Take a trip all the way back to December 17, 1989, with me as we revisit the very first episode of The Simpsons. Who would have ever expected this series to still be on the air almost 33 years later?
We’re starting a new retrospective on the iconic animated sitcom, The Simpsons, here on FYIG. I will be going through every episode in the series, starting back with the first episode through to today. There will be no set schedule on when these features will come out, I’m just going to write them as I want to for now, and it may become a weekly feature later on.
“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire (titled The Simpsons Christmas Special in the opening)” was the first full-length Simpsons episode to air and the only one to air in the 1980s, airing on December 17th, 1989. It was viewed by 13.4 million people, which was good enough to be the second-highest viewed show on Fox up to that point. The episode was nominated for two Emmy Awards in 1990: “Outstanding Animated Program” and “Outstanding Editing for a Miniseries or Special.” This episode is notable because it didn’t begin with the famous opening sequence. It wasn’t originally supposed to be the first episode of the season, but due to animation issues, the original Fall debut was delayed until December. The original first episode, “Some Enchanted Evening,” was pushed to the end of Season 1.
This episode is one that I remember pretty fondly, even though a lot of people don’t consider it to be one of the best, me included. I remember when I was younger and watching all of these episodes in syndication being very weirded out by Homer’s voice in this episode as Dan Castellaneta hadn’t quite perfected his Homer voice yet in these early episodes, and I had watched them very out of order considering I only started watching The Simpsons in the late 90s.
“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” sets the tone with Marge, Homer, and Maggie on their way to Springfield Elementary, where they show up slightly late to the school Christmas show in which they have to make their way through the crowd with Homer saying, “pardon my galoshes” which just seems so out of character for the Homer that we would all come to know over the years. Maggie is inexplicably in a star winter jacket of some sort that I’ve never been able to truly understand, but it stands out in the scene. This is also our first glimpse of Principal Seymour Skinner, who is the MC of the evening, and Mr. Largo, the music teacher. I’ll try to call out all the first appearances of recurring characters as much as I can throughout the series. We’re introduced to Lisa on stage as “Towanga, The Santa Claus of the South Seas.” If that’s not a perfect introduction to Lisa Simpson, I don’t know what is. She does a dance with this mask and fire sticks that is completely ridiculous at a school play. We get another perfect introduction of Bart as he sings “like an angel,” according to Marge performing his rendition of Jingle Bells, Batman Smells. I didn’t remember how these characters were introduced to the audience, but I wasn’t disappointed. The writers had a clear vision for the kids in mind from the moment this show started. The Christmas show keeps going grade by grade as Homer moans, “How many grades does this school have?.” I loved how quickly The Simpsons showed you what they were all about. In the first 3 minutes, the tone was set for the entire series.
I totally forgot about the fact that the first Snowball the cat got run over, and that’s where Snowball II came in. Marge is writing Christmas letters, and she reveals that fact. I don’t think it is revisited, but I could be wrong. She talks about Grampa still being with us (who shows up later in the episode), Maggie taking her first steps (as she stumbles), Lisa getting straight As, and Bart. Well, we love Bart. That’s one of my favorite lines in the whole episode. Bart and Lisa make their Christmas lists, and each of them wants outlandish things, a pony and a tattoo. Two other characters are introduced in a phone call from one of Patty or Selma (it only says Marge’s sister in this episode) and Ned Flanders, who one-ups Homer’s Christmas lights. It’s apparent how crude the animation is when we get an outdoor view of the neighborhood. The lack of detail is pretty staggering when you think about the Springfield that we know today.
This might be one of the few times I can ever remember seeing Homer working at the Nuclear Power Plant. It’s also when he finds out he won’t be getting a Christmas bonus. Bart ends up getting a tattoo, and Marge promptly takes him to get it removed, costing her the entire jar of Christmas money, which becomes the plot point of the episode. That leaves Homer in a tough position where he doesn’t want to tell Marge about the bonus. He gets a dog toy for Maggie, pads of paper for Bart, and nylon stockings for Lisa and then runs into Ned and Todd Flanders outside. Homer then ends up at Moe’s. Moe has different colored hair and a different colored apron than in later episodes. We meet Barney Gumble for the first time, and he convinces Homer to become a mall Santa for extra cash.
We see Patty and Selma for the first time, and their disdain for Homer is immediately evident. This leads Homer to steal a Christmas tree. I kind of feel for Homer in this episode quite a bit. He is not having a good time at all. Everything seems to be against him at what should be the happiest time of the year. Bart finds out he’s Santa but doesn’t give him up like he probably would in later episodes. Homer ends up making all of 13 dollars for his trouble, and he decides to take a gamble at the Springfield downs. This leads to The Simpsons adopting Santa’s Little Helper after he loses a race and gets tossed out on his own.
One of my favorite parts of this episode is Lisa standing up for Homer against Patty and Selma talking about him having the same frailties as all humans and how he’s her only model of manhood. She tells them that her thoughts of him will shape her feelings toward adult relationships. This is prime Lisa, and it was a smart comment on passing judgment toward parental figures. I loved it. Of course, it was shut down just as quickly with her being told to watch her cartoons. The episode ends with The Simpsons gaining a new family member and the entire family singing Christmas carols.
The first episode had its moments and is one I have great memories of. I don’t feel it leaned on the comedy as much as some of the better episodes. It went for a more heartfelt approach that I didn’t necessarily like. The writers made you care about the characters, and that was a lot more important for the first episode. It’s not prime Simpsons, but you can see where they were trying to go with it and the potential that the show had even back then. It was an introduction to The Simpsons family and a few important recurring characters to set the stage for the rest of Season 1, and they did a good job of that, even if this episode wasn’t meant to be the first one. It’s not one of my favorites, and I wouldn’t even call it one of the good episodes, but it is historic.