Thursday, August 30, 2018

“The Simpsons”: But They Were Using Their Whole Ass!

In Fox’s early years, very little of its programming gained traction with audiences. Its nighttime talk show featuring Joan Rivers was a colossal failure. Each of its shows were more forgettable than the last.

Mr. Whose-its?

Beans Whats-it?

Fox’s biggest issue at the time was that it wasn’t anyone’s first choice. It also didn’t have an established development team to line up potential projects. Fox was where people took shows that everyone else had already rejected. The only show that got any traction at the time was Married... With Children. Rumors abounded that Rupert Murdoch was planning to pull the plug on his failed experiment.

Thank your father for helping keep this network alive, kids!

Murdoch, however, decided to double his bet that he could create a fourth network out of nothing. If Hollywood wouldn’t bring its best projects to Fox, Fox would make its own. The network scoured Hollywood and its own schedule for fresh talent. One critical bright spot on the schedule was The Tracey Ullman Show. Unfortunately, critical acclaim did not transfer to ratings success. After just a few seasons, the show had run its course.

Go home! No, seriously- please stay!

Ms. Ullman created a treasure trove of characters and Fox executives thought that one of them could possibly be spunoff into a new show. They quickly determined that her characters, while interesting in small doses, would probably wear out their welcome in short order. The cartoon family in the bumpers, however, did show some promise. Matt Groening’s Simpsons seemed like the sort of characters who could attract a younger audience. The show, however, would need some polish. Groening had created a family and an attitude. Keeping an audience interested in the show for thirty minutes at a time would require a city of characters. That’s where Sam Simon came in.

Matt Groening and Sam Simon

If Matt Groening was the father of The Simpsons, Sam Simon was the founder of Springfield. Sam built out the show, adding the various friends, family, neighbors and acquaintances who inhabited Springfield. Despite the fact that no prime time cartoon had been successful in years, Fox greenlit the project and it began production. Due to the huge lead time required to produce an animated show, Fox had to commit to more than just an episode or two in order to make everything cost effective. It committed to 13 episodes, half of the usual season order. The first episode produced was Some Enchanted Evening, which featured guest Penny Marshall as Mrs. Botz, a villainous babysitter.

The episode was a disaster. The animation was bad, even for a television cartoon. It was deemed unreleasable by Fox, but because most of the other episodes were already in various stages of production, it couldn’t afford to scrap the series. Some Enchanted Evening was sent back into production and the series was delayed from its schedule Fall 1989 premiere to a Spring 1990 premiere. As a result, the episode originally scheduled to air as the season finale- the Christmas themed Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire would be the series premiere. A hopefully much improved Some Enchanted Evening would be the finale.

Strangely enough, Fox’s decision to only produce 13 episodes was technically lose/lose for the network. If the show failed, those expensive episodes would be a costly mistake. If the show was successful, it would leave the network with a hot prospect that it couldn’t fully exploit because it only had 13 episodes to run. The decision was made to hold off on making more episodes until the network was fully convinced that the series was a success. As the final versions of the various episodes began coming in from overseas, Fox executives started resting easier. The show, it seemed, was good. But would the world agree? For better or worse, Fox would find out on December 17, 1989.