Thanks to syndication, I grew up watching the first 10 seasons of The Simpsons more times than I can count, including the 1989 pilot "Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire." My love for The Simpsons runs deep. In college, my friend Ben and I used to have Gchat conversations solely using quotes from the show. I've even seen the pilot performed by sock puppets at a theater here in Los Angeles (what a crazy wonderful city). I've re-watched the pilot since then and realized there a ton of things I never noticed when I watched it during my childhood.
Technically, the pilot episode isn't the first time we meet Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. The Simpsons began as sharply-drawn animated bumpers for The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987 and creator Matt Groening modeled the family after his own. The episode "Some Enchanted Evening" (when Bart, Lisa, and Maggie's babysitter turns out to be a burglar) was originally supposed to be the pilot in Fall 1989, but animation issues pushed The Simpsons premiere to December of that year. Thus, "Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire," the eighth episode produced of the series' first season, aired as the series premiere and Christmas special on December 17, 1989.
You know what that means? There are people alive who have never known a world without The Simpsons — and are probably too young to remember the pilot. When I saw it during my childhood, there was so much I missed due to me being young and missing the many levels of humor the show packs into every episode.
There Are No Opening Credits
The pilot doesn't begin with the opening credits sequence that we all know and cherish. There are no clouds clearing in a blue sky. No heavenly chorus singing "The Simpsons!" No Maggie being scanned on the cash register. Just snow falling, the logo and the words "Christmas special."
The opening credits sequence would make its debut during the second episode, "Bart the Genius," which aired on January 14, 1990.
The Animation Looks More Polished Than On The Tracey Ullman Show
"Simpsons Roasting On an Open Fire" opens with our favorite dysfunctional family looking very much like how we've known and loved them since, well, 1989. But the original shorts have a very rough animated style — see the above video, which is the very first Simpsons short ever.
Is it me or do Lisa and Bart look like they could be teenagers? In any case, our favorite family has come a long way since then.
Is This Ralph Wiggum Or Martin Prince?
The Internet seems to believe it's an early version of little ol' Ralphie. Homer and Marge attend the Springfield Elementary Christmas Pageant and the entire second grade presents "Santas of Many Lands." The first kid is rando we never see again, but then a child who looks like he could be the lovable Ralph Wiggum and/or brown-noser Martin Prince steps out dressed as a Japanese priest who is kinda like Santa.
The boy's voice matches neither character though, but the speech is a little too coherent to be Ralph. Quite the pilot mystery.
Even Back Then, No One Really Got Lisa
Lisa does a fire-juggling dance as Towanga, the Santa of the South Seas, and of course the audience of parents would be shocked and weirded out. Sorry Lisa, but don't worry — you'll finally find your intellectual equals in college, I promise.
Ned Flanders' Introduction Shows His Perfect House — And No Maude?
Ned Flanders is introduced to the audience as Homer's neighbor with a house perfectly decorated with bright Christmas lights. Later, Ned bumps into Homer while Christmas shopping and Homer's embarrassingly cheap gifts for the family get mixed in with Flanders' expensive ones. In both scenes, he's with Rod and Tod, but no Maude, who makes her first appearance in Season 2's "Dead Putting Society" and dies in Season 11. Does that mean Ned was always meant to be a single dad?
Despite his introduction as being better than Homer, we learn a lot about Flanders over the years — he's a son of hippies, he's got his weaknesses, and he's certainly not as perfect as he seems.
Bart Getting a Tattoo Is So Rebellious
Maybe it's because I'm in my 30s now and I've turned super uncool, but Bart is perennially 8-years-old in the series and he gets a tattoo. With a needle. He sneaks off, tricks the tattoo artist like it ain't no thing, and thinks the tat saying "Mother" will make it all OK with Marge. What a crafty little troublemaker.
I remember being a kid and thinking Bart was pretty cool and wondering why all the adults got on his case. Now as an adult, I'm so shocked by Bart's rebellion. He really was an unruly little brat and I totally feel old for saying that.
Tattoo Removal Looks Like A Scene from a James Bond Movie
Bart's cash-only super fast tatto removal procedure looks like a torture device by a 1960s Bond villain. Or Hank Scorpio in Season 8.
The "Ow Quit It" Scene is Still Funny
Some jokes don't last the test of time. This one does, and is still one of The Simpsons' finest, especially when Homer comes into it.
No Christmas Bonus — Theme Of 1989?
Home gets the startling news that he and the rest of Mr. Burns' power plant employees won't be receiving a Christmas bonus. Sound familiar? That echoes another holiday classic story that came out the same year this episode aired: National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Clark Griswald too learns that his holiday bonus is actually a membership to the "Jelly of the Month" club.
What's up with the lack of Christmas bucks? Aside from being the birth year of Taylor Swift, 1989 was a year marked by the Savings & Loan Crisis and economic downturn. Sadly, there were more unemployment checks than bonuses during that time. I had no idea about that when I was a kid — I just thought Christmas bonuses were just really hard to get.
Bart Didn't Recognize Homer As A Mall Santa
After hearing that Barney Gumble is making bank as a mall Santa, Homer decides to take on the same part-time job so he can make up for his lack of Christmas bonus and buy presents for the family. Homer goes through Santa training (which is just as extensive as Monorail conductor training), then takes wishes from kids at the mall — and of course one is his son, Bart. But Bart doesn't recognize him until he pulls off the beard on Homer — I mean, Santa. With that voice and face, how could he not know that was his dad?
What Happened to the Happy Little Elves?
In the shorts and the first season, Lisa is absolutely captivated by a cartoon show called Happy Little Elves. Then they disappear for about 12 years. No, really. After being used as a torture device in the Season 1 finale "Some Enchanted Evening," the elf series disappears from Springfield pop culture until the Season 14 episode "Moe Baby Blues" and the addictive game app The Simpsons Tapped Out.
Perhaps The Itchy and Scratchy Show took the elves' place in Lisa's heart as she grew from age 8 to, well, still 8.
Santa's Little Helper Chose the Simpsons
Homer and Bart go to the dog race track to try to grow Homer's $13 Santa paycheck into something more substantial. Homer places all $13 bucks on the underdog Santa's Little Helper, because he thinks the name is fate. Well, it is, because even though the dog comes in last (actually, he never finishes the race), he wins a home with the Simpson family. Aww.
Santa's Little Helper runs into Homer's arms and charms the Simpsons patriarch into taking the pooch home — and becoming the family's best Christmas gift ever. Well, until Lee Carvallo's Putting Challenge, of course.
And that was just the beginning of 25 years of fun, laughter, and crazy characters on The Simpsons.