April 19, 2013 at 10:49 AM ET
Fans of "The Tracey Ullman Show" -- a sketch comedy series that ran on Fox from 1987-1990 -- were in for a treat on April 19, 1987, though they may not have known it at the time. It was during that show that the first-ever "Simpsons" animation aired, with the almost two-minute-long "Good Night" short.
As show producer James L. Brooks recently told The Hollywood Reporter, he wanted "Ullman" to feature short animated interstitials, and had liked Matt Groening's "Life in Hell" comics so well he invited the cartoonist to submit some ideas. Groening decided at the last minute to try a whole new idea, and quickly sketched up "The Simpsons," his take on a dysfunctional but ultimately loving family, and named many of the characters after his own family members.
They've come a long way since: The earliest drawings were jumpy and crudely-drawn, and the while the characters' mouths looked like they might split their heads in half when they spoke, other visual characteristics (like hair) were essentially already in place. But many refinements were to come: It's hard to imagine the current Bart Simpson having pre-bedtime metaphysical discussions with today's Homer, for example.
But it's easy to forget just how subversive the clips were at the time -- animation geared at a more adult audience had been gone from broadcast airwaves for many years, and the cynical, modern tone the show took to something as time-honored as tucking your kids into bed was brand new, even on the upstart Fox network.
Today, "The Simpsons" has been around long enough for eternal baby Maggie to have grown up and made more pacifier-loving babies of her own; Bart and Lisa would be heading into their late 30s. But thanks to the magic of slightly less-crudely-drawn animation, they will always be children and their parents always a little clueless ... but loving.
Happy anniversary, "Simpsons!"
For more great early "Simpsons" shorts, here's a good place to start.