The Simpsons Early Shorts Were Mind-Bending Morality Plays

The Simpsons made their earliest appearances on The Tracy Ullman Show more than 30 years ago.

Ah, The Simpsons. Is there nothing they haven’t taught us?

Before their April 19, 1987 debut appearance on Fox’s The Tracey Ullman Show, the good people at the Oxford Dictionaries couldn’t spell the word cromulent. The Simpsons are an edumacation. Their first skits were consciousness-embiggening minute-long bits. The show taught us that the mind didn’t matter. And The Simpsons, which was spun off as its own series on Dec. 17, 1989, has been turning grey matter into yellow matter custard ever since.

The very first spot was called “Good Night,” and it aired during the third episode of The Tracey Ullman show. It showed Bart pondering the big questions of the universe. Most people think the mind is a series of impulses, but the young future upstart hungers for something more tangible. His learned (pronounced with one syllable) father, Homer, who would forever be hungry, calms his son by negating all thought with simple word play.

“What is mind,” Homer asks. “No matter. What is matter? Never mind,” he answers, anticipating the anthem album of the slacker generation by several years.

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The Simpsons voices have never changed. Well, Dan Castellaneta’s voice for Homer Simpson wouldn’t pass a vocal recognition detector, but the actor is still doing it. Julie Kavner has always been Marge, Nancy Cartwright is Bart and Yeardley Smith plays Lisa. The original shorts’ cast also included Tracey Ullman, Sam McMurray, and Anna Levine as various Springfielders.

Over 30 years later, Maggie still can’t complete a simple sentence. Even though acting legend Elizabeth Taylor mouthed her first words.

Marge and Lisa filled out the Simpson family in those 48 short filler segments that stood between The Tracey Ullman Show and commercial breaks. But even as Marge cleaned the bed bugs out of Lisa’s ears, their caution and maturity couldn’t stop well-known detractors like then-President George Bush, spelling bee-dropout Dan Quayle, and that asshole Bill Cosby from proclaiming that the animated family spelled the beginning of the end of civilization.

Pundits thought the series was as crude as its animation, which creator Matt Groening submitted to the show on the assumption it would be cleaned up in post-production. It wasn’t. Little did they know that The Simpsons would lead the way for a cartoon renaissance that spawned South ParkBeavis and Butt-head, and Family Guy.

The Simpsons got a lot of flak, but they were a tight, if dysfunctional unit. That very first episode ended with the whole family sleeping in the same bed. Kind of like how MAD magazine envisioned The Waltons.

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Granted, they were all sleeping together because the kids were too afraid to sleep alone after their evening rock-a-byes, but they were together. Forever the Simpsons. Not even family therapy could stop that. For once, the old man was correctaroonie.

It’s not like Springfield was without culture. The family took day trips to the art museum and the aquarium and even though they never got to see a sperm whale fight a giant squid in a battle to the death, they never missed a chance to immerse themselves in whatever was offered, preferably on free admittance days. Nevertheless, culture warriors mounted an almost atomic offensive against their most nuclear family. 

The shorts mirrored America. What mother really understood the thrill in burping? The burp champion of the world lived on Evergreen Terrace and his mighty belch resounded across the nation. And had a vague after-taste of bacon.

Even Maggie gave crib notes. While upstanding citizens worried about the family’s lack of self-respect, the depraved little infant bridged the gap in sibling understanding with the same tool that would widen the gap in her teeth.

Sometimes even the teachers’ pets need to be pacified through inclusion and a little hot sauce.

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While most TV would have you believe children could talk obscene if not heard, some of The Simpsons‘ most skewered lessons came from the mouths of babes. 

In one episode, where Bart is caught shoplifting and almost get away with it after eating the evidence he says he learned his lesson, that the chocolate was delicious. When confronted with the alternative lesson that every crime ultimately hurts the criminal, his knowledge is confirmed by a free ride almost home and the satisfaction that only comes from snickers, or Butterfingers, as El Barto was pulling in cash from both ends. The whole family was a crash business course as the network raked in profits from t-shirts and mugs of the entrepreneurial family.

On October 22, 1992, it was reported that Tracey Ullman didn’t learn a thing from the cartoon. She sued 20th Century Fox Film Corp. for a piece of the $2.25 million merchandising profits that came from those vignettes, but a Superior Court jury shot her down after less than five hours of deliberations.

The original Simpson enabler learned to keep her hands out of the cookie jar. No mere comedian could win a shell game with the Fox network.

The Simpsons‘ artists have been playing games with the network for more than a generation now. They take them on in direct jabs and serpentine sideswipes. The show that began as a showcase for attention deficit disorderly conduct has had brilliant seasons and a few bumpy ones, and the sleeker animation has dulled its edge, but it is still the only thing stopping Fox from becoming a 24-hour soft porn channel.