Thirty Years Later, the First "Simpsons” Episode Remains a Christmas Classic
The seeds of the cartoon’s genius were there from the start
“If TV has taught me anything, it’s that miracles always happen to poor kids at Christmas. It happened to Tiny Tim, it happened to Charlie Brown, it happened to the Smurfs and it’s gonna happen to us!” — Bart Simpson
“Who’s Tiny Tim?” — Homer Simpson
Thirty years ago today (Dec. 17, 1989), The Simpsons debuted its first full-length episode on Fox.
Rewatching it three decades later, I’m happy to say that not only does the episode successfully establish a series that’s now celebrating its 672nd episode, it’s also a worthy holiday television classic on par with Charlie Brown, the stop-motion Rudolph and … well, I’m gonna go with “A Very Sunny Christmas.”
The basics of the Simpsons family had been established during a series of shorts on the sketch series The Tracey Ullman Show, but series episode 1, “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire,” established Mr. Burns, Smithers, Principal Skinner, Milhouse, Moe, Ned and Todd Flanders, Barney and Marge’s sisters Patty and Selma, among many others. All the more impressive since the show was supposed to debut with what would later become episode 13, “Some Enchanted Evening,” but animation delays forced a programming switch.
As the official description for “Roasting” notes, Homer’s Christmas bonus is canceled and the rainy-day funds are needed for Bart’s tattoo removal. The episode was the only one written by Mimi Pond, and it was nominated for two Emmys.
- The first joke is on the school sign, where a reviewer has given the annual Christmas pageant 3 1/2 stars
- Homer somehow sounds dopier, Ralph seems a bit smarter and Mr. Burns seems awful but not as cartoon sinister.
- There are a lot of cutaways to Maggie doing … not much
- Lisa’s “Santa Claus of the South Seas” would probably come across as cultural appropriation in 2019 and inspire several finger-pointing op-eds, but everything else about the episode is pretty timeless, aside from Homer’s on-going threats of violence toward children and a stray Donna Dixon reference.
- Random girl during school presentation: “Frohlich Weihnachten! That’s German for Merry Christmas. In Germany Santa servant Bruprecht gives presents to good children and whipping rods to the parents of bad ones.”
- Marge: “Grandpa is still with us, feisty as ever. Maggie is walking by herself, Lisa got straight As, and Bart… well, we love Bart.”
- Marge [in Bart’s imagination, post-tattoo]: “Oh, Bart that’s so sweet. It’s the best present a mother could get, and it makes you look so dangerous!”
- Lisa: “Well, I wish that you wouldn’t [trash Homer]. Because, aside from the fact that he has the same frailties as all human beings, he’s the only father I have. Therefore, he is my model of manhood, and my estimation of him will govern the prospects of my adult relationships. So I hope you bear in mind that any knock at him is a knock at me. And I am far too young to defend myself against such onslaughts.”
The episode ends on a surprisingly sentimental note, and as Lisa’s speech points out, the family displays a real love toward Homer that’s sometimes lost in later episodes (never by Marge, but sometimes by the kids).
And, as Homer — spoiler alert — agrees to take home Santa’s Little Helper, the pup that came in last place during the Christmas Eve dog races (which is dark), we are left with a rather heartwarming line that defines the series.
“He’s a loser, he’s pathetic … he’s a Simpson.”
You can watch the full episode of “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” on Disney Plus.