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.
09. Homer and Marge’s Bicycle Ride
Episode: “Duffless”, S04E16
Speaking of the relationship between Marge and Homer, “Duffless” is one of the (many) episodes where their love becomes strained thanks to a stupid decision on Homer’s part. In this story’s case, Homer gets a DUI after failing a breathalyzer test driving Barney home from the Duff brewery, prompting Marge to challenge Homer to go 30 days without drinking beer.
The premise leads to some quality jokes, including an AA meeting where Ned Flanders recalls how drinking led him to call Ann Landers “a boring old biddy” and a sky full of Duff bottles parachuting down from a blimp as Homer desperately tries to stay sober. The episode climaxes with Homer forced to make a decision between Marge and temptation. Despite Marge’s suggestion that they take a bicycle ride, Homer rushes to Moe’s the moment his 30 days without beer has concluded.
As he looks down the bar at a line of depressed, lonely drinkers, Homer finally realizes what taking that first sip of frosty beer will cost him. The episode ends with Marge atop the handlebars as Homer rides them into the sunset, singing Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”. Though hardly perfect, the love between Homer and Marge is remarkable for how it endures in the face of countless obstacles. The end of “Duffless” is thus a Hollywood ending to a story many couples have endured in real life and a remarkably sweet moment in Simpsons history.
08. Homer’s Note to Lisa
Episode: “HOMR”, S12E09
One of the most lasting tropes in the history of The Simpsons is that Homer is … well … stupid. In “HOMR”, we learn that Homer’s intellectual deficiencies are actually caused by a crayon he shoved up his nose (and lodged into his brain) when he was six. After having the crayon surgically removed, Homer becomes Lisa’s intellectual equivalent, bringing them closer than perhaps they’ve ever been.
For anyone who has read Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes — the source material that inspired this episode — they know where things are headed. Eventually, Homer realizes that his intelligence has alienated his friends and coworkers and convinces Moe to return the crayon back into his skull.
When Lisa discovers her father has returned to his former self, she feels betrayed until she finds a note Homer wrote her before his “Crayola oblongata”:
I’m taking the coward’s way out. But before I do, I just wanted to say being smart made me appreciate just how amazing you really are.
07. Maggie’s First Word
Episode: “Lisa’s First Word”, S04E10
This episode actually has a bit of a red herring heartstring moment. The episode opens with Bart trying to get Maggie to say her first word, which leads to a flashback to the story of Lisa’s first word. In the spring of 1983 (“a time when Ms. Pac-Man struck a blow for women’s rights”), a young Bart is worried that the addition of Baby Lisa means he will no longer be the center of attention. Despite efforts that include cutting off all of her hair, Bart eventually comes to realize he loves his new sibling when her first word is his name.
Played as a joke initially, Lisa further says “mommy” and “David Hasselhoff,” but much to Homer’s chagrin, she only says “Homer” and not “daddy.” This reinforces the fact that young Bart has also only called Homer by his name for the entirety of the episode. Back in the present, Homer puts Maggie to bed, which leads to this heart-melting exchange:
Homer: You know, Maggie. The sooner kids learn to talk, the sooner they talk back. [puts Maggie in her crib] I hope you never say a word.
[Homer leaves the room, closing the door behind him. Maggie takes her pacifier out of her mouth.]
06. Bart’s Christmas Present
Episode: “Marge Be Not Proud”, S07E11
One of the all-around best episodes of The Simpsons — we’re talking the origins of Thrillhouse, Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge, and “Get ’em ma” — “Marge Be Not Proud” sees Bart denied the chance to purchase the ultra-violent video game Bonestorm. Encouraged by Jimbo and Nelson, Bart shoplifts the cartridge from the Try-N-Save. After being caught by a security guard, Bart is told never to return to the store.
Of course, Marge immediately takes the family to the Try-N-Save to get their Christmas photo taken, which leads to Bart ruining the photo and Homer and Marge learning about his crime. Marge decides she should give Bart more distance, in turn causing Bart to realize that he actually really misses her motherly gestures like singing him the “sleepy train” song.
In the episode’s climax, Homer and Marge chase down Bart when he comes home with a new bulge under his jacket. As it turns out, he’s gone back to the Try-N-Save once more to get a respectable photo taken, which is then affixed to the family portrait. That image of Bart’s photo in its own frame stuck atop the photo of the other Simpsons perfectly encapsulates the dysfunctional but loving nature of TV’s favorite family.