The Simpsons just wrapped its 30th season. There are two more guaranteed and no signs of stopping. That’s three decades of The Simpsons, 32 years if you count the shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show, and I do. That’s a long time for a scripted show. Even Gunsmoke only lasted 20 and The Simpsons have now officially done more episodes.
Since I have been watching The Simpsons all 30+ years, it made me think about how much of my life The Simpsons has encompassed. Not just my life, but The Simpsons has been commenting on the word for 30 years. There are few pop culture phenomena that last that long. Star Wars has lasted 42 and Trek 50, but many current fans of those weren’t born when they started.
From the vantage point of someone who’s lived through all 30 (32?) years of The Simpsons, I took a look at what it means to be a Simpsons fan for 30some years. Season 31 premieres September 29 on Fox.
I’ve never missed an episode of ‘The Simpsons’
It turns out I’ve never missed an episode of ‘The Simpsons.’ There must be very few people who can claim that. Show runner Al Jean once told me he’s seen them all too, so that’s two. Kevin Power watched every episode in a month in 2018, but that’s not exactly the same as watching them all as they aired for 30 years.
I wasn’t planning on watching 661 episodes. I just watched The Simpsons every Sunday (and back when it was on Thursdays). If I was ever out, I’d set a VCR and later DVR. Before I knew it I’d never missed one in 30 years.
I was 12 when season 1 premiered. That’s a very impressionable age. To watch a show every week (and then daily once it went into syndication) had an impact on my developing sense of humor. I had seen Airplane and Naked Gun and that brand of comedy appealed to me, but they only came out with a new movie every few years. I read Mad Magazine but that was only once a month.
So The Simpsons became my biggest comedy influence. They took aim at society’s sacred cows and mocked them mercilessly, yet weren’t vulgar. That taught me you could get further attacking authority with class than by being provocative for provocative’s sake (although South Park does that well. They’ve been going over 20 years.)
30 years of ‘The Simpsons’ defines your sense of humor
A Simpsons joke tells an entire story in a single punchline. When Homer had a yard sale he tried selling his Disco Stud jacket for which he ran out of room for he D. Thus introduced Disco Stu, implying an entire life of disco. On top of that he turned down the jacket because “Disco Stu doesn’t advertise.”
When Homer and Krusty are sneaking around the mob, they end up climbing a rope over two mobsters. All the mobsters have to do is look up to see them. One even tells the other there’s a lunar eclipse and maybe they should look up, but he replies, “Nah, for me, it’s solar or nothing.” It’s funny because it’s random but also implies a whole history of eclipse preferences.
A simple pratfall can still be funny. I’ll laugh at a good spit take, but I generally demand my jokes be as layered as The Simpsons and that is rare.
30 years of irreverence
The overall tone of The Simpsons taught me not to take authority seriously. I was probably already suspicious, but their irreverence confirmed to me that I wasn’t alone in suspecting the establishment wasn’t correct.
When parents complained Bart was a bad influence, they did an episode where Maggie imitates Itchy and Scratchy’s violence. Marge leads the charge to ban the cartoon and ultimately learns that censorship can be applied to art she likes too. When Baby Jessica fell into a well, they did an episode where Bart drops a radio in a well and pretends to be stuck there, only to really fall in and become the boy who cried well.
They continued to tackle immigration, comic book movies and viral videos, so there has never been a time when I couldn’t question the status quo via The Simpsons.
A generation shares our references
For 30 years, The Simpsons have permeated culture so even casual viewers know “D’oh,” “Woo hoo!,” “Don’t have a cow.” Those of us who’ve been following closely have deeper cuts.
At this point I don’t know anyone who doesn’t refer to Speed as The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down as Homer did. We know Principal Skinner’s real name is Armin Tamzarian. We know cows graduate from Bovine University and if things are going well, everything’s coming up Milhouse. Whenever I see a countdown I say, “Here comes two.” “The running time is now” is my latest reference, and I see a lot of movies so there are many opportunities to flee when I learn how long a movie will be.
Homer backing into bushes has become a viral GIF, the perfect representation of trying to extricate oneself from an awkward conversation. It became so prolific The Simpsons even used the GIF on the show in season 30.
There are adults who never knew TV without ‘The Simpsons’
There are now adults in their 20s who have never lived without The Simpsons. I still have vague recollections of 12 years before The Simpsons but now I can meet grown-ups for whom The Simpsons are just a fact of life. In the early days, we had to justify our love of a cartoon. Now people grow up accepting it’s great.
And if they didn’t live through the early seasons, they still see them because The Simpsons is always on somewhere. They could see “Bart Sells His Soul” or “Marge Vs the Monorail” tomorrow and join our club.
I’m a little jealous of people born after The Simpsons started. They can discover The Simpsons now and then have 600+ classic episodes to watch right now. I had to wait a week for each one.
We’ve seen ‘The Simpsons’ evolve
For a show to last 30 years it can’t just stay the same. While many people remember the first 10 seasons as the definitive era of the show, it’s the nature of comedy to evolve. Except for the big three creators Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, Jean and a few lifers like Mike Reiss and Mike Scully, the writers necessarily have to rotate.
Brad Bird became a director. Conan O’Brien became a talk show host. Writers like Don Payne have passed away. There will always have to be new blood and they bring subtle evolutions to The Simpsons.
Once The Simpsons had been around over a decade they became self-referential. Lisa read from the Simpsons episode guide. Comic Book Guy called out repeat episodes. In the later seasons, they clearly hired new writers who were reared on The Simpsons and applied their influence back to the show.
Once they made The Simpsons Movie, the creators said they were reinvigorated for the show. Attempting a new medium will do that to you. It’s evidenced in profound episodes like the immigration episode “Coming to Homerica” and “The Burns Cage” in which Smithers comes out.
There’s plenty of ‘Simpsons’ to rediscover
661 episodes are too many for even the most encyclopedic mind to remember. That means there tons of episodes I’ve seen that I could essentially watch again for the first time. Sure, I still remember the landmarks “Flaming Moe’s,” “Mr. Plow,” “Itchy & Scratchy Land,” “Lisa the Vegetarian” and my personal favorite “El Viaje Misterioso Del Nuestro Jomer.” I even remember others along the way like “Sweets and Sour Marge” and, again, “Coming to Homerica.” (It’s a really great episode.)
But there are several hundred Simpsons episodes that brought me joy one Sunday night in the last 30 years. If they’re from 20, 10 or even five years ago, I could probably watch them again and most of the jokes will be fresh all over again. Perhaps that is the ultimate gift of The Simpsons’ longevity. We all can have the experience of discovering or rediscovering the earlier episodes again, whether we’ve seen them all before or not.