When Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera’s animated Stone Age family “The Flintstones” bowed on ABC in 1960, it was gently heralding the dawn of a new chapter in television. After being exclusively seen on “The Bugs Bunny Show,” “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” and occasional holiday specials, animation was now in primetime, competing against the likes of “Route 66” and “Rawhide.”
Network execs willing to give animation more primetime exposure skedded futuristic family “The Jetsons” in 1962, and Hanna Barbera’s contempo family toon “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home,” (echoing “All in the Family) in 1972, which played for two years in syndication on local nets.
It would take three more decades until Matt Groening’s series about the yellow-skinned, dysfunctional Simpsons clan rocked the American pop cultural landscape and dispelled most prejudices about the comedic value of animated fare.
“I always thought it was going to be a hit,” recalls Groening, “but I really didn’t think that in 2001, we’d still be talking about the show.”
Groening, who is also the mastermind behind Fox network’s other Sunday night groundbreaking toon “Futurama,” says he created “The Simpsons” based on a very conservative template.
“It was your standard family sitcom: the dumb overweight dad, the sassy kids, very much inspired by shows such as ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ and ‘Leave It to Beaver,’ ” he says. “I thought it would be fun to combine my ideas of these repressed family sitcoms with the sly wit of Jay Ward and Alex Anderson’s ‘Rocky and Bullwinkle.’ ”
After its introduction as a series of shorts on Fox’s edgy “The Tracey Ullman Show,” “The Simpsons” bowed with a Christmas special in December 1989. Audiences quickly embraced Groening’s wacky characters and the show’s writers’ way of pushing the boundaries of what a primetime sitcom could and should do.
“It’s nice to see Matt Groening can still have his wiggy creative vision after all these years,” says Ray Richmond, author of “The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family.” “Even when ‘Beavis and Butt-head’ and ‘South Park’ became passe, the writers on the show continue to churn out strong episodes week after week.”
Executive producer Al Jean is the writer of “Homr,” the “Simpsons” episode that was submitted for Emmy consideration this year. In this smart parody of “Flowers for Algernon,” Homer becomes super intelligent, learns that the world can be a hostile place for extremely gifted people, and the experience brings him closer to his overachieving daughter Lisa.
“We are hoping that the voters will like the emotional weight of the episode,” notes Jean. “Of course, you can never know what they’ll like. The thinking can be very rigid. They don’t think an animated show should compete with a live-action comedy.” Jean refers to the fact that despite its excellent writing, “The Simpsons” has never been up for an Emmy in the best comedy category, while less original shows such as “Frasier” and “Friends” seem to end up on the short list automatically every year.
Nevertheless, the success of Homer and company, opened the door for more primetime toons such as Mike Judge’s “The King of the Hill,” and Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s crudely drawn and outrageous “South Park.” Many of the new generation of toons came and left in a flash. Few can even remember what “Family Dog,” “Fish Police” or “Capitol Critters” were about. And more recent experiments such as “Clerks” and “God, the Devil and Bob” are better left forgotten.
One of the shows that seems to continue in “The Simpsons” tradition is Fox’s under-rated “Futurama,” Matt Groening and David X. Cohen’s (an Emmy-winning former “Simpsons” writer) homage to all their favorite science fiction shows, books and movies.
“We like to reference shows such as ‘Star Trek,’ and the novels of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov in our series,” says Cohen. “We follow the high density of writing pattern from ‘The Simpsons,” but the more seriously we take the grand intergalactic setting, the better we can play with the comedy.”
Cohen points out that because the series is set in a crazy and disorienting world in the future, the characters have to react in a very familiar and human way in order not to alienate the viewers.
” ‘The Simpsons’ made it possible for an animated primetime sitcom to aim at multiple levels for different members of the audience,” notes Cohen. “The show is the pinnacle of primetime animation. Everything else that comes after ‘The Simpsons’ will be compared to that show. Now, if you’re creating an animated sitcom, you want it to make is as great as ‘The Simpsons,’ and you can’t cover the same grounds.”
Of course, the big bearded maestro says he’s only tapped the surface of his creative universe.
“We’ve got a lot of ideas,” says Groening. “If we get the Emmy, we have a year to coast and another to drive the show to the ground. Of course, because ‘Futurama’ and ‘The Simpsons’ are running in the same category, no matter which one wins I’ll be bitter — in true Hollywood fashion.”