The 30-Year Choke

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Thirty years ago, The Tracey Ullman Show ran an animated short titled “Goodnight”.  In it, a mother and father tuck each of their three spiky-haired — and crudely drawn — kids into bed. They’re sweet and tender, singing ‘Rock-a-bye baby’ and saying “don’t let the bedbugs bite” and go to bed content with being such swell parents. Their good intentions, however are only that as they’ve freaked out their kids with visions of flesh-eating bugs and visions of cribs falling from great heights. In the end, the kids knock on their door and the short ends with everyone sleeping in the same bed.

The minute-and-a-half short was the introduction of the Simpson family. There would be 48 more shorts to appear on The Tracey Ullman Show before Bart, Homer, Lisa, Marge and Maggie would lose their rough edges and make the move to primetime, where they would become a 28-season record-breaking, culture-defining comedic force. But even though “Goodnight” was their first permutation, it exemplified one of the show’s greatest attributes: finding incredible narrative richness in the simplest conflicts that arise between parents — most often a husband — and their family.

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For most of my childhood The Simpsons was forbidden in my household. No one exactly remembers why — I think my mother thought Itchy and Scratchy was too violent for my young brain, or maybe it was just that they didn’t want me watching much television in the first place. So, for years I was only allowed to watch on special occasions, holidays and birthdays and good report cards, or when I was at friends’ houses. And because the universe has a cruel sense of humor, for years all I knew of The Simpsons was one episode. Seriously: on almost every occasion I managed to catch the 7:30 pm weekday rerun, it was the same one — The Springfield Files

For the uninformed, The Springfield Files is the one where Homer sees an alien — or so he thinks. Stumbling home from Moe’s after a night of drinking, he encounters a glowing green figure in the woods. “Don’t be afraid,” it says, and Homer runs home screaming. No one believes him, of course. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson guest-star as Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, and even their investigation can’t turn up proof that Homer saw anything more than his own drunken hallucinations. Lisa insists he’s imagining things. So does Marge. The only one on his side is Bart, who ends up filming the tape that convinces all of Springfield to join Homer in awaiting the alien’s weekly appearance. Then it turns out the alien is Mr. Burns, fresh off his regular anti-aging treatment. All of Springfield joins hands and sings “Good Morning Starshine.”

As golden age

As golden age Simpsons episodes go, it might not be the greatest but it’s up there, and until I was 14 or so it’s all I had. Every couple months I watch it again, hoping to recapture some glimmer of what it felt like to be younger and to know less of the world — or at least of The Simpsons. It has just about everything that makes this show so timeless: Homer at odds with the family, a mystery that ignites all of Springfield, impressive cameos (Leonard Nimoy appears as well), a few touching father-son moments, and a moving celebration of humanity’s place in the universe. It even recreates the magic of that first Tracey Ullman Show short: Homer messes up, a whole bunch of people get freaked out, everyone finally finds comfort in each other.

Like any classic Simpsons episode, The Springfield Files is a tender story about honest, kinda-stupid people bumbling their way toward a greater appreciation of each other. This is a world where the beautiful coming-together at the end can only happen because a boor got drunk and lost at the beginning. And it’s that final moment, sudden and silly as it may seem, that sticks with me most, getting back to The Simpsons‘ very core. What do you do when your kids are too scared to sleep? Invite them under the covers.

Homer Simpson is not a smart man. In fact he’s quite dumb, thanks to a crayon he stuck up his nose as a child which has remained lodged against his brain ever since. He’s so dumb that when NASA was searching for an exceptionally dumb American to be an astronaut, they chose him. He’s so dumb that he then brought a bag of potato chips into space, ruining the mission and endangering the lives of his crew. He’s so dumb that he climbed Springfield’s highest and deadliest mountain, the Murderhorn, to promote a power bar (and impress Bart), and so dumb that he won a power plant design contest for children. He’s a drunk. He constantly forgets that Maggie exists. He’d sell his soul for a donut, and does. He gained 61 pounds so he could work from home, then delegated his duties to a drinking bird toy that nearly blew up Springfield. When Sideshow Bob runs for Mayor, Homer votes for him despite his long-established desire to murder Bart (“Hmm… I don’t agree with his Bart-killing policy, but I do approve of his Selma-killing policy.”). The man is as dumb as TV characters come, but at the end of day, he has all the pure and primal instincts of a father. Everything he does, he does for his children and their mother—and yes, occasionally for a donut. For him to make the right decisions for his family, of course, he must first make all the wrong ones.

The Simpsons at its best recognizes that Homer’s buffoonery is not a bad thing, and perhaps even his most admirable quality—one that empowers The Simpsons to continue to find stories that arise from the mishaps of parenthood. As obvious as it seems, this is still a remarkable part of the show’s legacy.

Television series overwhelmingly treat ignorance the same way they treat poverty — as a problem either to be solved or worked around. Most popular comedies are about intelligent, financially comfortable characters and adopt the implicit moral viewpoint that it is a weakness to be poor or dumb. The Simpsons is about a struggling working-class dope. He also happens to be a beacon of goodness: as a father, a husband, a son, and occasionally (albeit rarely) a neighbor. Though he’s inspired a handful of characters in his image — Hank in King of the Hill, Fry in Futurama, Tim and Sam in Detroiters — Homer remains a rarity. Even Peter Griffin is more or less a misogynist sleazeball, acting more often out of gleeful malevolence than love. Homer is a moron, yes, but his heart (and his stomach) is behind his every action. To quote the message he leaves for himself in his office by carefully pasting photos of Maggie over a plaque that says “Don’t forget: you’re here forever”: “Do it for her.

The Simpsons ban lifted when I was a teenager and I proceeded to watch the show every night, reruns and new episodes alike. When it eventually, inevitably went downhill, I moved on. But there are two other moments from the series’ early years that I come back to time and again. The first is from You Only Move Twice, the one where the Simpsons move to a posh house in a posh town so Homer can work for Hank Scorpio, a man slowly revealed to be a supervillain. He loves his job and his boss, but the rest of the family cannot bear their new life. So he resigns, and solemnly exits his new workplace, head down, as Scorpio destroys a small army come to stop him. It’s almost heartbreaking to see Homer leave, but we know it’s for the best.

Even more heartbreaking is the end of Mother Simpson, when Homer waves goodbye to his fugitive mother, who had only just come into his life after a decades-long absence, for what may be the last time. The credits roll as he sits atop his car, gazing away from us into the night sky. A shooting star streaks past. He doesn’t move, doesn’t say a word, just looks off into the glittering distance. It’s sad. It hurts. There’s nothing funny about it. In some small and terrible way, we finally understand not just Homer but our own parents—and the law of physics that says their mistakes will inevitably, in one way or another, become our own. Thirty years after The Simpsons premiered on The Tracey Ullman Show, moments like this remain the gold standard in TV comedy. Nothing else comes close.

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