It was the first time America heard Bart Simpson say, “Ay, caramba,” and the first time Homer shuddered in the presence of his sisters-in-law Patty and Selma. Even though the Simpsons had appeared in short segments on The Tracey Ullman Show, TV viewers didn’t meet the Simpsons in their The Simpsons form until December 17, 1989, when Fox debuted “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” dubbed a Christmas special and a sneak preview of the series that would began its initial season in earnest the following January.
It was a watershed moment that felt like one while it was happening, and seems even more significant in retrospect. As Fox prepares to re-air the episode Sunday night in its original form as part of the network’s 30th anniversary celebration of the series, it’s worth pausing to remember why the yuletide premiere of The Simpsons was so important.
By December of 1989, Simpsons creator Matt Groening was known primarily for his work on the comic Life in Hell, Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie were just crudely animated characters sandwiched between Tracey Ullman sketches, and the family sitcom was just beginning to turn away from warm-hearted fare toward something more authentic and bracing. Roseanne was in the middle of its second season, and on more than one occasion in 1989, it unseated The Cosby Show from its long-held No. 1 position in the Nielsen ratings. On Fox, Married … With Children had already established the idea that the moms, dads, and kids in comedies could fall far, far short of anything akin to role models.
Based on that first Christmas-themed episode, The Simpsons seemed like a continuation of this trend and a totally different animal altogether. For starters, there were no animated shows on network prime-time television at the time. The Simpsons was the first one to debut since The Flintstones went off the air in 1966, which is an astonishing thing to wrap one’s head around considering the volume of adult-oriented animated series that currently exist in the TV landscape. While “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” is clearly Simpsons 1.0 — the humor in it is not nearly as quick or layered as it would eventually become, nor is the animation — you could tell already that it had its own language and a tone that was darkly satirical without sacrificing sentiment or intelligence.
A USA Today piece that ran ahead of the episode described it as “The Flintstones with more flint, Married … With Children with more love, more craft and none of the smut.” An AdWeek piece that also ran the week before the arrival of “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” characterized the series as a potential Peanuts for the 1990s, while also pointing out the contrasts between the two. “While Linus clings to his blanket, Bart Simpson is a kid who’s likely to grab it and run,” wrote Betsy Sharkey. “It’s the difference between active and passive, and it touches a growing restlessness in the country. As the individual retains so little control of his work, his environment, his life, even muffed attempts at regaining ground, which the Simpsons certainly represent, are very engaging.”
In other words, unlike the families in a majority of ’80s sitcoms, the Simpsons struggled financially and seemed doomed to never catch up, a truth about the show that “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” conveyed right away. And unlike Peanuts, which is also about an endless cycle of failure, The Simpsons wasn’t as quick to fully embrace hope. In that initial Christmas episode, when Homer realizes that due to taxes and other fees, his clandestine work as a shopping mall Santa has only earned him $13, not nearly enough to buy Christmas presents for the family, Bart name-checks A Charlie Brown Christmas in an attempt to suggest the holiday can still be salvaged.
“If TV has taught me anything, it’s that miracles always happen to poor kids at Christmas,” Bart says. “It happened to Tiny Tim, it happened to Charlie Brown, it happened to the Smurfs, and it’s going to happen to us.” But there is no tiny-tree-morphs-into-big-tree miracle for the Simpsons. The upbeat ending in their holiday special comes in the form of a scrawny, unwanted dog named Santa’s Little Helper, who provides just enough joy to redeem their Christmas. Schulz told us in one of his Peanuts collections that happiness is a warm puppy; The Simpsons told us that the closest you can get to happiness is a warm puppy that got booted out of a dog track for being a loser. That cynical streak is very emblematic of where pop culture would head in the early 1990s, when grunge and indie movies would become mainstream, and The Simpsons and Seinfeld would become two of the most popular shows in America.
As a high-school senior when “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” aired, I responded to that cynicism and the spiritual break from more treacly sitcom fare, even if I couldn’t necessarily articulate that at the time. There are only a couple of instances, if that, when I can remember watching a TV show for the first time and having my mind blown. That first episode of The Simpsons was one of them. “What in God’s name is this?” I thought as Bart got a “real boss tattoo” then repeated “Ow, quit it” every time his sisters poked the spot where a laser had removed it. I liked what I saw so much that I recorded the episode when Fox re-aired it a week later, on December 23, and rewound and rewatched it multiple times on Christmas Eve that year.
Everything in it struck me as funny and raw, and in ways that resembled nothing else on TV at the time. I thought Homer botching the names of Santa’s reindeer was hysterical because it involved such a random reference to Donna Dixon. Again, this will sound crazy to all the youngsters out there, but clever pop-culture shout-outs were not nearly as common in prime-time TV comedy back then, so a mention of the Smurfs and the former Bosom Buddies star/wife of Dan Aykroyd suggested pretty strongly to me that what I was watching was a work of daring genius.
So did the language. When I heard Bart say “I’m Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?” for the first time, reader, I gasped. In 2018, if our president said “Who the hell are you?” in the middle of his State of the Union address, it would rank as maybe the 587th most offensive thing he’d done that day. But in 1989, to hear a kid say this on national television, even a cartoon one, was edgy, subversive, and outstanding.
Like most shows, it would take The Simpsons some time to fully develop its sensibility and, certainly, for its artistry to become more sophisticated. Over time, its characters would evolve (or devolve) as well: Homer got dumber as the episodes progressed, while Lisa got smarter and more progressive. (I like to think that Lisa Simpson, as we know her now, would never agree to dress up as Tawonga the Santa Claus of the South Seas, during an elementary-school Christmas show.) Even so, it’s remarkable that so much of the core elements of The Simpsons — most notably its mix of the acerbic with the slightly sweet — were already in tact in that episode. There’s a reason for that: “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” wasn’t just a pilot.
As explained in the book The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History, due to issues with the animation, the release of the series got pushed back and “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” wound up becoming the first to air even though that wasn’t the original intention. It was also one of the few episodes in those initial seasons written by a woman, cartoonist Mimi Pond, and deserves a bit of extra celebration for that, too, even though, in an interview last year, Pond said she was never invited to join the writing staff because executive producer Sam Simon “didn’t want any women around.” (While the show has continued to be male-dominated, other women, including Nell Scovell, Jennifer Crittenden, and Carolyn Omine, eventually did become credited writers on The Simpsons.)
While Fox executives may have been nervous about how The Simpsons would be received, that nervousness quickly melted away when “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” got great ratings — it was seen in about 13.4 million homes — and, on that same night, the It’s a Wonderful Life--themed episode of Married … With Children that followed became the highest-rated show in Fox history at that point.
In 1989, Fox was still a young network. Though shows like Married … With Children and Tracey Ullman were talkers, Fox hadn’t scored a legitimate hit yet. The Simpsons would change that, too, and the reception for “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” made that pretty clear.
“The Simpsons apparently has some real appeal,” Peter Chernin, the head of Fox Entertainment, told the trade publication TV Week once the ratings came out.
Three decades later, when Fox is treating “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” with the sort of reverence only afforded to true TV classics, that comment qualifies as one of the greatest understatements in television history.