OTH: The Simpsons- "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire"

Mmhm, go watch your cartoon show, dear.

Aired December 17th, 1989

Directed by David Silverman

Written by Mimi Pond

So when’s the last time that you saw the first episode of The Simpsons to premiere? It’s been a while for me, but I know it was in the past decade- Fox made a 25th anniversary special for the network, and aired this along with the pilot of Married… With Children right before. Besides that, it’s been a while. Syndication packages tend to save this, along with many of the numerous other Simpsons Christmas specials for the holidays, and until recently, I didn’t have the first season on DVD.

Watching this episode now contradicts a recent thought that I’ve had about The Simpsons, being that despite Homer’s modest wage and the family identifying as, as they’ll later call themselves, “upper-lower-middle class”, money and class aren’t brought up as common in the series as much as other contemporary blue collar series, such as Roseanne or Married… With Children. It’s apparent that the Simpsons aren’t as well off as other families in Springfield, but this is seldom an issue that drives the series.

Here, money is clearly an issue when it becomes apparent that Homer’s salary alone can’t afford an adequate Christmas for the family without his bonus. He and Marge were able to save up a little from around the year, but all it takes is a tattoo removal to nip that away, which to be fair does not look all that cheap, especially when lasers get involved. Ignoring that a tattoo of Bart’s size would likely need more than one session to be removed, this shows how fragile the Simpson’s financial situation is.

But seeing Homer try to scrape together some crummy gifts from the dollar store sticks out to me. He’s clearly embarrassed, and no matter how hard he tries to justify that Marge would like some pantyhose or Maggie a chew toy, he knows this is a failure. Compiled with his run in with Flanders, who appears to be having the perfect Christmas, which shows elements of shame and jealousy in Homer that feels genuine.

It’s also not a very happy element that Homer has to work a second job to provide Christmas for the family. It’s an unfortunate reality that many families will require duel income partners or one partner to work two jobs to provide, which is apparent here. On the other hand, it’s worth mentioning that, well, Homer’s an idiot and from the little we see of him at the powerplant, he’s not suitable for his job in security, yet he coasts by just enough for the rest of the year. Maybe it’s not worth it to be too displeased with his financial standing.

To be fair, in the show’s episode commentary, it is brought up that financial strain was an element initially meant to factor in the series, before the writers basically left it beyond to go on their own path. Frankly, I can understand the mentality, and there will be numerous other elements that will drive the series forward. But money and the effects of capitalism is an element that is worth exploring for the characters when decided on.

In terms of comedy, there’s some strong bits throughout, relying on observational humor early on. A strong example of such comes from Homer’s boredom of the school’s pageant after his kids are finished, which same. Hints of the show’s rapid fire, more outlandish sense of humor to come appears later when Homer starts his Santa training, as his consistent failure offers a sharp routine between him and the instructor, as well as his race to find a Christmas tree, which results in some questionable property damage. The last act is lighter on humor in comparison, as the episode takes a less comedic tone.

It’s interesting to note how Bart became the show’s breakout character and how his hellion attitude immediately resonated with fans, as his presence is tamer here. His jumbling of Christmas carols and yanking Santa Homer’s beard aren’t exactly appropriate, but his sentimental side is arguably more apparent here than usual. It does make sense- if The Simpsons is supposed to work as a family sitcom, the Simpsons have to work as a family, and we need to see them genuinely love and appreciate each other. While Bart is good at calling Homer’s bluff, he does sincerely love his old man, and knows well enough to stop messing around with his dad’s situation.

Even though Bart is at fault for sacrificing the family’s Christmas money, this is more of a Homer episode. It’s his desire to earn more for a sustainable Christmas that drives the heart of the story, and what the resolution aims for. He comes off as pretty likable here, even with his obvious failings.

Would you consider the ending resolution of Homer adopting Santa’s Little Helper as a plot contrivance? I can see an argument, but I think it’s a sweet moment, and a reasonable compromise for a Christmas gift. Personally, I still remember the Christmas we got my first dog, and how whole my family felt when he joined, which I can’t say is a feeling that can be replicated, but this episode does its best to try to match. Seeing the poor little greyhound run away from the racetrack is a strong moment that helps to set up a lifetime of emotional Simpsons moments.

Compared to how clever, outlandish, and heartwarming The Simpsons can become in the years to come, this feels somewhat quaint in comparison. That’s not exactly a bad thing, I’d say. While I prefer to look at the series as it airs while writing this, I can see how this would have made a splash 31 years prior. It has the heart of a classic holiday special, while not overwhelmingly saccharine, and its humor is a little more down to earth, without being too edgy. It’s a solid compromise.

Many a fan of the series knows that “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” was eighth in production for the show’s first season, but when the initial first episode, “Some Enchanted Evening” had numerous animation errors, the premiere of the series was saved from September 1989 to January 1990, with this airing as a preview of sorts. It’s a good call, as this introduces plenty of elements of the show to come, even if it is a little different from what we will later see. Overall, it’s a good way to start the show off, although it’s more of a hint of what the series can do rather than what it really is. I’m looking forward to seeing how the rest of the first season compares.

Stray Observations:

  • It’s funny to see some of the characters in their very early stages here. A less religious Flanders definitely sticks out, but it’s also worth noting blonde Barney, stuttering Seymour, and the early takes on Milhouse, Mr. Burns and Moe we also see. The most jarring for me is Ralph, who neither acts nor sounds (and only barely looks) like the character we’re familiar with today from his brief appearance in the play.

  • I realized that I didn’t really bring up the Simpsons women in my review, which wasn’t intentional, although they aren’t as active in this adventure. Marge is mainly set up as a voice of reason, with few hints of the side of hers that works so well with Homer, while Lisa is a little closer to the self we’ll recognize, skirting the line of being wise beyond her years and still a little girl. And Maggie’ is Maggie.

  • Doesn’t it look like Lisa is bottomless in her dance sequence? While I wouldn’t judge her for going pussy out, it’s brought up in the commentary that she’s wearing a bodysuit… but it does sound like they just forgot to color more than her skin around her lower half. So take that as you will.

  • One thing that I do question is that we Lisa still very clearly believes in Santa, but doesn’t raise any questions when Marge invites her to go Christmas shopping? Homer and Marge also liberally mention their Christmas savings, and she doesn’t bat an eye there either. Does she believe in Santa or not?

  • Also worth noting is that the producers realized how distracting Maggie sucking on her pacifier could be during a scene that’s heavy on dialogue, as we see in the sequence where Marge narrates the family Christmas card. Her sucking should wisely be toned down from here.

  • And no, I haven’t really brought up the Tracy Ullman shorts. I’m not as familiar with them, and they come off more like homework for the main series, so I’ll probably keep it that way.