I was part of the generation of children that “The Simpsons” was bound to corrupt.
On Dec. 17, 1989, when the series began with a Christmas special, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” I was an enthralled 7-year-old. I was hooked from the first d’oh. I had a Simpsons-themed birthday. I was Bart for Halloween in third grade.
Watching over our shoulders, my parents didn’t know what to think. My dad wavered between disgust—unsure if he was ready for his three boys to know the jokes were funny—and wondering when the next episode was on.
By the time I hit my teens, we went to church on Sunday mornings and watched “The Simpsons” on Sunday nights. To this day, I don’t think I’ve heard anything funnier than Homer crying: “Save me, Jebus!” except, perhaps, “I’m no missionary, I don’t even believe in Jebus!”
Only after I became a father, with my kids’ teenage years on the horizon, did it occur to me that what my parents may have been drawn to was that “The Simpsons” brought everyone together for a laugh. We continue to joke about inside jokes from the first season, like “the ultimate behemoth” (“The Call of the Simpsons”). And when my older brother waves goodbye, he still promises to send me “those civil defense plans you wanted” (see: “The Crepes of Wrath”).
I rarely missed an episode for the first 11 seasons, as Homer went to space, the family went to New York and Springfield got a monorail. But when I left for college in 2000, my TV habits changed along with everything else in my life. At some point, I realized I’d missed more episodes than I’d seen.
This fall, as “The Simpsons” started its 30th season, it struck me that my son, Thomas, was the same age and in the same grade that I was when the show premiered. For a primer, I pulled out the only season I have ever owned on DVD: the first.
We went through some of the classics. He saw inside the ultimate behemoth and witnessed Lisa and Marge outsmart the boys—hardly for the last time—when they were lost in the woods.
As we watched, I heard things from Thomas I’d never heard before. He asked if “The Simpsons” were on tonight. Until we started watching “The Simpsons” on one of the three channels we get on our digital antennae, I don’t think it’d ever occurred to him that a program wasn’t always available. Later, he asked to watch “real TV,” by which he meant Netflix (where you cannot find “The Simpsons”).
One evening we turned on the TV and happened upon “Flanders’ Ladder,” an episode from the 29th season. Homer asleep on the couch, inhaling popcorn from a bowl on his belly, then chewing on the exhale, made my son laugh in a way that suggested that, until this point in his life, we’d been withholding funny.
I asked Al Jean, a “Simpsons” writer since season one and its longtime showrunner, if he viewed the cartoon family differently since he became a father. He told me that his daughters were born in 1990 and 2004, so he’s had a child under the age of 14 for most of the show’s run.
When his youngest started watching, he said, he steered her away from a few “Treehouse of Horror” Halloween episodes, but otherwise let her watch away. As a parent, I don’t love the way Homer so often isn’t there for his children, but Mr. Jean reminded me of something that I had forgotten in the years between age 7 and 36: “Even a little, little kid realizes Homer’s not a smart father.”
Recently, as I cued up a new episode on Hulu, Thomas got a mischievous look on his face and pointed a finger at me: “You are Homer.”
Mr. Jean gave me some hints as to what to expect in the “ ’Tis the 30th Season” episode on Sunday: After a terrible Black Friday, the Simpsons are fed up with Springfield and decide to spend Christmas in Florida. “The message ‘there’s no place like home’ may pop up,” Mr. Jean added.
Thomas and I will be watching. I’ve got the enthusiasm, the belly, the kids, the endlessly patient wife, and, after years on the hops train, I’ve settled on mediocre yellow beer. The evolution is now complete. After laughing at Homer, then shaking my head at Homer, I see now that I have become Homer.
‘Simpsons’ for a Second Grader
When I decided my son was old enough for “The Simpsons,” I couldn’t wait to introduce him to my favorite episodes. Here are a few that we started with:
- “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”: In this 1989 Christmas special, Homer takes a job as Santa to get extra money for presents, then blows it at the track before all is forgiven.
- “The Call of the Simpsons,” Season 1: In a single episode, Homer buys an RV to try keeping up with his neighbor, Ned Flanders, gets his family lost in the woods and is mistaken for Sasquatch. Oh, and Maggie is cared for by a family of bears.
- “Marge vs. the Monorail,” Season 4: Conan O’Brien wrote this doozy, in which the town of Springfield votes to buy a monorail, largely on the strength of the salesman’s catchy jingle.
- “Deep Space Homer,” Season 5: To boost ratings, NASA sends an everyman into space (guess who?). Homer brings chips.
- “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer (The Mysterious Voyage of Homer),” Season 8: Homer hallucinates after eating a hot pepper at the chili cook-off and meets his “spirit guide,” a coyote voiced by Johnny Cash.
Appeared in the December 5, 2018, print edition as ‘Before I Was Homer, I Was Bart ‘Simpsons’ for a Second Grader.’