In the fall of 1990, when I was 7, my parents barred me from watching The Simpsons. Less than a year removed from its premiere, the show was a phenomenon. Most of my classmates were wearing Bart Simpson T-shirts over their Z. Cavariccis, and I wanted in on the action.
My mom and dad responded to this desire by screening “Homer’s Night Out,” a first-season episode in which Homer gets caught canoodling with a belly dancer named Princess Kashmir. With little else to go on, they deemed the animated television series inappropriate for their crestfallen second-grader.
For a short stretch, The Simpsons held the same status in our suburban Boston house as Married … With Children, another racy Fox sitcom that my parents banned. But then they relented. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe it was their realization that a cartoon couldn’t possibly be as filthy as Major League, a movie my two younger brothers and I gleefully (and annoyingly) committed to memory after our grandma accidentally bought us a copy of the hard R-rated comedy on VHS. More likely is that after a while they simply thought, “Meh.”
Although at first I understood only a minuscule percentage of its jokes, I became obsessed with The Simpsons. My dresser drawers soon filled up with Bart Simpson T-shirts—although not the ones on which the character refers to himself as a proud underachiever. (That was too far for my Jewish parents.) At overnight camp, my bunkmates stayed up late reading aloud from The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family. At the lunch table in high school, my friends incessantly quoted Simpsons lines. Over dinner on the first day of college, I asked my roommates the same silly question that’s been asked by thousands upon thousands of anxious freshmen on American campuses: “Do you like The Simpsons?” The answer, of course, was yes. And so we watched, over and over.
By the late aughts, when I was a few years out of college and working as a sports reporter, The Simpsons had long since established itself as the best and most influential sitcom ever made. The show’s backstory had been told in various forms, from articles to books to documentaries. There was plenty of backlash, too, as frustrated aficionados pined for the show’s abnormally long heyday. Even after I’d left my newspaper job and became a freelancer, I wasn’t sure I had anything original to say about my obsession. But I was desperate for story ideas.
In 2013, as The Simpsons’ 25th season approached, I figured it was finally a good time to try to write about the show. For a few years, I’d known about alt.tv.simpsons, a pre-Web Usenet newsgroup that dutifully (and smartly) catalogued the sitcom’s minutiae. Back in the early ’90s, when the show was peaking, even The Simpsons wasn’t immune from the nascent Internet’s wrath. Unfathomably, there were some alt.tv.simpsons users who thought the show sucked. To me, this was both hilarious and scary, and I thought it’d be interesting to tell the story of the The Simpsons through its most dedicated message board. I was surprised and thrilled when Slate culture editor Dan Kois said he liked the idea.
Reporting went smoothly at first; finding alt.tv.simpsons posters turned out to be easy. But that wasn’t enough. I wondered if in the ’90s, the makers of The Simpsons actually paid attention to what cranks on the Internet were saying about the show. That’s where I got lucky. After blindly reaching out to Fox, I was referred to a miraculously accommodating media relations staffer. I don’t know why this person was so eager to help; my guess is that my inquiry seemed slightly different than most media requests. It probably helped that I wasn’t asking about casting decisions or contract negotiations, and that I wasn’t dead-set on interviewing any actors. The Fox staffer, who since has aided me in setting up interviews with members of The Simpsons creative team, put me in touch with writers David X. Cohen and Bill Oakley.
Both were early Internet users who read alt.tv.simpsons, a site that unknowingly ushered in the age of episodic TV criticism. Oakley even said that he saw himself in the alt.tv.simpsons posters. After all, he told me, if he hadn’t ended up writing for The Simpsons, “I would’ve been one of them.”
To cover the show in a novel way, I realized, I should tap into the minds of the writing staff. After all, the writers love The Simpsons as much as its most vocal fans. The ones I’ve spoken to relish the fact that they helped make something so good. That’s probably why they’ve been willing to talk to me: They like reliving a grueling but rewarding time in their professional lives.
In September 2013, Slate published my alt.tv.simpsons story. The response was positive enough to reassure me that there indeed were people who would read about obscure aspects of a quarter-century–old TV program. Thankfully, editors have agreed.
My approach to subsequent Simpsons stories has been simple: Take a memorable moment—an episode, a plot line, a joke—and try to dissect what it says about the show and its place in American culture. In the process I’ve made a conscious effort to appeal to obsessives by providing them with at least a few bits of inside information about the series. To do that, I’ve had to talk to people involved in creating the show. As much as I enjoy professing my love of The Simpsons, I’m a hell of a lot less interesting than those actually responsible for the sitcom’s success.
So far, I’ve written about a segment about soccer in the Season 9 episode “The Cartridge Family,” real-life Bort license plates, the making of “Who Shot Mr. Burns?,” and, most recently, the landmark episode “Lisa the Vegetarian.” I won’t argue with anyone who views all of this as pointless nostalgia. But for now, I plan to continue chronicling a series that’s deeply beloved. My parents proudly read my stories about the show these days, although they still wouldn’t approve of me wearing a Bart Simpson underachiever T-shirt.