When, in 1990, People Magazine asked Barbara Bush what she thought of America’s hottest new TV show, The Simpsons, the then-First Lady didn’t mince her words: “It was the dumbest thing I had ever seen.” Her husband, George H. W. Bush, expressed a similar disdain for the show in a speech to the National Religious Broadcasters convention during his failed 1992 re-election campaign. He famously promised a cheering crowd that he would work to make the American family “a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons!”
Following the Bush family’s lead, many parents across America banned the show. The novelty of The Simpsons had them shaken. It wasn’t The Flintstones. It wasn’t The Smurfs. It wasn’t kid-friendly in a traditional sense at all. It was a brutally honest take on the traditional nuclear family in the post-Reagan years starring a spiky-haired, detention-prone D-student who swore and lied and decapitated town statues.
Naturally, Bart Simpson became the most popular character on Simpsons merchandise, which, according to The Times Magazine, accounted for $2 billion in worldwide sales in the show’s first 14 months alone. Some schools began prohibiting the shirts and a few stores stopped carrying them. The Los Angeles Times reported in 1990 that JCPenny’s yanked a shirt that read “Underachiever and proud of it, man” and another bearing the words “Hi, I’m Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?” from its boys’ and mens’ departments.
Time would prove the show’s worth. On Sunday, The Simpsons begins its 28th season, one of the longest runs in TV history. Countless A-list celebrities have legitimized the show by voicing characters, including three Beatles, a British Prime Minister, and Michael Jackson. It has often been listed among the most important shows of all time, rich with commentary on society and the human condition, which helped to cement its place as an iconic piece of Americana. But for a young generation of TV viewers in the early ‘90s, the hysteria around the early seasons had a lasting impact. Many people now in their 20s and 30s were forbidden from watching the show in their youth. They grew up aware of, but without access to, a major cultural institution.
“My mother thought Bart was disrespectful to his parents, and she didn’t want that type of behavior normalized for me,” says Janelle Milanes, 31, a teacher raised in Miami, FL. “When she heard him say ‘eat my shorts’ to Homer, it was all over.”
Though Milanes can appreciate the show now as an adult, she doesn’t have the same ingrained passion for it as her husband, a Simpsons-obsessive (who, full disclosure, co-hosts a ‘90s Simpsons trivia night with me). “I can understand why it’s so well-regarded, but I’ll never love it in the same way as people who grew up with it,” she says. “I enjoy and appreciate an occasional episode, but I think nostalgia plays a big role in people’s obsession as well.”
But the show’s importance is not simply insular. Many of its jokes and quotes seeped out of its Springfield universe and became part of the American lexicon, quite literally as Homer’s trademark catchphrase “d’oh!” (a creation of voice actor Dan Castellaneta) was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2001. The show created a language that permeated the vernacular. Being among fans when they are quoting the show ad nauseum can feel like being among people speaking a different language.
“Even beyond the jokes I knew were Simpsons references but didn’t completely get, I had no idea about the extent to which the show has made an impact on American humor and pop culture,” says Allison Hussey, 24, who grew up in Cary, North Carolina, and wasn’t allowed to watch the show as a kid because “it was rude.” Her introduction to The Simpsons came in college as required viewing of the episode “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish” for a political science class. She found it “wonderful” and has since been watching the show. Currently, she’s on Season 7.
Hussey is amazed by how much cultural minutia was crammed into the episodes. After all, growing up without The Simpsons is not the same as having not seen Star Wars or Seinfeld. The Simpsons is an expansive amalgamation of references from film, television, history, politics, and literature that advanced the pop culture knowledge of young viewers beyond their years. With its subtle homages, the show introduced ‘90s kids to things they would otherwise have had no business knowing about so early: Stanley Kubrick movies, Steve Allen books, the clumsiness of Gerald Ford, Billy Beer, and the works of Pablo Neruda. For a nation of kids raised by the TV’s warming glow, The Simpsons wasn’t just entertainment, it was an education.
“Even if I had watched it as a kid, I would’ve missed a lot of the stuff that has endeared me to the show as an adult viewernods to things like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Australian amphibian infestations,” says Hussey. “All of those sly little winks in the writing have been fun to keep up with.”
Not only were its references a valuable historical education, the show was also instrumental in forming the sense of humor for millions of burgeoning minds. Edgar Díaz Machado, a 29-year-old who grew up near Chicago, wasn’t allowed to watch the show (along with Married… with Children and Roseanne) for religious reasons. He had to sneak episodes in his bedroom with the door closed and remote in hand in case his parents came in. “My parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses,” he says. “Jehovah’s Witnesses are really strict about entertainment and the negative, immoral influence it can have. My parents realized the humor on The Simpsons was subversive.” As a result, Machado missed out on an education in subversive comedy.
Seth Finkelstein, a 23-year-old from Marblehead, Massachusetts whose parents disapproved of the show, believes his sense of humor suffered as a result of missing the show as well. “I think I missed an opportunity to understand irony a little bit more than I did as a kid,” he says.
In its second season, The Simpsons’s writers made a nod to the subject of cartoons feeling the wrath of an angry parental mob with the episode “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge,” in which Marge organizes the parents of Springfield to protest Bart and Lisa’s favorite show because of its gratuitous violence. They also got back at the Bush family in season 1996 with “Two Bad Neighbors” wherein Barbara and George H. W. Bush move to Springfield because it was “the town with the lowest voter turnout in America.” Eventually, The Simpsons was superseded as the object of parental scorn by cartoons that were legitimately crass, starting when Beavis and Butt-head played frog baseball in 1993 and continued under South Park’s relentless shockfest that began in 1997.
It’s been nearly 26 years since First Lady Bush put a stain on the reputation of America’s favorite cartoon family. The generation of kids who felt its effects are now old enough to have children of their own. Rusty Harding, 32, who was banned from watching the show along with partaking in PG-13 movies, video games, and most Fox programming, recently became a father himself and thinks a lot about how his mother’s parenting decision affected him. “I think that I really missed out on that moment The Simpsons ruled pop culture. It was kind of a struggle fitting in with other kids when that dominates the playground,” he says of his childhood ban. It led him to become fanatical about the show in his adult years.
Harding doesn’t plan on passing this down to his 15-month-old son, who he has already begun indoctrinating with The Simpsons. “He loves it — the colors, the sounds, everything about the show makes him giggle. There won’t be a part of his life where The Simpsons doesn’t exist, and he’ll be free to watch it in our house anytime.”