“Aw, come on, Dad. This could be the miracle that saves the Simpsons’ Christmas. 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 going to happen to us!” –Bart Simpson
This month marks the twenty-second anniversary of the debut of The Simpsons, forever and always one of my very favorite television shows. When I tell you I can quote entire blocks of dialogue from this show, I’m not joking. I tend to pepper random conversations with bon mots from the show. And just last night, I popped in a DVD from season eight and annoyed the folks around me by speaking along with the characters as we watched.
The two-decades-long-and-growing legacy of the yellow cartoon family started with a television special in 1989 called “Simpsons Roasting On an Open Fire.” As the title (and the month of its debut) indicates, it is a Christmas special centering around the family’s adoption of its beloved pooch, Santa’s Little Helper. “Roasting” was actually not intended to be the series premiere; creator Matt Groening, along with fellow producers Sam Simon and James L. Brooks, were displeased with the animation of the intended first episode, “Some Enchanted Evening,” and thus “Roasting” was aired first.
In the end, though, this episode turned out to be the perfect introduction to the Simpson family. Though some viewers had already been exposed to Groening’s characters through a series of animated shorts on The Tracy Ullman Show, giving the family its own show allowed the characters to be fully fleshed-out as viable, entertaining, and ultimately relatable figures.
“Roasting” opens with a school pageant, where both Bart and Lisa perform (and Bart gets yanked off stage for substituting his own irreverent lyrics for “Jingle Bells”). On a shopping trip to the mall, Bart sneaks away to get a tattoo, and Marge must spend the Christmas fund to get it removed. When Homer finds out he’s not getting a Christmas bonus, and subsequently discovers that the family will have no money to spend on presents, he secretly takes a job as a mall Santa to earn money for the holidays, but doesn’t earn quite as much as he expected. A desperate, last-minute stop at the greyhound racing track provides the family with an unexpected yet delightfully appropriate gift.
The episode establishes many of the tropes that have recurred throughout the series’ run: Homer’s rivalry with and disdain for his neighbor, Ned Flanders; Mr. Burns’ greed; Bart’s mischievousness and unadulterated love for television; Lisa’s cautious, eight-year-old cynicism (juxtaposed with her constant desire for a pony); Marge’s trusting nature; Patty and Selma’s dislike of Homer; and Grandpa’s sometimes-pathetic, sometimes-hilarious senility. There are, of course, some distinct differences between this early adventure and the show’s more polished later episodes: Moe’s bar is a little cheerier than it would soon become, the rough edges of the animation are still evident here, and some of the iconic character voices have yet to be determined (most notably, Dan Castellaneta was still voicing Homer as a gravelly Walter Matthau-type at this early juncture), but the hallmarks for the show are well-established in this episode.
There is a sweet sentimentality to this episode, which is not to say that there are not some elements of the show’s trademark acerbic wit. Still, while “Roasting” is not nearly as satirically incisive as some subsequent episodes of the show (particularly during what I would argue is The Simpsons’ “golden age,” from season three through season eight), it certainly sets the proper mood for the series.
These days, nearly five hundred episodes later, The Simpsons catches a lot of flack for supposedly not being as “good” as it was during the 1990s. And though it may be true that the show has become … well, a little lazy in recent years, there is still enjoyment to be found in the adventures of the many denizens of Springfield.
“Simpsons Roasting On an Open Fire” can be found on the first disc of the Season One DVD (complete with commentary from creator Matt Groening, executive producer James L. Brooks, and the episode’s director, David Silverman), and was also included on the Simpsons Christmas DVD along with other classic episodes like “Mr. Plow” and “Miracle on Evergreen Terrace.”