Thirty years ago this month, America’s favorite animated family made their debut as part of The Tracey Ullman Show. To celebrate, CoS will be broadcasting live from Springfield all week with a slew of Simpsons features. Today, Zack Ruskin looks back at moments from the show that gave us the vapors more than the giggles.
One of the many reasons The Simpsons continues to resonate 27 years after it first aired is a talented writing staff that saw the value in occasionally exchanging a sight gag for genuine emotion. There are far more jokes than there are tears in The Simpsons’ long, continuing history, but the heart-punch moments peppered throughout have played a large role in ensuring the show remains a cultural touchstone nearly three decades in.
Many episodes, in fact, boast smaller slices of the scenes highlighted below, like Bart showing Lisa in slow motion the exact moment she broke Ralph’s heart (“I Love Lisa”) or even the recent opening scene chalkboard that read simply “We’ll really miss you Ms. K” (“Four Regrettings and a Funeral”). However, the 10 moments below are extraordinary in that they take the format of a 22-minute cartoon show about a dysfunctional family and truly find something profound to extract from characters that are usually known for their casual child abuse, incessant nagging, and spray-painter alter egos.
In short, making Homer’s gurney fall out the back of an ambulance, causing him to plunge once more down Springfield Gorge is easy. Making viewers want to call their mom and tell them they love them as the end credits roll is not. The fact that The Simpsons did both, time and time again, is why no other cartoon show will ever compare.
10. Lisa’s Birthday Song
Episode: “Stark Raving Dad”, S03E01
Let’s get this out of the way: This list features a lot of Lisa Simpson. In many ways, she is the emotional heart of the show. While the ongoing marital struggles between Homer and Marge have long proved fertile ground for touching moments, Lisa – sensitive, wise, often alone – is actually the character most likely to be at the center of a heartfelt scene.
In “Stark Raving Dad”, the main story line follows Homer as he is put in a mental hospital for complications that arise from wearing a pink shirt to work. There he meets a man, Leon Kompowsky, who claims to be Michael Jackson (voiced by the actual Michael Jackson, of course), who ultimately comes home with Homer to lay low at 742 Evergreen Terrace. It’s at this point that Leon intersects the episode’s subplot, which finds Bart in need of an amazing present for Lisa after forgetting his sister’s birthday.
Leon’s solution is to help Bart compose a song in honor of Lisa. The sweet lyrics (“You gave me the gift of a little sister/ And I’m proud of you today”) paired with the scene of Lisa overcome with emotion in her bed as Bart and Leon serenade her is arguably the most touching moment between Bart and Lisa in the entire series. After all, it’s hard to go wrong with a song Michael Jackson wrote just for you.