Watching The Simpsons From Its Tracey Ullman Beginning

Long before every kid I knew wore “Don’t have a cow man!” or “Eat my shorts!” t-shirts –- the unofficial grade school uniform years 1989-1993 that would cause a great ruckus within PTAs nationwide – my parents had already introduced me to The Simpsons, back when the cartoon was no more than a series of 30-second sketches during The Tracey Ullman Show.

On one hand, it’s impossible for me to wrap my head around The Simpsons’ success, even having seen it from the literal beginning. On the other, there’s a 5-year-old inside me shouting to the world, “Eat my shorts! I told you so!” The Simspons was special from its raw beginning.

I still remember sitting on my parents’ bed, watching the small TV. We had a newer, larger TV downstairs, but for whatever reason – probably because I was supposed to be in bed by the time these comedies came on – I always watched it in their room.

For the unfamiliar, The Tracey Ullman Show was similar to many comedian-centered half-hour programs we’ve had in recent history. Like The Chappelle Show, Ullman would make occasional appearances, be they from a stage or a dressing room, that would serve as the glue between oft-zany sketches. At the end of the night, she’d come out in her bathrobe and wave goodbye.

I was probably too young to be watching Tracey Ullman, meaning that I suffered through a half hour of jokes I didn’t understand every week in anticipation of what we’d call a YouTube clip’s worth of content today. But I didn’t mind. It was The Simpsons!

If you’re a youngin’, you’ve got to realize: The Simpsons debuted in a pre-Adult Swim era, before amateurish-looking (or at least, unpolished) animation made it on television. Homer didn’t just look different from the way he does now – the characters shifted proportions week to week.

As a child of the 80s, I wasn’t lucky enough to live through the rise of The Clash, but I suspect that the unbridled excitement I experienced during the crumby animation of these early Simpsons interludes was akin to the dismal recording practices of early punk rock.

The shorts felt so subversive to my pre-prepubescent self, like I was getting away with something by watching even the tamest gags, like Bart stealing cookies and blaming it on Maggie. It was probably because, in true Simpsons fashion, these premises were always balanced with a simple, often dark twist. A cynical undercurrent challenged the stereotypical TV family structure while keeping it afloat.

Why does this gag still crack me up? In this case, I’d argue that 1.) Marge almost seems aware she’s tempting them with the “hot” and “scrumptious” cookies and that 2.) Maggie gets the last laugh in the end, which pretty common in these Ullman episodes.

Even at the age of 6, I realized what an excellent commentary the show was on the WASP condition, and thereby my life.

I remember a gag on the show when Homer and Bart are stuck with one another for a father son dinner. I won’t spoil it for you. Just be sure to watch through the final act.

I was a corpulent child. So when Bart ditched his food onto Homer’s plate, my dad, not missing a beat, said that in our family it was far more likely that I’d be stealing his food than giving him any of mine.

He thought it was hilarious, but my underage ego had to reconcile the indignation somehow.

The following night around the dinner table, I just couldn’t help myself. I asked my dad something or other about the television that was playing in the other room (television, a constant trope during The Simpsons, incidentally). When he turned, I quickly scarfed a bite of baked beans from his plate. He turned swiftly, sensing immediately what I was doing.

What happened inside of him, I can only speculate: A childhood flashed in his eyes, one of fighting a Brady Bunch horde of brothers and sisters for his share of the pork chops. My dad never went to ‘nam, but this wouldn’t have been the moment to bring it up.

“What are you doing?” he yelled.

“Like on the cartoon…” was all I could muster. His anger was undeterred. Sensing that I found that bite of lukewarm Bush’s beans so goddamn good, his eyes pierced through me like sharp knives through steaming pork-a-roni.

My mom, being a mom, came to my defense, citing my cleverness for citing a joke on The Simpsons while surely pointing out the karmatic justice in a child whose father had called fat acting like a fat child to his father.

(Side note: Don’t take my dad for a complete asshole because of this response. He’s always been highly protective of his food, meaning that I’d have my own popcorn at the movie theater and sharing a dessert was unheard of. Also, this one time my dad tried to make me eat microwaved White Castle for lunch and, so disgusted, I hid them behind a tree in our backyard. So even this glutton has his limits.)

Of course, rewatching that scene now, I see the show’s early brilliance, the ease at which it pulled both the humor and humanity from a mundane situation. And if my dinner story proved anything, it’s that these shorts related to my father and I, simultaneously…if a little differently.

Later, it was my dad who would tell me that The Simpsons was becoming its own show on Fox – a station, he informed me, that was so tailored to my interests, it had a picture of me hanging in their conference room.

I taped their first episode, the Christmas special and origin story of Santa’s Little Helper, as did a lot of the children at my school, offering me the perfect opportunity to educate my peers in my awesomeness and brag that I’d been watching the show for a long time already.

And to this day, to this very article, I guess I’m still expending copious amounts of energy to claim FIRST! on The Simpsons, which says something interesting about the power of a show that’s nearly as old as I am.

Mark Wilson is a writer based in Chicago who runs the site Life, Panoramic. He’s been a Simpsons fan longer than you have.

Watching The Simpsons From Its Tracey Ullman Beginning