“Bart, how many hours a day do you watch teevee?” – Marge Simpson
“Six. Seven if there’s something good on.” – Bart Simpson
The broad outlines of the history of The Simpsons are probably already familiar to anyone reading this. But just in case, the basic story is that James L. Brooks heard about Matt Groening’s “Life in Hell” comic strip and wanted to use it as crudely drawn filler material on The Tracey Ullman Show. Groening didn’t want to give up ownership of his rabbit characters, so he whipped up a generic family based on his own. The shorts were funny enough that the three-year-old FOX Network took a chance and ordered thirteen half-hour episodes. Brooks hired veteran television writer Sam Simon to flesh out the characters and create a writing staff for what would become the first successful animated network show in primetime since The Flintstones went off the air in 1966.4 The full-length episodes premiered with a Christmas special on 19 December 1989 and have been airing ever since.
Some version of that very basic historical outline has become boilerplate for pretty much anything written about The Simpsons. While it’s true as far as broad outlines go, that stuff about FOX and The Flintstones is often the only piece of context given, and that leaves out a huge part of the story. Yes, FOX was the first new network in forever, and yes, The Simpsons was the first evening cartoon in decades, but beyond those tidbits the late 1980s was a very peculiar moment in the evolution of television.
Most American industries, everything from oil and airplanes to cars and computers, began with a vast collection of wildcat operators, a few of whom eventually became big, established companies. Movies and radio started much the same way. In their early years, anyone could get into the business and the hand of censorship was light to nonexistent.
Television never had that freewheeling infancy. From the time it became widely available in the 1950s and right up to today, television has always been the product of established companies with existing rules and regulations. The radio networks, decades old and amply stocked with coiffed men in tailored suits, simply took their buttoned down broadcasting philosophy and applied it to the new medium. For its first three decades, the culture of television was staid and unchanging.
Through thirty years of social changes and technical improvements, the three networks pumped out fare that was mostly remarkable for its consistency. Certain types of shows would become trendy or fall out of favor, hemlines went up and down, and new stars would emerge and fade, but the airwaves were always dominated by action, mystery and detective shows, soap operas, variety hours, and the ubiquitous family comedies. By the mid-1980s, American television was beginning to transition from the stuffy, centralized and highly censored world of three networks to the hundreds of channels that exist today, but it hadn’t happened yet. A person from 1955 could switch on a television in 1985 and be instantly at home. Even some of the same players were still around. Andy Griffith, star of Simpsons punching bag Matlock, had debuted on television during the Eisenhower Administration and was still one of its biggest stars under Reagan.5
When the FOX Network began in 1986, cable television was still unavailable in most U.S. households, and the tiny handful of cable channels that did exist mostly ran niche programming, old movies, or reruns of network shows. Scripted original programming on cable was almost unheard of. With the exception of a few syndicated programs, all freshly written shows had to pass through one of the Big Three, and the networks had very definite ideas about what kind of programming they wanted from their entertainment divisions.
There were the dramas, which were mostly detective and cop shows that always ended with righteous American justice. Whether you were watching clever old people on Murder She Wrote (1984-1996) or Matlock (1986-1995), or handsome rogues who played by their own rules on Hunter (1984-1991) or The Equalizer (1985-1989), you could be sure that there was a mystery to be solved and a fiend to be apprehended before the hour was up. The networks leavened those with middlebrow soap operas like Dallas (1978-1991), Dynasty (1981-1989) and Knots Landing (1979-1993), as well as the occasional lawyer show or tearjerker, like L.A. Law (1986-1994) or Highway to Heaven (1984-1989).
Comedy was straightjacketed in a similar way. With a few rare and short lived exceptions, there were two kinds of comedies: workplace and family. The workplace comedy allowed a bunch of wacky characters to spit one liners at each other and usually came complete with male and female leads who seemed perfect for one another but never quite got together.
The family comedy, far more prevalent than its workplace brethren, was an even less creative template and was easily identified by the presence of adorable child actors. Around them would be one or more adults, often but not always a husband and wife, who had to put up with the precocious antics of the little moppets. The networks regarded slight changes to the backstories of these characters (he’s divorced!, they’re adopted!) as all the variety the American public desired.
Atop the pile sat The Cosby Show. Premiering in 1984, it was an instant hit and would be the #1 rated program of any kind for five straight years, from the 1985-86 season through the 1989-90 season. It was unusual in that it had a black cast, but it was the archetype for a family sitcom: the wise but funny father, the supportive wife, the precocious kids. Each episode followed one or two family members through some little event or crisis, and lessons both small and large were doled out regularly.
The Cosby Show was wildly popular for a reason: it executed the family sitcom formula better than any other program. The stories were moralizing but plausible, the laughs were genuine, and the cast was solid from top to bottom. Though he’s become less universally beloved in his later years, Bill Cosby is undeniably one of the most talented comedians ever to grace the American stage, and he carried the show that bore his name with his finely honed brand of clean cut whimsy.
Unfortunately, most family sitcoms didn’t have anyone nearly as capable as Cosby on hand. Even the ones that were hits weren’t as supple at playing within the formula as his. Most of them involved making a slight tweak to the basic nuclear family and then plowing ahead with lame jokes and lots of laughtrack. The hook on Family Ties (1982-1989) was that liberal parents had conservative kids. Growing Pains (1985-1992) involved a husband who worked from home, a wife who worked in an office, and their three (eventually four) lesson-needing children. There were two different versions of “tough guy stays home to mind the kids” in Who’s the Boss? (1984-1992) and Charles in Charge (1984-1990). The basic setup was so predictably durable that NBC managed to create a modest hit by inserting a wise cracking alien into an otherwise anodyne situation in ALF (1986-1990).
Generally speaking, each network ran three hours of primetime programming from 8pm-11pm Monday-Saturday, and four hours from 7pm-11pm on Sunday. The 10pm slot was typically occupied by detective shows or soap operas, and the 7pm Sunday slot was reserved for public affairs programs, which meant that half-hour comedies almost always ran between 8pm and 10pm. That’s eighty-four (84!) potential shows,6 and while not every network broadcast comedy every night, it was a lot of airtime to fill. Family sitcoms were the bricks and mortar of the network television house.
By the mid 1980s, ABC, CBS, and NBC were debuting, continuing or cancelling an average of nearly thirty family sitcoms each year. Some of these shows were more creative and popular than others, but most of them premiered to low ratings and were swiftly forgotten. Many of them died such quick deaths that today all that’s left of them are a few dutiful pages on IMDb and Wikipedia.
A particular lowlight came in the middle of the 1987-88 season when ABC premiered and then instantly cancelled a show called Family Man. On top of its superlatively generic title (a year and a half later CBS debuted a different show with the same one, adding only “The”), Family Man may have represented the nadir of creativity in 1980s Hollywood. Not only was the setup as formulaic as possible (husband, wife, three kids), but the titular father was a television writer.
The networks copied and recopied the same premises year after year until the airwaves were filled with just a few kinds of shows, only a handful of which could even remotely be considered quality programming. If you wanted to watch a detective show, a cop show, or a detective show about an ex-cop, you were in luck. There were so many shows about ex-cop detectives that CBS had to resort to time travel to come up with a fresh twist, trying out a show about a sheriff from the 1800s who goes to 1986 and opens a detective agency. Similarly, if you wanted to watch a family sitcom with caring parents and cute children, you could do so seven days a week.
If you wanted to watch something outside of those narrow confines, however, you were most likely out of luck. There were a few exceptions, but the majority of the new shows were rigidly similar to the ones that were already on. One or two would take off each year while the rest died quickly, and that was called television. This stultified medium of bland, repetitive mediocrity was the stage onto which The Simpsons exploded.
Continue to Chapter 3: The Most Anti-Authority Show Ever
Notes and Sources
4. Hanna-Barbera, creators of The Flintsones, produced a short lived animated sitcom (complete with canned laughter) called Wait Till Your Father Gets Home in the early 1970s, but it ran in syndication and wasn’t an official network show.