In April, 1987, Fox debuted its second ever original primetime series, The Tracey Ullman Show. A true variety program, it mixed sketch comedy with musical numbers, dance numbers (Paula Abdul was the show’s choreographer), and animated shorts. When executive producer James L. Brooks made the decision to feature short animated “wraparounds” before and after the show’s commercial breaks, he could not have envisioned the colossal impact those cartoons would have on global pop-culture.
After seeing a comic strip titled Life in Hell, Brooks reached out to its author/illustrator Matt Groening and asked him to pitch an idea for a series of short, animated cartoons to be featured on Tracey Ullman. Groening originally planned on re-purposing Life in Hell until he realized it would mean giving up publication rights for his life’s work.
Instead, while in the lobby of Brooks’ office before the pitch meeting, he frantically sketched out a last-minute idea based around a dysfunctional family. He named the characters after his own family, but substituted his name with Bart (an anagram of “Brat”).
Groening submitted his crudely drawn character sketches to the show’s animators, assuming they would be cleaned up and drawn properly. Instead the animators simply traced over the artwork, and Groening’s crude drawings became the basis for the Simpsons characters that would soon become iconic worldwide.
The characters were voiced by existing Tracey Ullman cast members Dan Castellaneta, who was given the role of voicing Homer Simpson, Grampa Simpson, and Krusty the Clown, and Julie Kavner, who voiced Marge Simpson. The kids still needed voices though, and through auditions the producers discovered up-and-coming voice actor Nancy Cartwright. Being a female actor, it was assumed she would voice the daughter Lisa, but instead Cartwright chose to go for the role of Bart. She was hired on the spot. Shortly after, 22-year-old B-movie actress Yeardley Smith was hired for the voice of Lisa.
The shorts aired for the first three seasons of The Tracey Ullman Show and reportedly would earn the biggest laughs of the show. Brooks started considering that The Simpsons ought to be its own show. He was approached by animator David Silverman at a Christmas party, who encouraged Brooks by passionately emphasizing what a primetime cartoon would mean for the animation industry. In 1989, while Tracey Ullman was airing its fourth and final season, The Simpsons had re-launched as its own standalone, half-hour primetime show on Fox.
The first half-hour episode, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” aired on December 17th. The first season was plagued by animation problems, and the characters had yet to find their roles, but The Simpsons managed to became Fox’s first series to rank in the top 30 highest-rated shows. The network then made the controversial decision to move the show to Thursday nights to compete directly against The Cosby Show, which was the number one rated show at that time.
The first episode to air against The Cosby Show, “Bart Gets ab F”, earned an estimated 33.6 million viewers, making it the most watched episode in the Fox Network’s history. By season three, The Simpsons beat The Cosby Show in ratings. And within a few years, the show had evolved from a crude drawing in Groening’s sketchbook to a global pop-culture phenomenon.