Thirty years ago, the world was formally introduced to Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie when The Simpsons aired its very first episode in the US.
Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire gave the titular family their first full-length adventure, kicking off what would become a record-breaking run for an animated sitcom (and, later, any scripted show in the US).
The characters were actually already familiar to many prior to 1989, as for two years before they’d appeared in comedy shorts on Tracey Ullman’s US show.
In total, 48 of these two-minute episodes aired between 1987 and 1989, and quickly grew in popularity until Fox decided to give the family their own spin-off show.
Admittedly, the quality of these shorts is a far cry from the glory days of The Simpsons, which would eventually earn its cast and crew 34 Emmys, their own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and even entries in the dictionary for some of the terms created on the show.
The animation in the Tracey Ullman shorts is noticeably cruder than anything seen even in the early years of The Simpsons, and the characters themselves underwent a fair few tweaks until they emerged in the form we’re used to seeing them in nowadays.
But even in The Simpsons’ most primitive era, it’s clear that there was something special in those comedy shorts, in which the characters were voiced by the very same actors who continue to play them in 2019 .
Next came Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire. It might seem unusual to launch a new show with a Christmas special, and that’s because the episode wasn’t actually supposed to be the one that would launch The Simpsons.
In fact, the iconic episode Some Enchanted Evening had been touted as the pilot, but these plans were eventually shelved when producers ran into problems with the animation on the episode.
Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire had originally been slated to be the eighth in the series overall, which is why the quality of the animation differs so much in subsequent episodes. It’s also why Santa’s Little Helper, introduced in the Christmas special, doesn’t then appear again until much later in the series.
The episode itself is not perfect, and in the years that followed, Simpsons fans have pointed out a number of mistakes in the animation.
Minor details about characters changing colour in the space of a few seconds, pictures in The Simpsons’ home flip upside down suddenly and, perhaps the biggest mistake of all, Lisa appears naked from the waist down when she’s first introduced during her Christmas pageant due to an error when animators failed to properly colour in a bodystocking the character was supposed to have been wearing.
Still, these mistakes didn’t put fans off, and Simpsons On A Roasting Fire also showcases a lot of what makes the show great.
Compared to the animated Tracey Ullman shorts, the central family had already begun venturing out into wider Springfield, with fan favourites like Marge’s sisters Patty and Selma, Simpsons neighbour Ned Flanders, power plant owner Mr Burns and bartender Moe Syzlak all being introduced in this episode.
These characters’ personalities were established pretty much right away, but others would be more developed in the months (and years) that followed. Springfield Elementary students Ralph Wiggum and Millhouse Van Houten, for example, both appear briefly, and while the latter is shown as little more than Bart’s right-hand pal, the former shows nothing of the adorable traits that Simpsons fans would fall in love with years down the line.
Similarly, Principal Skinner’s defining trait in this episode is his inability to get to the end of a sentence, far from the jobsworth and mama’s boy he’d eventually come to be known as in the years that followed.
Meanwhile, although there are laughs to be had throughout Simpsons On An Open Fire, what’s perhaps surprising about the first episode of The Simpsons is just how much heart there is right from the off.
The Simpsons has delivered countless hilarious scenes over the years, but think of the moments that really stay with you, and they’re probably the ones that pack more of an emotional punch (like “do it for her” at the end of And Maggie Makes Three or Lisa’s touching farewell to her substitute teacher).
Its first episode has plenty of this, whether it’s the heartbreaking moment a lonely Homer realises he doesn’t have the funds to pay for presents for Bart and Lisa, or the joyful ending when Marge and Lisa meet Santa’s Little Helper for the first time, and their family Christmas is saved.
“This is the best gift of all,” the eternal optimist Marge declares in what would be her first glass-half-full moment of hundreds. “Something to share our love, and frighten prowlers.”
In the years to come, The Simpsons would explode beyond the characters we meet in their festive pilot, becoming household names all over the globe, welcoming world famous pop stars, celebrated actors and respected politicians to Springfield - and even landing their own feature-length film.
But despite many, many changes in the 30 years since Simpsons On A Roasting Fire – both in terms of the show’s animation style, and its cultural significance – the episode hints at potential for true greatness, and showcases a lot of what made the show such a hit even in it earliest stage.