a sampling of this work, with an assurance that there’s always more to come — so long as Homer and Co. continue to let us into their world on Sunday nights.
In 2016, NPR’s Bob Boilen went to Springfield and hung out with the locals. Over the years plenty of celebrities have made cameos as themselves, but during the 27th season of the show Boilen was cast as a radio host of “Mountain Trax,” a local Springfield program. All Things Considered host Robert Siegel also has made an appearance, along with the familiar opening tune to NPR’s program.
In 2015, we all learned a bit more about Bart — or rather, about the woman who gives the mischievous 10-year-old his voice, Nancy Cartwright. NPR’s Danny Hajek interviewed Cartwright about how she started on The Simpsons. She actually didn’t intend to audition for Bart’s role, but can you really imagine him sounding any other way?
While the show is full of humor and references to current events ranging from politics to religion, it also consistently has featured classical music. Before the start of a 12-day marathon of every single episode in 2014, NPR’s Mark Mobley created “A Perfectly Cromulent Classical Guide To ‘The Simpsons’ Marathon” that goes through the references chronologically.
Throughout the years different members of the cast and even the creator of the show have talked with NPR. In an episode of Fresh Air, host Terry Gross revisited interviews with creator and cartoonist Matt Groening, showrunners Al Jean and Mike Reiss, and several of the show’s actors.
The Simpsons has been making news since the show’s beginning, and continues to do so. Last week the Oxford Dictionaries embiggened its collection with the words “embiggen” and “cromulent,” which the show introduced as Springfield-specific terms. Even decades-old one-off jokes have staying power for the 619-episode-and-counting show.