Life was Hell before The Simpsons

If we’re really going to start from the beginning of The Simpsons, it seems like going back to before Matt Groening ever drew his first spikey haired or balding yellow character is appropriate.

Most Simpsons’ fans know that the first episode of the series was a Christmas special, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”, that aired on December 17, 1989.  Even more knowledgeable fans will recognize that before The Simpsons, Matt Groening was busy with his popular comic strip Life in Hell.  But how (and why) did Life in Hell perish while The Simpsons became the iconic series it is today?

In 1977, a 23 year old Matt came to Los Angeles and quickly realized what a lot of us living here have:  Life here kinda sucks.  In fact, sometimes it’s plain hell.  Needing to make rent, he held a series of jobs, one of which was at a record shop called Licorice Pizza across from the Whiskey a Go Go in West Hollywood.  He started drawing a cartoon strip called Life in Hell and made photocopies for his friends.  The main character of the strip was Binky the bunny (who fans will recall is Bart Simpsons’ cherished stuffed toy).  Life in Hell gets published for the first time in 1978 in Wet Magazine, and from there, makes it to the LA Reader.  It was when Matt fell in love, though, that the comic strip went from obscure to Life in Hell mugs, calendars, greeting cards, T-shirts, books, and syndication.

Matt Groening started dating Deborah, a sales rep for the LA Reader.  Where Matt excelled creatively, she was reportedly the business and smarts of the duo.  Though they later divorced, they did have two boys named Homer and Abe.  Sound vaguely familiar?

Another random encounter helped Matt when Richard Sakai, a film producer, came across Life in Hell and gave it to his friend Ken Estin.  The two had worked together on the hit tv series Taxi.  Sakai had enjoyed the comic so much, he’d given it to Ken for his birthday.  Fast-forward to a meeting between Ken Estin and James L. Brooks about a new show, The Tracy Ullman Show.  James needed something to separate the sketches that would be a minute at most.  Ken remembered the comic strip, and they reached out to Matt Groening.

The problem was that Life in Hell had already been widely distributed and the current publisher wanted a major piece of the pie before handing it over.  So, instead, Matt was asked if he could come up with another set of characters for the show.  Here’s where the legend is hard to separate from fact.

A few sources who worked on the show early on claim that Matt made up the characters of The Simpsons just moments before he met with James L. Brooks again.  He simply based them on his family.  Spontaneous or not, there is definitely some correlations to be made between The Simpsons and The Groenings.  Matt’s parents: Homer and Marge.  His sisters?  You guessed it, Lisa and Maggie.  And the foul-mouthed blue shorts menace?  A play on the word “brat” and meant to personify Matt in his youth.

The Tracy Ullman Show never did very well for the new FOX network, but James L. Brooks was so smitten with the minute cartoons, he decided to make it into its own series.  Supposedly, he got the idea when the crew began to string together a bunch of the minute strips to entertain the audience.  Oftentimes, these were the biggest laughs heard from the audience through the whole show.

And just like that, The Simpsons entered the scene.  Let the rewatching begin.


The Day Homer Killed Bill Cosby

The year was 1992, and with just over fifty episodes under its belt, The Simpsons had yet to secure what would eventually become the unrelenting and faithful fan base that exists today.  The Cosby Show, a decidedly different viewpoint of American family life, was the reigning television series in ratings.  That all changed on February 20, 1992 when record numbers of people switched off The Huxtables and on to see Episode 52: “Homer At The Bat.”  Two months later, after eight seasons on NBC, The Cosby Show was no more.

For a refresher of the episode, take a look at Erik Malinowki’s article,  “Homer At The Bat”. He also offers up some interesting insights into the episode’s conception.

There is no way to be certain if the Simpsons truly led to The Cosby Show demise, but after reading Malinowki’s article,  I definitely think it didn’t help matters.  The FOX network had a lot riding on The Simpsons, having been launched only three years before the series came along.  In this one episode, nine guest stars were included, with the precedent before that being at most four.

The Cosby Show was definitely on The Simpsons’ radar before “Homer At The Bat.”  It’s even widely speculated that Dr. Hibbert, who shares Cosby’s affinity for colorful sweaters, is based on Bill Cosby’s character and a friendly jab by writers.  Dr. Hibbert was introduced in episode “Bart the Daredevil” during Season 2 in 1990.

However, setting aside the surge of star power, is it possible that audiences were just not as interested in tuning in for hour long life lessons or idealistic portrayals of family life anymore?  Family Ties, which also aired on NBC, had its last episode in 1989.  The Simpsons wouldn’t show up for months, but was this an indication of the beginning of the end for The Cosby Show? I think so, because while audiences weren’t tuning in to Family Ties or The Cosby Show, they were watching another FOX show Married…with Children which aired for eleven seasons (5 of which were after The Cosby Show ended).  They were also watching Roseanne on ABC, which ran from 1987 to 1997.

Perhaps the most clear example of the shift in The Simpsons perception today versus back in the nineties can be seen by the two quotes below:

At the 1992 Presidential Election, George H.W. Bush:                                                                 “I speak of decency, the moral courage to say what is right and condemn what is wrong.  And we need a nation closer to The Waltons than The Simpsons.”

In a 2009 Vatican City newspaper:                                                                                    “Without Homer Simpson and the other yellow-skinned characters many today wouldn’t know how to laugh.”