The Simpsons is great for a whole slew of reasons, not least because of the near-perfect satire it's produced throughout (most of) its nearly three decades on air. Any given episode of The Simpsons is a bombardment of cultural references, some more arcane than others. The show has been on since 1989, and allusions that were once obvious may now be opaque for younger fans who are catching up via re-runs.
These 17 favorites have been hand-picked for no real reason beyond the fact that they're favorites. There are thousands more, but this should be a fun place to start.
We're sure many of these are obvious for die-hard fans who have been watching since the late '80s, and we congratulate you. Feel free to brag in the comments, Genius at Work, or take that time to find out why, in episode 2F09 when Itchy plays Scratchy's skeleton like a xylophone, he strikes the same rib twice in succession but produces two clearly different tones.
1. Billy Beer.
Homer excitedly drinks this beer in two separate episodes. In season three’s “The Otto Show,” he finds a can in his old “concert jacket” and chugs it, and in season nine’s “Lisa the Skeptic,” Homer gulps down an old can and says, “We elected the wrong Carter.”
Billy Beer was named after and endorsed by Jimmy Carter’s younger brother, Billy. This hard-drinking, down-home first sibling owned a gas station in Plains, Georgia and became a cause celebre (and a bit of a liability) during his brother’s presidential campaign.
In 1977, the failing Falls City Brewing Company wanted to capitalize on his fame, so they approached Billy Carter and offered to partner with him to sell a beer that bore his name. At first, Billy Beer flew off the shelves, but its skunky taste and Billy’s proclivity to get hammered at promotional events and admit that he still drank PBR hurt the brand, and Falls City Brewing Company closed for good in 1978.
You can still find unopened cans of Billy Beer on eBay, but check your concert jacket first.
2. Ayatollah Assaholla.
In season seven’s “Two Bad Neighbors,” Homer looks through the attic to find things to sell at Evergreen Terrace's street sale. Marge urges him to part with his “Ayatollah Assaholla” shirt, saying, “Can we get rid of this Ayatollah T-shirt? Khomeini died years ago,” to which Homer replies, “But Marge, it works on any Ayatollah! Ayatollah Nakhbadeh, Ayatollah Zahedi... Even as we speak, Ayatollah Razmara and his cadre of fanatics are consolidating their power.”
Khomeini became Ayatollah after the 1979 Iranian Revolution and supported the hostage crisis in which 52 U.S. citizens were held captive at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for 444 days. In America, ticked-off citizens expressed their hatred for Khomeini in many ways, including T-shirt designs (although “Ayatollah Assaholla” looks to be a Simpsons original).
Many point to Jimmy Carter’s inability to resolve this crisis as the reason his re-election bid failed. Well, that and Billy Beer.
3. "A Young Joe Piscopo."
Narrating a flashback in season four’s “Lisa’s First Word,” Marge takes us to "the unforgettable spring of 1983” when “a young Joe Piscopo taught us how to laugh.”
In 1980, SNL creator Lorne Michaels left the show and ratings plummeted due to an unpopular cast. Two standouts, however, were Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo, and their talent carried Saturday Night Live through its lowest years. In 1984, Piscopo was at the peak of his fame and decided to leave the show to pursue greener pastures. His career never recovered, but he did manage to appear on a couple bodybuilding magazine covers.
4. "Just ask Claus von Bulow."
In season five’s “The Boy Who Knew Too Much,” Bart witnesses an accident that results in Mayor Quimby’s nephew being wrongfully accused of assaulting a waiter. After the mayor clumsily tries to rig the trial, Bart explains, “the system works. Just ask Claus von Bülow."
Claus von Bülow is a wealthy socialite who was accused of trying to murder his wife in 1980 by administering an insulin overdose. He was convicted of murder in 1982 but appealed the ruling and earned a second trial where his high-powered defense team managed to get that original conviction reversed.
5. The Toilet Where Lupe Velez Drowned.
While giving the Simpsons a tour of Springfield’s gossipy landmarks in season eight’s “Homer’s Phobia,” new friend John (voiced by John Waters) points out the plumbing supply store where Lupe Velez “bought the toilet she drowned in."
Velez was a Mexican actress who killed herself in 1944 by swallowing 75 sleeping pills. An urban legend propagated by a 1959 book about Hollywood states Velez’s initial suicide attempt failed when she became sick, so she stumbled to the bathroom to vomit and, as the rumor goes, plunged her head into the toilet and drowned. While proven categorically untrue, the story is still often retold as if it were fact.
6. Gerald Ford’s Clumsiness.
In “Two Bad Neighbors,” Homer and Bart clash with their straight-laced new neighbor, George H.W. Bush. After Bush moves out, Gerald Ford replaces him, and he and Homer get along swimmingly, their bond highlighted when they trip in unison while walking to get nachos.
Even though he was an accomplished athlete at the University of Michigan, Gerald Ford’s presidential term was full of highly publicized examples of physical ineptitude. He fell on a ski slope, hit his head on a train’s door frame after a speech, and, most famously, slipped down the slick stairs of Air Force One in Austria.
7. “It's you! You're him! You're Tony Randall!”
In season ten’s “Maximum Homerdrive,” the family dines at a steakhouse that features a promotion where you can eat for free if you finish “Sir Loin-a-Lot,” a 16-pound steak “the size of a boogie board." On the restaurant’s wall of fame, only two men are listed as having successfully taken down Sir Loin-a-Lot: Tony Randall and trucker Red Barclay, who Homer challenges to an eating contest (after mistaking him for the tuxedo-wearing Randall).
Tony Randall was a stage and screen actor, most famous for his role as the persnickety Felix Unger in The Odd Couple. The svelte Randall is an unlikely Sir Loin-a-Lot conqueror, but you can’t argue with the wall of fame.
8. "I Ordered a Zima, Not Emphysema."
Actor Troy McClure and Marge’s sister Selma become an unlikely couple in season seven’s “A Fish Called Selma.” When the two have dinner at a swanky restaurant, Selma smokes a cigarette, which causes a commotion and prompts a yuppie diner at the next table to say, “Excuse me, I ordered a Zima, not emphysema.”
In 1993, Coors introduced Zima, a “clearmalt” beverage meant to compete with wine coolers in the non-beer market. Zima didn't catch on, as it was perceived to be a gimmicky, effeminate drink—one that would frequently be ordered in establishments that “don’t serve contemporary California cuisine in your lungs.”
9. The Twirl King Yo-Yo Champions.
At the start of season three’s “Bart the Lover,” the Twirl King Yo-Yo Champions perform during a Springfield Elementary assembly and spark a yo-yo craze at the school.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s (primarily), yo-yo companies like Duncan would send one or more skilled “yo-yo professionals” on school tours to perform for students and drum up excitement for their product. If any questions about the academic value of these performances arose, they could always say “check out this centripetal force” while performing an around the world.
10. Laramie Slims.
In “Homer’s Phobia,” Homer tries to “cure” Bart of his supposed homosexuality by making him stare at a billboard for Laramie Slims that features two women smoking and having a pillow fight. When Homer returns, Bart asks him for a cigarette. Excited that his plan may be working, Homer asks Bart what kind of cigarette he wants, to which he replies, “anything slim,” thoroughly disappointing his father.
Laramie was an actual American cigarette company that went out of business in the 1950s, and the brand serves as The Simpsons' catchall device to lampoon the tobacco industry. Their Menthol Moose is a parody of Joe Camel, and Laramie Slims are a takeoff of Virginia Slims, a type of cigarette that was marketed to lure female smokers.
11. Red Tick Beer.
When Homer wants to depart from his usual Duff in season eight’s “The Springfield Files,” he orders a Red Tick Beer (slogan: “Suck One Dry”) at Moe’s Tavern. After Homer wonders what tastes different about it, there is a cutscene to the Red Tick brewery where dogs swim around in the beer.
Red Tick is an overt parody of Red Dog, a beer made by Miller that featured an English bulldog on its label. Red Dog was introduced in the mid-nineties and faded into obscurity before the decade was over.
12. "Don't Look at Me, I'm on Sugar Busters."
When Homer produces a tobacco/tomato hybrid—“tomacco”—in season 11’s “E-I-E-I-(Annoyed Grunt),” executives of the aforementioned Laramie Cigarette Company steal his secret formula. As they helicopter away from Homer’s farm, a sheep mutated by the plutonium Homer used to make the tomacco sneaks onboard. When the pilot says, “We seem to be carrying a little extra weight,” one of the executives responds, “Don’t look at me, I’m on Sugar Busters.”
Sugar Busters was a self-published diet book from the mid-nineties that was re-released by a larger publishing house and skyrocketed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list in 2001. The weight-loss plan in Sugar Busters! Cut Sugar to Trim Fat is pretty self-explanatory.
13. Hooray for Everything.
In season two’s “Bart vs. Thanksgiving,” Homer listens to a football game on the radio, and a cheery group of youngsters called Hooray for Everything perform a “salute to the greatest hemisphere on earth…the western hemisphere!” during halftime. In “Selma’s Choice” from the following season, Hooray for Everything is seen at Duff Gardens performing a kids’ version of “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” with the lyrics, “And all the races sing, doo bee doo, shoo bee doo bee doo!”
Hooray for Everything makes fun of Up With People, a traveling singing group that rose to fame in the 1970s. The troupe sprouted from the Moral Re-Armament movement, and its members sang cheesy songs about love and happiness with smiles plastered on their faces. Amazingly, Up With People performed at four separate Super Bowl halftime shows. (Their "Salute to the Big Band Era" from Super Bowl XIV is above.)
14. I & S Productions Logo
In season four’s “The Front,” Lisa and Bart submit an Itchy & Scratchy script using Grampa Simpson’s name. At the end of an Itchy & Scratchy episode, there’s an involved sequence where Scratchy pulls a sheet of paper from a typewriter and throws it in the air, forming an “I & S Productions” logo.
That sequence is a faithful recreation of the Stephen J. Cannell Productions logo bumper that came at the end of television shows like The Greatest American Hero, The A-Team, Hardcastle and McCormick, and many others.
15. Dolph’s Apple Newton
At a school assembly during season six’s “Lisa on Ice,” Kearney tells fellow bully Dolph to take a memo to beat up Martin on his Apple Newton. When Dolph writes “Beat up Martin” with the device’s stylus, it changes to “Eat up Martha,” so Kearney just hurls the Newton at Martin’s head.
Apple released the Newton in 1993 during a period of time when Steve Jobs was not with the company. The overpriced handheld computer proved to be a massive flop, and its lousy handwriting recognition software was just one of the reasons for its failure.
Years later, Apple's iPhone development team used the Simpsons reference as a mantra to get their keyboard perfect. "In the hallways and while we were talking about the keyboard, you would always hear the words 'Eat Up Martha,'" Apple engineer Nitin Ganatra told FastCo. "If you heard people talking and they used the words 'Eat Up Martha,' it was basically a reference to the fact that we needed to nail the keyboard. We needed to make sure the text input works on this thing, otherwise, 'Here comes the Eat Up Marthas.'"
16. "Remember ALF? He’s back...in POG form!”
Comic Book Guy is shown as a buyer and seller of Pogs in at least two episodes. When Bart wins $500 after suing Krusty the Clown in season six’s “‘Round Springfield,” Bart thinks about buying the “Steve Allen Ultimate Pog” from Android’s Dungeon. Also, when Bart sells his soul in season seven, he writes “Bart Simpson’s Soul” on a piece of paper and trades it to Milhouse for $5. When Bart seeks to get this back from his best friend, Milhouse tells him he traded it to Comic Book Guy for some ALF Pogs.
Pogs were part of a popular game in the 1990s. In it, players would stack cardboard discs (“Pogs”) and then hit with a heavier disc (a “slammer”), which would cause the Pogs to scatter. POG is a fruit drink that's popular in Hawaii, and it’s name is an acronym meaning passionfruit, orange, and guava. The original Pogs were caps from actual POG bottles.
And, while we’re at it, ALF was a popular TV show about an alien who lives with a suburban family (ALF means “Alien Life Form”), and Steve Allen was Steve Allen, former host of The Tonight Show, The Steve Allen Show, I’ve Got a Secret, What's My Line, and more.
17. Ravi Shankar
In season six's "Bart of Darkness," Bart breaks his leg and has to spend summer inside. The Krusty the Clown Show episode he watches is a re-run from the 1970s, and the special guest is Ravi Shankar, who plays "what you've been waiting for, another long raga."
Shankar was an Indian sitar player who famously inspired George Harrison's love of the instrument and taught him how to play it in 1966. The Krusty appearance is most likely inspired by the above clip from a 1971 episode of The Dick Cavett Show.