The Simpsons, one of the greatest shows of all-time, debuted on Fox 30 years today with “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire.” It’s one of the few episodes from season one that still holds, which is impressive for the first episode of any show, but especially a comedy, which often takes its time before finding a groove (think: 30 Rock, The Office, Parks and Recreation, etc.). But “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” had two factors working in its favor: 1) the show’s creative team worked out the hiccups through nearly 50 shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show, and 2) it wasn’t supposed to be the premiere.
The Simpsons was originally scheduled to debut in fall 1989 with “Some Enchanted Evening,” where babysitter Ms. Botz (voiced by guest star Penny Marshall) terrorizes Bart, Lisa, and Maggie, but the animation was so terrible that the episode was pushed back to 1990, and served as the season finale. Executive producer James L. Brooks’ reaction to the animation: “This is sh*t.” Seventy percent of the episode was redone:
The producers wanted a realistic environment for The Simpsons as other studios had unrealistic styles for animation such as Disney, Warner Bros, Hanna-Barbera, etc. The former two had a universe where the universe was bendy and characters seemed to be made out of rubber. Hanna-Barbera used cartoon sounds which were also declined. While the Simpsons shorts lacked much realism in animation, the half-hour series had been intended to be as realistic as possible, despite the unrealistic animation.
If the next episode, “Bart the Genius,” looked as bad as “Some Enchanted Evening,” the producers were ready to call off the show for good. Thankfully, they convinced Fox to delay the premiere until the winter, giving the animation team enough time to fine-tune “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire.” It was the first to air, but the eighth episode in production order, and it shows. The Christmas special not only looks better than “Some Enchanted Evening,” but it’s also funnier, and the writing (from Mimi Pond — it was her only Simpsons credit) is sharper and more character-based. It’s jarring not seeing the opening sequence (which creator Matt Groening added to cut down on animation), but otherwise, The Simpsons, now in season 31, is still using the same effective formula as the one established in “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire.” If “Some Enchanted Evening” had come first, The Simpsons might not have made it past season one.