The Simpsons has been a television institution for nearly 30 years. Since its debut on Fox in 1989, the series has accumulated a mountain of awards, worldwide acclaim, and an empire of merchandise. As the longest-running scripted show on TV, it's no surprise that the show's history is littered with interesting anecdotes, loads of cultural references, bizarre guest stars, offbeat writers, wild fan theories, and even a bit of drama. Dig a bit deeper into the history of television's favorite animated family with 10 things you might not have known about The Simpsons.
1. IT’S IVY LEAGUE COMEDY AT ITS FINEST.
The folks behind The Simpsons are smart. Incredibly smart. One look through the writers and producers who have passed through the show reveals graduates, scholars, and professors from some of the best universities on the planet. And many of them didn’t start out by studying writing.
Al Jean, who has been the show’s executive producer on more than 400 episodes, began studying mathematics at Harvard when he was just 16. Writer Jeff Westbrook was an algorithm researcher and attended both Harvard and Princeton before becoming a professor at Yale. Writer David X. Cohen graduated from Harvard with a physics degree and University of California, Berkeley with an M.S. in computer science. And this is just a sample of the brain power it takes to bring The Simpsons to life.
2. ONLY GOD HAS FIVE FINGERS.
The jaundiced residents of Springfield—like most other cartoon characters—are notable for only possessing eight fingers and eight toes. It’s an animation tradition, but one character bucks that trend: God. In the episode “Homer the Heretic,” Homer meets the big cheese, who sports a long white beard, flowing robe, and the standard five fingers on each hand. Just one of the perks of being in charge.
There is one inconsistency, though: Jesus is actually depicted with five fingers in the episode “Thank God It’s Doomsday,” but in subsequent appearances, he’s back to four. Whether this is some profound message or a simple animator slip-up is up to your own interpretation.
3. “KAMP KRUSTY” WAS ORIGINALLY ENVISIONED AS THE SIMPSONS MOVIE.
Though The Simpsons Movie premiered 20 years after the family debuted on The Tracey Ullman Show, the idea of doing a film was being floated during the show’s early days. The episode “Kamp Krusty,” from the show’s fourth season, was originally batted around as a potential plot for a film. In the episode, Bart, Lisa, and the other kids of Springfield go to Krusty the Clown’s shoddy sleepaway camp for the summer while Homer and Marge stay behind to rekindle their marriage.
According to the DVD commentary, a feature-length script never came together. In fact, the writers had a hard enough time stretching the story out to a standard episode length, so an 80 or 90 minute film was out of the question.
4. THE SIMPSONS GOT INTO A PUBLIC WAR WITH THE BUSH FAMILY.
The very unlikely war between The Simpsons and the Bushes began in a 1990 issue of People Magazine, when then-First Lady Barbara Bush said of the show, “It was the dumbest thing I had ever seen.” Not looking to let that jab go unanswered, The Simpsons writing staff penned a pointed response to Mrs. Bush, but they wrote the letter in character as Marge Simpson.
The letter takes some good-natured shots at Mrs. Bush and pleasantly scolds her for the critique, including the line, “Ma'am, if we're the dumbest thing you ever saw, Washington must be a good deal different than what they teach me at the current events group at the church.”
The war was over … for a few months. Speaking at a convention for religious broadcasters in 1992, President George H.W. Bush vowed to strengthen American families, to make them "a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons."
A year later, Bush was out, Clinton was in, and it seemed like The Simpsons—which would eventually triple the length of The Waltons' nine-season run—could move on. Well the show wasn’t done with the former First Family yet.
In the episode “Two Bad Neighbors,” the Bushes move across the street from the Simpsons, and the former president engages in a battle of wits with Homer and Bart (and ends up with a rainbow wig glued to his head). Though the ex-president didn’t voice the character, it provided a definitive end to the feud, as the family eventually drove the Bushes out of Springfield through the same idiotic behavior Barbara Bush derided years earlier.
5. MATT GROENING REMOVED HIS NAME FROM THE EPISODE “A STAR IS BURNS.”
For a show that’s been on the air for close to 30 years, The Simpsons hasn’t endured much public drama outside of the occasional cast salary negotiations. But one of the show’s most memorable feuds went straight to the press, and it concerned the 1995 episode “A Star is Burns,” which featured the character Jay Sherman (voiced by John Lovitz) from the series The Critic coming to Springfield.
Feeling that the episode was just a cheap crossover, The Simpsons creator Matt Groening removed his name from the episode’s opening credits, the first and only time his name wasn’t associated with the series. This led to a very brief—but surprisingly brutal—war of words between Groening and executive producer James L. Brooks.
"The two reasons I am opposed to this crossover is that I don't want any credit or blame for The Critic and I feel this (encroachment of another cartoon character) violates the Simpsons' universe," Groening told the Los Angeles Times. "The Critic has nothing to do with The Simpsons' world."
"This has been my worst fear ... that the Matt we know privately is going public," Brooks said. "He is a gifted, adorable, cuddly ingrate. But his behavior right now is rotten. And it's not pretty when a rich man acts like this."
It would be nearly 20 years before The Simpsons hosted another cast of characters in one of its episodes. However, this time it was another Groening creation—Futurama—stopping by for an episode in 2014’s “Simpsorama.”
6. ELIZABETH TAYLOR VOICED MAGGIE FOR ONE WORD.
Maggie is famous for her pacifier and 28-season vow of silence, but she did utter one word during the fourth season in the episode “Lisa’s First Word.” And the voice behind Maggie was none other than Elizabeth Taylor, who was hired to say one thing: “Daddy.”
The scene takes place at the end of the episode once Homer leaves Maggie’s room after tucking her in, so of course no one hears her. To get the line just right, producer Al Jean requested a number of takes from the Hollywood icon, culminating in Taylor telling Jean, “F--- you,” in her Maggie voice while the tapes were still rolling.
Taylor reappeared on the show toward the end of the fourth season in the episode "Krusty Gets Kancelled." She had a bit more to say here, but laying claim to Maggie’s first word cemented her legacy in Springfield.
7. THE SHOW HAS LANDED BOTH BANKSY AND THOMAS PYNCHON.
No one knows what Banksy’s real name is, and the mystery surrounding reclusive author Thomas Pynchon has endured for decades. Yet somehow, they both contributed to The Simpsons—Banksy with a couch gag and Pynchon as a guest-voice.
Pynchon appears (with a paper bag over his head to preserve his mystique) in two episodes, “Diatribe of a Mad Housewife,” where he endorses Marge’s book, and “All’s Fair in Oven War,” where he eats some chicken wings she made. He even edited his own dialogue for the show, removing a line where he was supposed to call Homer a fat ass. His reason? “Homer is my role model and I can't speak ill of him,” he told the producers.
Banksy’s couch gag was one of the show’s most shocking, depicting Fox as a vile corporate cesspool that runs on employee misery. Al Jean said he was a little concerned with the nature of the couch gag at first, but he and Groening agreed to leave it in with minimal changes. And no, nobody on The Simpsons ever met Banksy. In both cases, the reclusive artists were tracked down by casting director Bonnie Pietila.
8. HOMER MAKES LESS THAN $25,000 A YEAR AT THE NUCLEAR PLANT.
The Simpson family finances are ... complex. In some episodes, they have to forego fancy quilted toilet paper to make ends meet and, in others, Homer can pull wads of money out of his wallet if the plot calls for it. It’s all part of the show’s famous "rubber band reality," where continuity never lines up episode-to-episode (or scene-to-scene).
One of the only concrete pieces of evidence we have of the family’s financial situation comes in the episode “Much Apu About Nothing,” when we get a glimpse of Homer’s weekly paycheck from the nuclear plant.
Apparently Homer takes home $479. 60 before taxes ($362.19 after taxes) for a full work week, which averages out to just about $11.99 an hour. That’s $24,395 per year, and $37,416 when you adjust for inflation, according to Vox.
9. MICHAEL JACKSON VOICED A CHARACTER BUT HAD AN IMPRESSIONIST DO THE SINGING.
One of the most important parts of the early success of The Simpsons was the roster of A-list celebrities that provided guest voices for the series. This was at a time when a prime-time animated show wasn’t given much respect in show business, so having the likes of Dustin Hoffman, James Earl Jones, Larry King, Penny Marshall, and Phil Hartman lend their vocal talents to the show gave it an air of respectability that it needed.
Perhaps the biggest coup came during season three, when the show landed Michael Jackson as a guest. In “Stark Raving Dead,” Jackson plays a heavy-set, white mental patient who believes he’s the King of Pop and befriends the family after being Homer’s sanitarium cellmate. Jackson was a big Simpsons fan, so he was happy to lend his voice to the show. His speaking voice, that is.
Jackson refused to sing on the show when it came time for the episode’s musical number, instead leaving that up to a soundalike. When the cast discovered this during the episode’s table read, Harry Shearer (voice of Mr. Burns and many others) looked over at Yeardley Smith (Lisa Simpson) and said, “We’ve paid just enough for the speaking Michael Jackson but we can’t afford the singing Michael Jackson.”
When Jean asked why exactly Jackson didn’t want to sing on the show, the music legend told him, “I’m playing a joke on my brothers” with no further explanation.
Don’t go looking for Jackson’s name in the show’s closing credits, though. He appeared under the pseudonym John Jay Smith, which, again, was never explained.
10. THE SHOW’S MOST PROLIFIC WRITER IS NOTORIOUSLY RECLUSIVE.
The Simpsons has churned out a number of great comedy writers who have gone on to mainstream success—Conan O’Brien and The Office creator Greg Daniels among them—but there’s one whose legend eclipses nearly everyone else. Casual fans might not know him, but among Simpsons die-hards, the name John Swartzwelder is met with hushed awe. Multiple members of The Simpsons staff have declared him the best writer the show has ever seen, with former show writer Dan Greaney proclaiming him, "the greatest writer in the English language in any form."
Google his name and you’ll end up with more questions than answers. Most of the details of his life boil down to second- and third-hand accounts, as he never does interviews, refuses to lend his voice to DVD commentary tracks, and rarely pops up in photos (there are a handful on Google and none look any more recent than the ‘90s).
The one time that show producers tried to call him during a commentary recording, the man on the other end of the line ended the awkward conversation with, “It's too bad this isn’t really John Swartzwelder,” leaving fans to wonder what they just listened to. Despite that, the man wrote 59 episodes of the show during its first 15 seasons, with many of them ranking among the series’ most popular, like "Bart Gets an Elephant," "Radioactive Man," and "Homer's Enemy."
When other writers would talk about him in DVD commentaries, he's described as a serious Libertarian who is a “self-declared anti-environmentalist,” and would go on tangents about how there is more rainforest now than there was 100 years ago. And when describing a recycling center in one of his scripts, he called it "a couple of hippies surrounded by garbage." That didn't stop Swartzwelder from writing some of the show’s most environmentally conscious episodes, including “Whacking Day” and “The Old Man and the Lisa.”
How deep does Swartzwelder’s quirky legend go? During the commentary for “Grade School Confidential,” Groening told a story about how Swartzwelder would usually write his Simpsons scripts alone in a diner while smoking cigarettes and guzzling coffee. When California outlawed smoking in restaurants, Swartzwelder simply bought the booth, had it installed in his home, and continued to work in the exact same manner. And once smoking was banned in The Simpsons writers room, he rarely showed his face there again. The closest thing fans have gotten to actually seeing Swartzwelder is the handful of “cameos” he makes in animated form throughout the series’ history.
Though he’s been out of television since 2003, he has since authored a series of 11 novels, all of which retain his genius—and infinitely absurd—humor.
Additional sources: More Simpsons DVD commentaries than anyone should listen to in a lifetime.