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.
05. The Death of Bleeding Gums Murphy
Episodes: “’Round Springfield”, S06E22
One of the first times a character on The Simpsons was truly killed off, the death of Bleeding Gums Murphy hits hard. In the show’s early seasons, Murphy was portrayed as one of the few people who truly understood Lisa and, as a jazz saxophonist, someone who was a mentor of sorts for her.
In a crushing scene, Lisa enters Murphy’s hospital room and notices it is empty with the bed made. A nurse gives Lisa the bad news that Murphy has died, and following a poorly attended funeral, she determines to buy his album, Sax on the Beach, and have it broadcast on local radio in tribute.
Of course, the album’s gouged price tag of $500 at the Android’s Dungeon & Baseball Card Shop means Lisa can’t afford it. In the episode’s second touching moment, Bart spends the money he earned suing Krusty for the jagged piece of metal he ingested in his cereal on the album, which Lisa then successfully gets the radio station to play. In a beautiful closing scene, Lisa dries her tears and shreds the song “Jazzman” on her sax with a version of Murphy made of clouds.
04. Homer’s Final Goodbyes
Episodes: “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish”, S02E11
When Homer is served a poisonous piece of sushi at the Happy Sumo, he is told he has 24 hours to live. This premise makes for one of the show’s strongest episodes, where all of the characters in the family get a chance to shine. From teaching Bart to shave to getting Lisa to change her tune from mournful blues to a rousing rendition of “When the Saints Go Over There”.
Plans to reconcile with his father go longer than expected, causing Homer to ultimately miss several items on his “Things To Do Before I Die” list. One of those items is a dinner at home with his family. Instead, Homer creeps out of bed at midnight and kisses each of his children and says goodbye. It is an immensely sad and somber sequence, which ends with Homer slumped over in an armchair listening to Larry King read the bible on tape.
Luckily, Homer survives, which Marge discovers when she realizes his drool is still warm. However, the choices he makes under the belief that has but one day more to live are a true testament that despite his many, many, many faults, Homer is a good man with a big heart.
03. You Are Lisa Simpson
Episodes: “Lisa’s Substitute”, S02E19
While Albert Brooks as Hank Scorpio and Glenn Close as Mona Simpson are in the running for “Greatest Simpsons Guest Star”, one must also make the case for Dustin Hoffman, who voiced Lisa’s substitute teacher, Mr. Bergstrom. When Ms. Hoover gets Lyme disease, Mr. Bergstrom takes over and instantly wins Lisa’s affections.
Mr. Bergstrom is a teacher who actually cares and one that Lisa is desperate to impress. Unfortunately, Ms. Hoover returns sooner than expected, leaving Lisa to race first to Mr. Bergstrom’s apartment and then to the train station where he is leaving for another job. In an effort to comfort her, he gives Lisa a note and explains: “Whenever you feel like your alone and there’s nobody you can rely on, this is all you need to know.”
The note reads simply:
This inspiring, sage sentiment — delivered by one of the finest one-episode characters in Simpsons history — is the four-word answer to anyone who ever asks how profound The Simpsons could be.
02. Do It for Her
Episodes: “And Maggie Makes Three”, S06E13
Backstory episodes of The Simpsons are often some of their emotionally strongest work. “And Maggie Makes Three” begins with Lisa asking why there are no baby pictures of Maggie, which leads to the story of how Maggie joined the Simpson clan.
Before Maggie came along, Homer pays off his debts and leaves his job in Sector 7G (has anyone ever quit and returned to a single position more than Homer J.?) to take his dream job — working at a bowling alley. He figures that as long as nothing changes, the gig will allow him to provide for his family without having to work in the soul-numbing confines of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant.
Of course, the best-laid plans often go awry, and Marge finds she is pregnant again, forcing Homer to leave the bowling alley and return to the job he despises. To emphasize his cruelty, Mr. Burns has a sign installed next to Homer’s station that reads “Don’t forget: you’re here forever.”
So where have Maggie’s baby pictures gone? To decorate that sign and remind Homer that working a job he hates is worth it for her.
01. Homer Stares at the Stars
Episode: “Mother Simpson”, S07E08
Oh, man. “Mother Simpson” introduces Mona Simpson, Homer’s mother, who was forced to leave her family many years ago after an act of eco-terrorism went wrong.
Much of the episode revolves around Homer’s attempts to make up for lost time with Mona, while Lisa and Marge grow suspicious about the truth.
At the end of “Mother Simpson”, Mona must once again go on the lamb after Mr. Burns spies her at the post office. They drive out of town to avoid the FBI, where one of Mona’s associates is waiting to take her away. Homer and Mona’s goodbye alone is enough to cause tears, but what comes next is one of the finest moments in the series: Homer, sitting on the hood of his car, simply watching the sky.
Not only is the visual of Homer and purple night’s sky truly gorgeous, but the music that underscores it — quiet and reflective — really adds to the weight of the moment. “Mother Simpson” is the show’s rare episode where things don’t necessarily work out in the end, but rather leave on an unfinished note. By being very selective about when they played this specific card, the writers for The Simpsons ensured it would always land with purpose.