How and When Did 'The Simpsons' Begin?

Simpsons roasting on an open fire

Drawing from Twentieth Century Fox

 The Simpsons began as a series of "bumpers" or animated shorts for on April 19, 1987, and premiered as a full animated series on December 17, 1989, on FOX. The first episode was "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" (pictured). Regular broadcasts began on Sunday night beginning January 14, 1990.

The Origins of the Family

Matt Groening, the artist behind the comic strip Life in Hell, created the Simpson family using the names of his own father, mother, and sisters. (If you look closely at Homer Simpson, his thin hairline and his ear form the initials M.G.) He also has a sister named Patty, but no brother named Bart. His brother is named Mark.

He grew up in Portland, Oregon, which neighbors a town called Springfield. He has said that, as a child, he loved that Father Knows Best was set in Springfield because he imagined it being his Springfield.

Matt Groening grew up watching all the old Warner Bros. cartoons—Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Roadrunner —as well as Rocky and Bullwinkle. He kept his character design simple to mimic the characters from those classic cartoons. He also grew up watching The Flintstones, but he knew he could do better.

How it Came Into Production

James L. Brooks was the executive producer of The Tracey Ullman show and wanted to include animated shorts in the program. He had seen Groening’s Life in Hell strip and asked Groening to pitch some ideas.

Groening has later said that only when he got to Brooks’ office did he realize that doing Life in Hell on TV would mean surrendering his rights to them. So, on the fly, Groening came up with the now-iconic characters loosely modeled on his own family. Forty-eight one-minute Simpsons shorts aired on the program. Ultimately, Brooks noticed that they were getting a lot of attention. He also knew that Matt Groening dreamed of making a primetime animated series, even though there were none at the time. Brooks, with his background in sitcoms (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi) and Groening, with his experience as a cartoonist and animator, were the perfect pair to create The Simpsons as we know it today—which looks and sounds notably different from its original iteration

Today, each half-hour episode takes approximately eight months to make, from when the story breaks in the writer's room, to having an episode animated by Film Roman, to when the cast records their lines.

The Evolution of the Characters

For the first four seasons, much of the focus was on Bart and his pranks. Gradually the spotlight shifted to Homer because there are more opportunities for jokes and much more dire consequences for Homer's actions.

Dan Castellaneta (Homer) and Julie Kavner (Marge) were regular members of The Tracey Ullman Show cast when they were asked to voice characters for The Simpsons. Nancy Cartwright originally auditioned for the role of Lisa, but she was more interested in Bart, so they let her audition for Bart instead. Hank Azaria joined the cast in the second season with very little voice-over work to his credit. Yeardley Smith never meant to do voice-over work, but went to The Simpsons audition because she was "the actress who went to every audition." Matt Groening was impressed with Harry Shearer in This is Spinal Tap and asked him to be a part of The Simpsons cast.

Legal History

In 1991, Tracey Ullman sued 20th Century Fox for a percentage of the profits made from The Simpsons merchandise. She claimed that her contract gave her a piece of any merchandising profits that would stem from the show. However, James L. Brooks testified that she had no part in creating The Simpsons animated shorts that were part of The Tracey Ullman Show.

The Simpsons' Success

The Simpsons is the longest-running scripted show in TV history. Since premiering in December 1989, the series has become a cultural phenomenon, recognizable throughout the world. The show was named the “Best Show of the 20th Century” by Time magazine and “Greatest American Sitcom” by Entertainment Weekly.  has won more than thirty Emmys, and its theatrical short was nominated for a 2012 Academy Award.