As I was driving to work this morning, I was reminded that today is a landmark day in pop culture history. Twenty years ago tonight, the very first episode of The Simpsons aired.
Twenty years ago, I was a freshman in college. As Simpsons mania was sweeping the nation, I was being introduced to the world of Freud and Sir Thomas Aquinas and frat parties and cheap beer. I was making friendships that would last a lifetime. And I was falling in love with a quirky family of five from Springfield, State Unknown.
When the show first debuted, there was no local Fox affiliate nearby. I can remember friends coming back to school from winter break wanting to watch The Simpsons and being unable. I remember prowling UHF stations one evening and finally stumbling across a Fox affiliate from a couple hundreds of miles away and that was how I saw my first episode of The Simpsons.
It was "Crepes of Wrath" -- the episode where Bart is sent off to France as an exchange student. It was a revelation. I never knew something could be THAT funny, THAT irreverent. Before The Simpsons, there really wasn't a source for that kind of comedy on television, comedy that was smart, goofy, satirical, and heartwarming all rolled into one.
By the next fall, Fox had acquired a local affiliate and Thursday nights were spent huddled in dorm rooms watching The Simpsons. Those early seasons were filled with brilliance, each episode seeming to top the other. Lines would be quoted often around the table in the cafe. Studying was scheduled around episodes. For me, the show is inextricably linked with my college years even though I only spent a small fraction of the show's history in college. I think of the show and I am instantly back in a dorm room laughing my ass off with my closest friends.
And perhaps that's why I've stuck with the show for these twenty years even though it's been a great while since the show gave us an episode as brilliant as "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie," "Last Exit to Springfield," or "Marge vs. the Monorail" -- those season four gems that stand among the show's absolute greatest (to name just a few). The second decade of the show has been filled more with duds than gems, but even those duds have moments that remind me why my relationship with The Simpsons has outlasted relationships I've had with people. (The only other pop culture relationship to rival this one is my 30 year love of SNL.) There are still moments of biting satire, sharp wit, and lovely goofiness. The Simpsons Movie that came out several years ago surprised me with how the small screen charm of the show could make the leap to the big screen. (And the sight of Homer flipping off the people of Springfield as he went down the sinkhole is perhaps one of my all time favorite Simpsons moments ever!)
As other shows have come along to swim in The Simpsons' wake, the show sometimes seems creaky and old fashioned. As much of a troublemaker as Bart can be, there's a certain charm in knowing that there are things he would never sink to -- like killing a rival's parents and turning them into chili. (Yeah, I'm looking at you, Matt and Trey) Despite their dysfunction, the Simpson family does genuinely seem to love each other. (Yeah, I'm looking at you, Seth) There is a conscience among those characters that doesn't exist with, say, Peter Griffin or Eric Cartman. The show that once seemed so rebellious now is perhaps one of the most family friendly shows on television. And yet the show retains its liberal heart and its questioning spirit. Recent episodes have dealt with Wicca, helicopter parents, immigration, the drugging of our kids, and more. Matt Groening and his writers prefer to prick little pinholes in our society rather than the gaping knife wounds delivered by McFarlane, Stone, and Parker. There is a subtlety at play that lets us reach our own conclusions rather than being shoved into them. It's sad that this comes across now as old fashioned when, in reality, it just shows that Groening and co. appreciate the intelligence of their audience and trust them in a way that McFarlane, Stone, and Parker never will. And it's that trust and appreciation that still, to this day, makes me more excited about a new episode of The Simpsons than any of its "peers." And it's that trust and appreciation that have kept me around all these years. Tonight, I'm going to go home, curl up, and watch that very first episode ("Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire") and think of those friends with whom I used to share this show and celebrate those friends on the screen who've been a constant for over half of my life.
ADDENDUM: Today is also the birthday of a student in my Drama class. As I wished him a happy birthday, I told him he shared a birthday with The Simpsons ..... and that The Simpsons is older. Wow.