This week, The Simpsons celebrated its 30th birthday. On April 19, 1987, the show debuted as a sketch on The Tracey Ullman Show, and the rest is history. Once turned into a full-length sitcom, it became one of the greatest TV shows of all time, quite possibly the greatest. Throughout the show’s run, there have been so many legendary episodes that even an exhaustive list like The Ringer’s ranking of the 100 best episodes ever still managed to leave off some really, really good ones. One of the reasons The Simpsons has endured for so long is that there are so many things it does well. Obviously, it’s an incredibly funny show, to the point where it fundamentally changed comedy as we know it, but it was also incredibly adept at character development, catharsis, experimentation, and self-reflection. With that in mind, let’s honor The Simpsons’ impressive skill set by looking at the five key ways a Simpsons episode can become an all-time great.
The Unstoppable Comedy Powerhouses
Examples: “Last Exit To Springfield,” “Marge vs. The Monorail,” “You Only Move Twice,” “Homer the Heretic,” “Deep Space Homer,” “Itchy & Scratchy Land,” “Cape Feare”
This is the most obvious way a Simpsons episode can reach all-time classic status: simply by being really, really, really funny. In its prime, The Simpsons crammed as many jokes into every episode as possible, and the writers would meticulously make sure only the funniest material stayed in. This is why phrases like “dental plan!” “I call the big one bitey,” and “we’re out of Bort license plates” will stick in our heads for the rest of our lives. Pretty much every episode from Season 4-8 (and many episodes before and after that) have more great gags than lesser shows would have in an entire season. Somehow, a handful of episodes from that era managed to stand out even against the other great episodes that aired alongside them, and those are the ones that are most likely to top a best Simpsons episodes list.
The Pre-“Jurassic Bark” Era
Examples: “Bart Gets an F,” “Lisa’s Substitute,” “Bart Sells His Soul,” “Mother Simpson”
I’ll never forget the first time I cried while watching The Simpsons. I was 11, I had just finished my first week of middle school, and “Mother Simpson” was the culprit. The thing is, it wasn’t the first time I had seen it, but this time, the image of Homer staring into the night after being separated from his mother yet again got me in a brutal way. Probably because I had reached those angsty tween years where I argued with my mom about a lot of little things, and the idea that I was taking her for granted really cut through. It was an unfamiliar feeling, but one that would return several times over. Lisa chasing after Mr. Bergstrom, Bart on the verge of tears because he might have really lost his soul, and Bart studying through a snow day and still failing the test are some of the most gut-punchingly sad moments in television history. Later on, Futurama would become known for emotional episodes and moments, but The Simpsons had plenty of them, too. The writers did an expert job of making us genuinely care about this wacky yellow family, and when they suffered their lowest moments, it was only natural that we felt their pain.
Simpsons Episodes About The Simpsons
Examples: “Bart’s Inner Child,” “Secrets of a Successful Marriage,” “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show”
As The Simpsons became an increasingly massive cultural phenomenon, the writers became more self-reflective about what they had created. This led to the meta-episodes, which asked crucial questions about the show’s universe. In “Bart’s Inner Child,” we find out what would happen if everyone started acting like Bart Simpson. Likewise, “Homer’s Enemy” reminds us that while we may find Homer Simpson’s antics charming within the context of a cartoon, if we knew him in real life, we’d probably hate his guts. Conversely, “Secrets of a Successful Marriage” introduces him to the harshest of real world consequences, and nearly leaves him divorced in the process. Finally “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” reminded us of the challenges of keeping a show like The Simpsons interesting after it had already been running for a decade. After creating one of the greatest pieces of comedy of all-time, the writers and producers of the Simpsons proved incredibly adept at commenting on their creation and its cultural ramifications.
Solid Episodes with One Incredible Moment
Examples: “Two Dozen and One Greyhounds,” “Bart After Dark,” “Lisa the Beauty Queen”
I’ve often found myself wondering what the funniest single gag in the history of The Simpsons is. Homer having a bowl of cereal start on fire for no apparent reason is high on the list, as is his delivery of “it’s a pornography store. I was buying pornography” when pressed to think of something other than a bar that would be open at night. One that ranks quite high on the list is the resolution of “Lisa the Beauty Queen.” When Lisa’s political activism as Little Miss Springfield begins to make advertisers uncomfortable, they find a loophole to remove from her position – an error on the entry form filled out by Homer: in the area marked “do not write in this space,” he wrote “okay.” For the most part, this is a strong episode, but maybe in the lower half of the amazing fourth season. But that one perfect joke alone makes it quite memorable. Likewise, “Two Dozen and One Greyhounds” is an enjoyable outing, but at first glance, it might not be able to rank with the best of season 6. Or it wouldn’t, if not for the genius that is “See My Vest.” A similar thing could be said about “Bart After Dark,” and the immortal “We Put the ‘Spring’ In Springfield.” Essentially, even the episodes that aren’t quite on par with the all-time classics can still have one amazing moment that makes us remember them forever.
The Format Benders aka the Steamed Hams Division
Examples: “22 Short Films About Springfield,” “Behind the Laughter,” “Trilogy of Error”
Very few shows have been as skilled at experimentation over the years as The Simpsons. When we consider recent brilliance like Rick and Morty’s ventures into inter-dimensional cable, it’s hard not to see the genesis of these episodes in Simpsons classics like “22 Short Films About Springfield.” This episode gave us a series of memorable vignettes such as Bumblebee Man’s woefully unlucky day, Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel, and of course, Skinner’s greatest run in with Chalmers ever. This episode demonstrated that The Simpsons could leave their comfort zone and still do great things. This would also prove true on later classics like “Behind The Laughter,” an origin story that, despite being non-canon, nonetheless rang true, and “Trilogy of Error,” which cleverly told the story of a single day from the perspectives of Homer, Lisa, and Bart. As The Simpsons aged, the writers had to work harder to keep things interesting, but their expert ability to tinker with the format without losing what makes the show great to begin with has led to some highly rewarding moments.