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Simpson Family Values

A cartoon family whacked America's funny bone in 1989, eventually becoming the longest-running TV comedy ever. As The Simpsons jumps to the big screen this month, not everyone involved—including the writers, the voices, and Rupert Murdoch—agrees on what has made it a pop phenomenon.

by John Ortved August 2007

This is an expanded version of the text that appears in the August 2007 Vanity Fair.

Also on A Q&#38A with former Simpsons writer Conan O'Brien and our picks for the top 10 episodes ever.

The Story of D'oh: Lisa, Homer, Bart, Marge, and Maggie Simpson. View our picks for the 10 best Simpsons episodes ever. All illustrations Fox/Photofest.

In January 1992, during a campaign stop at a gathering of the National Religious Broadcasters, George H. W. Bush made a commitment to strengthen traditional values, promising to help American families become "a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons." A few days later, before the opening credits rolled on the animated sitcom's weekly episode, The Simpsons issued its response. Seated in front of the television, the family watched Bush make his remarks. "Hey! We're just like the Waltons," said Bart. "We're praying for an end to the Depression, too." While the immediacy of the response was surprising, the retort was vintage Simpsons: tongue-in-cheek, subversive, skewering both the president's cartoonish political antics and the culture that embraced them. Twelve months later, Bill Clinton moved into the White House. The Waltons were out; the Simpsons were in.

When The Simpsons had premiered on Fox, in 1989, prime-time television was somewhat lacking in comedy. Despite a few bright spots such as Cheers and the barbed, happily crude Roseanne, the sitcom roost was ruled by didactic, saccharine family fare: The Cosby Show, Full House, Growing Pains, Family Matters. Of the last—the show that gave the world Urkel—Tom Shales piously declared in The Washington Post, "A decent human being would have a hard time not smiling."

It was on this wan entertainment landscape that The Simpsons planted its flag. Prime time had not seen an animated sitcom since The Flintstones, in the 1960s, and the Christmas special with which The Simpsons debuted made clear that Springfield and Bedrock were separated by more than just a few millennia. In "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire," Homer takes a job as a department-store Santa after the family's emergency money is spent on tattoo removal for Bart. Following a motivational chat from Bart on the nature of Christmas miracles on television—meta-commentary was a Simpsons hallmark from the start—Homer risks his earnings at the track, on a dog named Santa's Little Helper. When the dog comes in dead last, the family adopts him. While the ending sounds a tad cheesy, and it was, the seeds had been planted: up against impossible odds, and one another, the family ultimately bonded together and overcame. And the gags were solid: Homer is despondent at the length of his children's Christmas pageant; a tattoo artist unquestioningly accepts 10-year-old Bart as an adult; the family's Christmas decorations are clearly pathetic in contrast to the Flanders family's next door. Critical reaction was nearly unanimous. "Couldn't be better … not only exquisitely weird but also as smart and witty as television gets," raved the Los Angeles Times. "Why would anyone want to go back to Growing Pains?" asked USA Today.

What followed is one of the most astounding successes in television history. The Simpsons went on to be a ratings and syndication winner for 18 years, and has grossed Fox sums of money measuring in the billions. It has won 23 Emmys and a Peabody Award, and was named the best TV show of all time by Time magazine in 1999. (The magazine also named Bart one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. "[Bart] embodies a century of popular culture and is one of the richest characters in it. One thinks of Chekhov, Celine, Lenny Bruce," the writer cooed.) But the most telling accolade is that The Simpsons is TV's longest-running sitcom ever, outlasting The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet's 14 seasons.

Not surprisingly, given its success, The Simpsons has spawned many imitators and opened doors for new avenues of animated comedy. Directly or indirectly, the show sired Beavis and Butt-head, King of the Hill, Futurama, Family Guy, Adult Swim, and South Park, which, nearly a decade after Bart's boastful underachieving, managed to regenerate a familiar cacophony of ratings, merchandise, and controversy when it premiered, in 1997. (The controversial label was perhaps deserved. Bart's greatest sin has been sawing the head off the statue of the town's founder; last year, on South Park, Cartman tried to exterminate the Jews.)

"It's like what sci-fi fans say about Star Trek: it created an audience for that genre," says Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy. "I think The Simpsons created an audience for prime-time animation that had not been there for many, many years. As far as I'm concerned, they basically re-invented the wheel. They created what is in many ways—you could classify it as—a wholly new medium. It's just wholly original."

"The Simpsons is the bane of our