Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire

Season: 1
Episode: 1
Episode Title: Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire
Original Airdate: December 17, 1989
Chalkboard: none
Couch Gag: none
Written by: Mimi Pond
Directed by: David Silverman
Guest Voices: none

I clearly remember watching the first episode of The Simpsons.  I was excited because the cartoon sketches were my favorite part of The Tracy Ulman Show.  That night felt like something electric zapped me.  I had never seen a tv show like it — one that looked like it was for kids, but meant more for adults, but could really be for both.  I’ve watched The Simpsons ever since.

If you could have a relationship with a television show, The Simpsons would be my best friend.  It has comforted me when I was anxious or sad, helped me pass the time when I’ve been sick, and has helped me find humor in the most absurd moments of life.  When I decided to review every episode it wasn’t just because I loved the show.  I wanted to take a deeper look.  What makes a good episode different from a great episode?  Did the show really lose creative energy?  If it did, why and when?  This is an exploration.

******

The episode starts off with Homer and Marge running late for Springfield Elementary’s annual Christmas pageant.  And you know that this was produced in 1989 because the school’s sign really does say “Annual Christmas Pageant (***1/2 -Springfield Shopper)” instead of a holiday pageant.  No mention of Hannukah or Kwanza here.  Although the second grade does do a presentation on the different Santas around the world.  There are a few notables bits in this scene.  First, Mr. Largo, the music teacher, is introducing the children, not Ms. Hoover.  Second, we see Ralph Wiggum — at least Ralph’s character design.  They never introduce him by name and the voice is different.  Lastly, Lisa’s demonstration of Tawanga, the Santa Claus of the South Seas, is very disturbing because she’s wearing a grass skirt and no underwear.  Most likely this was an animation error; the show’s long-time Director of Animation, David Silverman, has acknowledged that there were several of those in the early days (the Simpsons kids were supposed to have blue hair, but Matt Groening forgot to include hairlines in his original character designs before they were inked and painted.)

Jingle bells
Batman smells
Robin laid an egg
The Batmobile lost its wheel
And the Joker got away

The high point of the Christmas pageant is the fourth grade’s rendition of ‘Jingle Bells’.  My brother and I friggin loved this part.  I mean, what ten and twelve year old wouldn’t?  Especially since, thanks to Tim Burton, we were also gripped with Batman fever that year.  I’m pretty sure this song is why my grandmother hated the show so much.

We next see the family gathered around doing various Christmas prep.  Homer is untaggling the Christmas lights, Bart and Lisa are writing their Santa wishlists, and Marge is writing the family Christmas letter.  We also see a glimpse of just how brutish Homer was at the beginning of the show.  While Marge is finishing the letter Homer starts barking at her, demanding to know why she hasn’t finished it and where he can find an extension cord.  Marge snaps back at him, though, so at least the writers made sure to show that she’s not someone to take his crap.  Because I haven’t seen this episode in a very, very long time, it never occurred to me why this exchange didn’t stand out when I was a child.  My grandfather and grandmother bickered like this all the time.  Grandpa would be in one part of the house and starting loudly calling for Grandma and vice versa.  They’d snap back, get aggrevated, and then be fine with each other in the next breath.  I still consider this the gold standard for a lasting relationship.

After he sort-of apologizes to Marge, we learn what Bart and Lisa want for Christmas.  Lisa wants a pony.  This is the third year in a row where she’s asked for one and, even though Marge tells her Santa doesn’t have enough room in his sleigh for a pony, little Lisa just ain’t catching the hint.  All Bart wants is a tattoo; he thinks they’re cool because they last for life.  I remember when I wanted my first tattoo.  I was four or five and I wanted an ice cream cone.  That’s what happens when you bring your kid along to the tattoo parlor.

Marge sends the kids outside to help Homer put up the Christmas lights.  We get our first clumsy Homer moment when he falls off the roof into a snowbank.  Homer is excited and proud of the lights outlining the house, but the kids describe it as crappy.  That’s when we first meet Ned Flanders.  His Christmas lights are plentiful and bright, and drops everyone’s jaws.

The next day we see the family at the breakfast table.  The kids must be out of school for the holiday break because they’re going Christmas shopping with Marge while Homer goes to work.  We get another first of a running gag when Marge pulls the giant jar of Christmas present money from her hair.  Homer’s excited to see all of the cash they’ve managed to save for this year and goes off to work anticipating a good Christmas.  I remember a few thoughts I had when I first watched this episode.  I couldn’t understand why they were going Christmas shopping just a few days away from the holiday.  My grandmother, raised in the Depression, bought presents for her numerous grandkids throughout the year when items were available and on sale.  That’s how my brother and I were both able to get Cabbage Patch Kids one year when demand was still stupid-high.  In this episode Marge already seems like a thrifty homemaker so why wouldn’t she be doing the same?  Of course, if she had been doing that, then the premise of the story would be moot, so I’ll just keep reviewing.

Where were we?  Oh, yes.  Marge is at the mall with the kids and Homer is at work.  Bart goes over to the mall’s tattoo parlor and spots a deisgn in the window that he imagines Marge will love: a heart with mother written over it.  Remember how Bart asked Santa for a tattoo?  Well Homer pulled a Homer and told him that if he wanted one he would have to pay for it out of his own allowance.  The price of the tattoo must have fallen within the range of his savings then because Bart goes inside, claims to be twenty-one, and gets three-quarters of a tattoo before Marge finds him.  Now here’s another thought I had way back: why didn’t Marge and Homer let Bart get temporary tattoos?  That’s what my mom and dad did when I wanted that ice cream cone tattoo.  A kid gets to feel cool without having something permanent.  I guess that’s just another instance of logic interferring with storytelling.

Anyway, Homer is actually doing his job at the nuclear power plant when Mr. Burns comes over the intercom to announce that employees aren’t getting their Chirstmas bonuses this year.  Homer’s sad, but not distraught because he thinks Marge still has the giant jar of Christmas money.  But Marge is using the money to get Bart’s tattoo removed with a laser!  And she thinks they’re still getting Homer’s Christmas bonus!  It’s like a reverse Gift of the Magi.

As it turns out, Homer is too embarassed to tell Marge the truth about his Christmas bonus.  This becomes a common theme in their relationship: Homer does/loses something that could be bad for Marge/the family and refrains from telling her because to him she’s perfect and deserves the best.  I’ll have more to say as we see this in later seasons, but for now it’s notable as another first.  It’s Homer’s first time of wanting to be the best husband and father he can be.  How he tries to do that is offerring to do the Christmas shopping.   And who hasn’t been in Homer’s shoes in these kinds of instances?  Low on cash, needing to buy a gift, and going to the dollar store?  Personally I try to buy bargains throughout the year like my grandmother, but…

Homer bumps into Ned Flanders outside of the store.  Flanders is pretty condescending in this scene.  The bag Homer has is knocked to the ground along with all of Flanders’ wrapped presents.  Flanders wonders which items belongs to whom, but Homer knows right away that all he has is the bag.  Flanders goes around saying “This one’s mine” repeatedly.  Even though Homer went to a discount store he still couldn’t afford more than one item per family member, while Flanders appears to have twice as many presents than Homer.  The tone of Ned’s voice is friendliness tinged with superiority.   Now I understand Homer’s hatred of stupid Flanders.

After getting emasculated by Flanders, Homer goes to Moe’s to drown his sorrows.  I haven’t seen the Tracy Ulman sketches in an even longer time so I can’t recall if this is the first we see of Moe’s.  Let’s say it is.  That means we also see Barney, Moe’s resident barfly, for the first time too.  He asks Homer why he’s so down and Homer explains that he has no money for Christmas presents.  Barney then tells Homer about making extra money being a mall Santa.  We then see a few scenes of Homer going through Santa school.  But wouldn’t they have all the mall Santas they need by then?  And how many do they need?  There’s got to be at least 20 Santas in the classroom; they can’t all be for just Springfield.

Once Homer finishes Santa school he comes back home to find Marge’s sisters, Patty and Selma, have arrived.  They do their best to embarrass Homer by pointing out that there’s no way to tell if it is Christmas since there’s no tree.  But there are stockings hung above the chimney right next to them!  All the scene was meant to do was emphasize how broke he really is since, when he goes out to buy a tree, he passes vendors advertising trees for 45, 60, and 70 dollars.  He’s so desperate to show up Patty and Selma that he ends up stealing a tree by chopping one down.  Let me just note, though, that even for 1989, the prices listed for Christmas trees were hella expensive.  I don’t blame Homer for chopping down a tree.

The family has a tree now, but what about presents?  Homer is working on that.  He even seems to be enjoying being a mall santa.  Too bad Bart gets dared by his friend (an unnamed Milhouse) to pull off Santa’s beard.  Bart being Bart, aka a troublemaker, he takes the dare and stands in line to meet Santa.  Homer recognizes him and does his best to play it cool.  Once he’s on that lap, though, Bart’s yanking the beard.  He gets yanked himself, into Santa’s workshop, where he’s afraid Homer will be mad.  But Homer is more scared than mad.  He tells Bart about not getting the work bonus and needing the cash for presents.  Interestingly, Bart doesn’t apologize to Homer for fucking up and getting a tattoo which required the Christmas present money, which is pretty rude.  However, he does acknowledge that Homer “must really love [the family] to stoop so low.”

I’m Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?

Too bad all the effort Homer put into being Santa is rewarded with the world’s worst paycheck.  He’s expecting to receive $120, which isn’t that great even for 1989, but at least it would have given him enough to buy something better than pads of paper and a squeaky porkchop meant for a dog.  Turns out that was the gross pay; after taxes and santa school tuition, Homer’s net pay is $13.  At this point Homer is looking so hopeless that he could be on the verge of self-harm.  When Barney comes into the pay office happy to have $13, he learns that the real payday is at Springfield Downs, the greyhound racetrack.  Homer objects because he doesn’t want to resort to gambling on Christmas Eve to pay for presents, especially with his ten year old son in tow.  It’s a rousing speech from his ten year old son, though, that finally persuades him to go.

Before I go into the racetrack scenes, I have to mention a great little scene at the Simpson home:  The rest of the family is watching The Happy Little Elves Christmas Special.  Lisa is very invested in the show and watching intently as the adults talk.  Patty says something insulting and Lisa asks what she said.  Patty explains that she’s just trashing Homer and Lisa replies,

Well, I wish you wouldn’t because, aside from the fact he has the frailties as all human beings, he’s the only father I have.  Therefore, he is my model of manhood, and my estimation of him will govern the prospects of my adult relationships.  So I hope you bear in mind that any knock on him is a knock on me.  And I’m far too young to defend myself against such onslaughts.

Before this line I thought Lisa’s intelligence was something they developed over the course of the first season.  It’s nice to see it there from the beginning.

Back at the track things are as pathetic as Homer expected them to be.  (Let me take another moment here to praise The Simpsons animators because the racetrack looked thoroughly pathetic.  They’ve always been great at conveying so much with simple design.)  All Homer needs to do is bet on Wirlwind; instead, when he learns that a substitute dog in the race is named Santa’s Little Helper, he decides it’s a sign and checks the odds.  With 99:1 odds Homer hopes to make it a very merry Christmas by putting all $13 on SLH.

Some people might think that this is when the miracle occurs and Santa’s Little Helper wins.  A lot of movies and tv shows have used the underdog trope as a deus ex machina to bring happy endings.  Christmas specials are different.  Charlie Brown’s pathetic tree didn’t grow into something better.  Rudolph’s nose didn’t become normal.  The Grinch didn’t get to hear the people of Whoville crying about lost presents.  Christmas specials try to reinforce the moral of the Nativity by showing an appreciation for what one has.  If Homer’s had won, the Simpsons wouldn’t have their Christmas story.

So it’s a good thing Santa’s Little Helper doesn’t win.

Later, Homer and Bart are outside the track looking for a winning ticket among the ones on the ground.  Barney says good night as he drives off in a convertible with a lady on his arm because his dog, Wirlwind, did win.  Homer and Bart are finally going home when they hear a man yelling at Santa’s Little Helper.  Homer wants nothing to do with him and tries to get him to go away, but he jumps into Homer’s arms with sweet set of puppy-dog eyes.  Bart begs to keep him and Homer says, “But he’s a loser! He’s pathetic! He’s… a Simpson.”

Back at home, Marge is worried about Homer and wonders if she should call the police.  Patty and Selma figure he’s more likely getting drunk and will come home smelling of perfume.  Homer then comes inside and admits that he didn’t get the Christmas bonus.  In the middle of explaining why he hid the news, Bart brings in Santa’s Little Helper.  The family immediately falls in love with him and Marge congratulates Homer on finding such a good gift.

******

This has never been one of my favorite episodes and I stayed away from it for so long because, in my memory, it was a lot rougher than it actually is.  The animation isn’t as distorted as it was in the Tracy Ulman sketches.  Only a few character voices are still unchanged; most of them still have a way to go before they become solid and identifiable.

One thing about the episode that stands out is its story structure and how it’s built more as vignettes.  Even though there is a larger plot, many of the scenes are inconsequential to it.  They could be taken away and their absence would have no effect on the plot.  That’s not to say the scenes are unneeded or unwelcome.  I just mention it because it will be interesting to observe when and how the show shifts away from this kind of storytelling.

Overall, the episode holds up well after twenty-six years.

Grade: A-

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