Australian businessman Rupert Murdoch was attempting the impossible; he was trying to use his then recent purchase of Twentieth Century Fox to setup a new American television network from scratch. Both Paramount and DuMont had previously tried to become a fourth network, but neither had succeeded. Murdoch was hoping to succeed where others had failed by starting small, building up and pursuing a more youthful audience. Originally, Fox only programmed on Saturday and Sunday nights and its initial programming was quite risky. One of its biggest risks was The Tracey Ullman Show, a half hour comedy sketch show starring a British actress who was relatively unknown in the United States.
Produced by television titan James L. Brooks, the show wanted to signal from the very beginning how it was not your father’s comedy show. Fox decided to have animated bumpers that would play before and after commercial breaks that were technically unrelated to the show. After seeing the Matt Groening comic strip Life in Hell, Brooks and Fox knew they’d found an edgy talent whose work could attract the younger audience they craved. Life in Hell was a popular comic strip that was found in alternative newspapers. It seemed like a great fit for the network, so Matt Groening was approached to turn his strip into a series of shorts to be aired on Tracey Ullman.
Matt was surprised to be contacted by Fox; after all, he was just an independent cartoonist at the time. His characters had been a smash hit in the alternative press, but mainstream success had eluded him. Despite his surprise, he still decided to take the meeting. As he sat in the waiting room, panic kicked in, however. The Life in Hell characters were how he made his living. If he accepted Fox’s offer, he would be essentially signing over the rights to the characters to them. How would he make a living if that happened? What if he lost his indie cred as a result of this deal? Matt frantically took out his drawing pad and made a split second decision that would change his life- and popular culture- forever.
Unwilling to sign over his existing creations, Matt sketched out a picture of a strange looking family. There was a mom with a crazy beehive hairdo, a grumpy, bald father and three bratty kids. Best case scenario- Fox picks up these characters he designed just a few minutes before the presentation. Worst case scenario- they reject them, but at least he’d still have his Life in Hell rights. Matt Groening entered the room and history was made.
Fox loved the idea. They quickly signed Matt Groening to a contract and began producing these bizarre cartoon shorts with this bizarre looking cartoon family. Little did anyone know that everyone involved with the show would soon become more successful than they had ever imagined.