It was 29 years ago this month that America first said hello to the Simpsons family, and they were never heard from again. Actually, that’s only half true. Matt Groening’s The Simpsons is a cultural institution, and arguably the greatest show in television history, but it’s not the same Simpsons that debuted on April 19, 1987 on The Tracey Ullman Show (“the nation’s showcase for psychiatrist jokes and musical comedy numbers,” to quote Troy McClure).
Let’s revisit the first short, “Good Night,” and see how the show has changed.
1. The first thing I noticed, even before Homer says “goodnight, son” (more on this later), is the character design. It’s still recognizably Homer and Bart, but the animation is twisted and out of scale. Bart’s head is huge compared to the rest of his body, and Homer looks downright svelte. Also:
The women don’t fare much better. Marge’s hair is half the length it would grow to be, and her face lacks definition, and Lisa’s head is dominated by hair spikes. She’s like a yellow porcupine as is Maggie, who shows more emotion in the five seconds where she’s falling from a tree than she has in 28 seasons. The animation looks rushed and temporary, because it was: Matt Groening submitted his sketches for “Good Night” to the Klasky Csupo animators, thinking they would clean them up. Instead, they just traced over what he sent. The dull coloring is particularly hard to look at.
2. The second thing I noticed is the voices. If you close your eyes, you’ll still know it’s Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Yeardley Smith, and Nancy Cartwright, but their performances, at this point, lack subtleties. Homer is a slower Walter Matthau, Marge is all whispers, Lisa speaks at a higher pitch, and Bart… actually, Bart’s pretty close to the Bart we know! But the most unsettling thing is Maggie saying something, and not sounding like Elizabeth Taylor. The absence of Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer, to say nothing of Pamela Hayden (Milhouse debuted in a Butterfinger ad), Maggie Roswell, and Russi Taylor, is noteworthy, too. The shorts are largely limited to just the Simpsons, which is fine for 48 one-minute “episodes,” but it’s restrictive when you’re building a series that’s as much about a town as it is the titular family who lives in it. Without Hans Moleman, is The Simpsons even The Simpsons?
3. Every episode of The Simpsons is a barrage of pop culture references, but there’s none of that in “Good Night,” except for maybe Maggie being traumatized by “Rock-a-bye Baby.” The humor here is “subtle.” (That’s a nice way of saying, “Not all that funny.”) It moves slowly and there are no big punchlines — the jokes are character-based, even if the characters are askew. An inquisitive Bart is more like Lisa, and Lisa’s juvenile fear of bedbugs is more like Bart. The biggest laugh, besides Homer’s slack-jawed guffaw, comes from the animation of the eyes. Seriously, The Simpsons has a thing for eyes.
4. Family Ties. 21 Jump Street. Day by Day. Our House: Those are some of the other shows that aired on Sunday nights in 1987. None would make it to 1992, the year The Simpsons went from a good show (seasons one and two) to a great show (season three). It’s been a remarkable run for America’s favorite family since an “old drunk made humans out of his rabbit characters to pay off his gambling debts” and wrote “Good Night.” But thank Jebus he did, because without Simpsons quotes, how would humans talk to each other?
I mean, can you imagine a world without The Simpsons?
5. “What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind.”
Okay, that’s pretty funny.