How 'The Simpsons' Works

The Dawn of 'The Simpsons'
"The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening holds up ads for his comic. George Rose/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

"The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening was about to meet with producer James L. Brooks in 1987 when he realized his original idea to pitch an animated version of his comic strip "Life in Hell" was doomed to fail. Groening thought up a more TV-friendly idea about a deeply flawed but still lovable suburban family, hurriedly naming them after members of his own family. Brooks liked the pitch, and "The Simpsons" debuted as brief filler segments during the sketch comedy show "The Tracey Ullman Show" in April 1987. The sketches were successful enough that the Fox network, still relatively new and searching for hit programming, expanded it to a half-hour, prime-time animated show late in 1989.

"The Simpsons" takes the basic form of the American situation comedy — a family deals with life's various problems in a funny way — and amplifies it, using animation to bend reality and make every scenario as ludicrous and hilarious as possible. Homer is the oafish father, Marge the worried mom, Bart the rambunctious son, Lisa the put-upon, too-smart-for-her-own-good daughter, and Maggie the cute, reticent toddler. They're surrounded by an enormous cast of outrageous characters, including a villainous boss à la Howard Hughes, a constantly overwhelmed school principal, a creepy bartender, an obnoxious next-door neighbor and dozens more. Their exploits range from the banal (Homer and his friends join a bowling league) to the bizarre (Mr. Burns builds a giant shield to deny the entire town access to the sun).

The show's popularity detonated like a pop culture landmine. Much of the early success was focused on Bart Simpson, whose "eat my shorts, man" irreverence seemed to tap into a vein of defiance in American culture at the time. There was controversy, though: Bart Simpson T-shirts were banned from some schools, and William Bennett, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, suggested that watching "The Simpsons" was a bad idea for the residents of a drug rehab center [source: Skonie and Kinsley].

The earliest Simpsons clips were animated by a studio called Klasky Csupo. Basing its animation on Groening's sketches, Klasky Csupo gave the show its initial rough animation style and bright color palette, including the yellow skin of the characters. Over the decades, especially with the U.S. government-mandated move to digital television in 2009, the animation gradually became smoother and more refined.

Of course, it takes a cast to voice the beloved Simpsons family and a crew to keep the show on air.