Soon after joining the staff of The Simpsons, Bill Oakley made a strange discovery. Hiding in a cluttered corner of the show’s writers’ room, “under a whole bunch of crap,” he says, was a 5-inch thick stack of dot matrix printer paper. (This was 1992.) The mysterious, perforated pile contained thousands of neatly typed comments. Oakley remembers sifting through the bundle and thinking, What is this?
The copious notes were posts culled from alt.tv.simpsons, an online newsgroup populated by some of the series’ hardcore fans. To Oakley, this was a revelation. At the time, outside feedback consisted of little else but ratings. “And the ratings never had anything to do with the quality of the episode,” says Oakley, a longtime writer and producer on the show. “They had to do with what was on opposite it, or what the weather was like, or whatever.”
Alt.tv.simpsons wasn’t just a breezy message board powered by a thousand monkeys working at a thousand typewriters; it was brimming with recaps, reviews, and minutiae. The type of intricate, serialized analysis found on alt.tv.simpsons—a.t.s. to its regulars—has been unexpectedly influential. Its ethos can be seen in modern television coverage, which is dominated by an endless stream of point-by-point episode breakdowns. “At its best, new-school TV writing is brainy and inquisitive, thoughtful commentary borne out of a fanatical attention to detail,” Slate’s Josh Levin wrote in his 2011 assessment of the changing medium. “But hypervigilant criticism, written by obsessive fans for obsessive fans, isn’t necessarily an unmitigated force for good.”
Long before the rise of TV recap culture, its best and worst elements commingled in the alt.tv.simpsons laboratory. The content ranged from meticulous (a list of the show’s blackboard and couch gags) to smart (a later-proven theory that Maggie shot Mr. Burns) to overcritical (in the middle the unimpeachably great Season 4, somebody started the thread “Simpsons in decline?” in which one poster claimed that “Marge vs. the Monorail,” a classic episode, “had 0 good quotes”) to offensive (e.g., “Lisa has a proto-dyke Marxist Jew agenda”). As an a.t.s. tutorial wisely explained, “These are called trolls, and even alt.tv.simpsons isn’t immune to them.”
Just as Lost and Gossip Girl recaps would later be perused by showrunners and execs for clues as to the audience’s response, the exhaustive digital repository of alt.tv.simpsons attracted the attention of the cartoon’s creative team. Another Simpsons writer/producer, David X. Cohen, couldn’t quite wrap his head around the lengths the online community went to express its intense devotion to OFF (that’s alt.tv.simpsons shorthand for Our Favorite Family, aka the Simpsons). “I made the discovery in those early days that people only post to the Internet when they have an extreme point of view,” Cohen says now. And in 1994, Simpsons creator Matt Groening admitted to the Philadelphia Inquirer that he frequented alt.tv.simpsons. “Sometimes,” he said of the message board’s users, “I feel like knocking their electronic noggins together.”
When “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” the series’ full-length premiere, aired on Dec. 17, 1989, Gary Duzan was a junior at the University of Delaware. The computer science student soon figured out a way to celebrate his new favorite show. He often explored Usenet, a pre–World Wide Web network of newsgroups dedicated to different topics. Newsgroups were split into hierarchies. (For example, comp. covered computers, sci. covered science, and soc. covered social issues. Alt. encompassed “alternative” subjects, including TV programs like The Simpsons.) If cult classics like Dr. Who and Star Trek had their own newsgroups, Duzan figured, then “The Simpsons certainly should have one.” So, in March 1990, he created alt.tv.simpsons. On its first day of existence, about 100 posts poured in. “People found the thing right away,” Duzan says.
This was mildly remarkable, considering that Internet access was still so limited. Early alt.tv.simpsons occupants tended to be college kids and unusually tech-savvy Simpsons obsessives. Prolific poster Don Del Grande discovered a.t.s. only after logging on to the Internet through a university-provided Unix shell account. Unix was a completely text-based operating system. That meant no Evil Homer GIFs to look at or even a browser with which to navigate. There were just words on a screen.
Yet by December 1997, Wired was reporting that users posted an average of 737 messages daily on alt.tv.simpsons. It became the meeting place for the show’s most discerning fans. After grabbing a copy of the new TV Guide every Monday during his lunch break, Del Grande would read up on the week’s Simpsons episode and quickly post about it. “I always wanted to know what was going to be on TV as soon as possible,” he says now. “I’m also the kind of person who believes, ‘I can’t be the only person who would like this information, so I might as well tell as many people as possible whom I think I would want to know.’ ”
Newsgroups were havens for television junkies like HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall, an insightful and prolific purveyor of contemporary TV coverage. These days, he reviews 10 to 15 shows per week. In the mid-1990s, he was occasionally visiting alt.tv.simpsons and regularly posting write-ups on alt.tv.nypd-blue. On newsgroups, he says, “I definitely engaged with hardcore TV fans in the same way I would years later on blogs and message boards. In fact, I started blogging because I missed that level of direct engagement with other like-minded viewers and fans from the Usenet days.”
In the case of The Simpsons, the conversation wasn’t just among fans. After he started working on the show, Oakley purchased a primitive dial-up Internet account (he compared it to what Matthew Broderick’s character used in War Games) and began checking out alt.tv.simpsons. He didn’t just lurk, either. He engaged. On July 25, 1993, for example, Oakley posted detailed episode information for the then-upcoming Season 5. For fans of the show, it’s an amazing time capsule.
According to Oakley’s rundown, the episode “Homer and Apu,” which would air the following February, initially may have included an appearance by David Bowie. (James Woods actually showed up.) The “NOT YET WRITTEN” portion of the post mentioned the working titles of future classics, including “Lisa’s Hockey Team,” “Summer Swimming Pool/Rear Window Parody,” and “Bart Gets a Girlfriend.”