Every television series has to start somewhere and for The Simpsons, they started with a Christmas special. I know that might seem a little odd, because normally show runners will wait a small bit to get characters introduced and more defined before bringing up all the holiday scenarios, but the Simpsons writers seemed quite confident in their ability to get this series going and considering how well-known this particular Christmas special is, I’d have to say they got off to a pretty nice start.
One thing you will see me point out a lot in these older episodes is the animation. Because this was their first season and because they hadn’t switched to the animators that would go on to do their “golden years” episodes, the animation was pretty low-quality in their first year, at least in comparison with what it would be beyond season three, or even earlier in the following second season. However, I have to say that Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire looks quite a bit better compared to the other episodes of this season. I’m not sure if it’s just because the writing was better, making us overlook some of the visual atrocities, or if the spirit of Christmas has truly touched my heart, making me want to give this episode a pass. Regardless, I do think this is a good episode and a must-see for anyone looking to have an authentic Simpsons experience.
On the subject of this episode’s writing, I also think it’s important to point out that while this episode was the first to air on television, it was not the first episode produced or written for. In fact, of the thirteen episodes in Season 1, it was the eighth to be produced. Obviously this decision was made to air this episode around Christmas time; pushing it ahead in airing order, and also because the first-produced episode “Some Enchanted Evening,” was an animated nightmare and abomination. I’ll be getting to that episode much later in this first season retrospective though, so let’s not get into that now. This episode aired on December 17th, 1989, making it the first and last episode to air in the 1980’s. Simpsons have come a very long way since then, but how does this episode really hold up? Let’s get into it, now that all of the formalities have been taken care of.
“Speaking of life going on, Grandpa’s still with us, feisty as ever. Maggie is walking by herself, Lisa got straight A’s, and Bart– well, we love Bart.”
~Marge Simpson’s Christmas Letter
“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” is a pretty standard Christmas episode, in the sense that it has a pretty typical formula that you could apply to a wide variety of other holiday specials. The main characters get excited about Christmas, something happens that threatens to ruin Christmas, and in the last moments, the true spirit of the season touches everyone and a happy ending is shared by all. We’ve seen this type of story a number of times, but the Simpsons have their own little spin to it.
The Simpson family is preparing for Christmas and during the first half of the episode, we basically get different shots of The Simpsons doing very Christmas-related things. From attending a Christmas pageant, making letters to Santa, writing Christmas cards, setting up light decorations, making plans with relatives…these are all the bells and whistles you’d come to expect with typical holiday traditions. And from examining The Simpsons, you can see that Christmas is a pretty important time for them. They take pride in these holiday traditions because they know they aren’t an incredibly wealthy or high-class family, and it’s just a time they can look forward to every year, maybe spend a little extra money on gifts for each other, and just feel the spirit of the season. Even Homer remarks that around Christmas he feels like a “big kid,” because he loves the holiday so much. And even with the upcoming and unpleasant arrival of his wife’s twin sisters, he doesn’t let anything ruin his drive to make this the best Christmas yet.
However, two big wrenches get thrown into Homer’s holiday plans. His boss, Mr. Burns, announces that all employees will not get a Christmas bonus this year. Meanwhile on a shopping trip, Bart sneaks off to get a tattoo, despite his parents objections, forcing Marge to spend the entire family’s Christmas fund to get the tattoo removed. This leaves the Simpson family with next-to-nothing for Christmas shopping, forcing Homer to shop at a cheap discount store and steal a Christmas tree from private property. The rest of the family is completely unaware of these actions though, as Homer has not told them about the denied Christmas bonus in order to keep their holiday spirit high. At Moe’s Tavern, Homer’s friend Barney gives him the idea to take a part-time job as a mall Santa Claus in order to get some extra cash, which a desperate Homer is willing to try to save Christmas for his family.
During a chuckle-emitting montage of Homer being Old Saint Nick, Bart yanks Homer’s Santa beard off, revealing his father and forcing him to tell Bart about his plight. Bart, being impressed of his father’s dedication to their family, decides to help him out and not tell the rest of the family about Homer’s secret. However, when Christmas Eve rolls around, Homer and Bart are both disappointed to find out that Homer’s paycheck is only worth thirteen bucks. Barney, however, fills Homer and Bart in on his master plan of taking the thirteen dollars and betting it down at the dog-racing track on a canine who is on a massive win streak. Homer is at first reluctant to sink to those levels, but is willing to give it a shot when Bart reveals that this could be the Christmas miracle the family needed all along.
At the track, Homer is inspired when he hears the name “Santa’s Little Helper” for one of the racing dogs and decides that betting on the little guy, on Christmas Eve, even with the tremendous odds against him, is a sign that the family will have a Merry Christmas after all. He puts all of his money on Santa’s Little Helper, and as the race comes to a close, he finds out that not only did his dog not win, but he also came in dead last. Distraught over the miracle not happening, both Bart and Homer leave the track in a very sour mood.
Before they can leave the parking lot though, they hear the sounds of Santa Little Helper’s owner yelling at the poor dog and telling him to get away, tired of his losing performance. The dog jumps into Homer’s arms and Bart asks Homer if they can keep him. Homer is against the idea at first, but he quickly changes his mind when he comes to the realization that the dog is not very different from him or his own family; remarking that “he’s a loser, he’s pathetic……he’s a Simpson!” Homer takes the dog home, confesses to the entire family about his Christmas bonus, but the entire family is immediately won over by the dog; saying it was the best Christmas gift he could have ever gotten the family. Then, the entire family closes the episode out by singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” over the credits.
“Um…Dasher, Dancer…Prancer…Nixon…Comet…Cupid…Donna, Dixon?”
~Homer Simpson (his attempt at naming the reindeer)
Funnily enough, I don’t have memory of watching this episode until very late in my life when I got The Simpsons – Season One on DVD when it came out in 2001. I’m sure it was probably on TV at some point in my household and my memory is just very bad at remembering those details, but the first experience I remember of this Simpsons Christmas story was through a book illustration I had, which basically depicted the entire episode in a picture book format. I must have read that book hundreds and hundreds of times and have probably read the story more than I actually watched it. These days, yeah, I would probably watch it instead, now that I have the DVD set and The Internet on my side, but for the longest time, the book was all I had of this holiday classic and that’s a pretty unique memory.
Bart: “Hey Santa, what’s shakin’?”
Homer: “What’s your name Bart…ner…little partner?”
Bart: “I’m Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?”
I’ve been debating this section of this retrospective for a while now, and while a part of me would like to post all of the funny moments and quotes from each episode, it would just be way too time-consuming, and I’m sure there are many websites and webpages dedicated to being archives for all the classic sayings, quotes and continuous gags. So instead of doing that, I’m just going to focus on the highlights of every episode…at least as far as my favorite parts are concerned.
I think one of the things I find very humorous in this episode is how snarky Homer can be at certain moments. Yeah, it can come out as him being a jerk-ass at times, but in this episode, it’s hard to blame him for his short-temper. Whether it’s him constantly asking who’s on the phone when Marge’s sister just says “Marge please,” instead of any actual greeting, or when Ned Flanders easily upstages Homer’s light display by going all-out and over-the-top with Homer remarking, “It’s too bright” in an extremely defeated tone of voice. I think my favorite moment of snarky-ness though is when he bumps into Flanders and his son again after leaving the dollar store and Todd Flanders says, “Mr. Simpson, you dropped your pork chop,” even squeaking the dog toy a few times before Homer just has enough and exclaims “give me that!” taking the toy out of his hand.
The montage of Homer as Santa Claus is also very memorable for me as well. Homer is obviously not the perfect candidate for being Santa Claus, not knowing the names of Santa’s reindeer as he lists, “Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Nixon, Comet, Cupid, Donna and Dixon,” and immediately turning to violence and rage when being insulted by the instructor pretending to be a mouthy kid. But it also shows how non-serious the training is to begin with, giving literally anybody the chance to be Santa and not exactly making the standards too high either. I guess it makes sense for a service that only hands out thirteen dollars by the end of the term. What tops all of this off though is the exchange between Homer and Bart when Bart sits on his lap just before he yanks off his beard. Not only is it funny watching Homer struggle with trying to pretend like he doesn’t know Bart, but then Bart immediately responds with his classic, “I’m Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?” line, causing Homer to just continue losing his cool until the big reveal happens.
As far as other moments are concerned, another low-key visual gag that I enjoy is when Homer tells Marge in the bedroom that he wants to do all the Christmas shopping this year, causing Marge to react positively, turn off the bedroom lights, showing only Homer’s glowing eyes and fake smile in the darkness. I also like the exchange between Homer and Marge’s sisters after obtaining the stolen tree, one of them asking why there is a birdhouse in the tree (“It’s an ornament!” exclaims Homer) and the other asking “Do I smell gunpowder?” (In relation to the property owner firing a weapon at Homer as he zooms away with the tree). And finally, when Homer and Bart are at the lowest point possible in the episode, after it was pretty much guaranteed Santa’s Little Helper would finish in last place, Homer remarks that they’ll leave once their dog finishes the race; immediately changing his mind a few silent seconds later when the dog still hadn’t crossed yet, really pushing the point home that their dog had no chance in Hell to win.
As far as absolute favorite moment goes, I think I’m going to stick with the beard-yanking scene between Homer and Bart. It’s just very iconic, features a first-time quote that will be used multiple times in the future, and is just really, really funny. If I was judging not based on humor though, I’d have to also give a vote to the sweet moment at the end of the episode when Homer realizes that Santa’s Little Helper and him have a lot in common with the “He’s a Simpson” line. I think it’s perfect for not just the episode, but also for the show moving forward as it gives us insight to how the Simpson family stacks up with the rest of the world. They’re far from perfect, but they are still a family.
So as I said earlier, this is a pretty standard formula when it comes to Christmas stories, Christmas specials, Christmas movies…you name it. It starts with high energy and excitement, introduces some conflict that threatens that excitement, and wraps everything up on a good note with some kind of message or moral woven in between. It can be pretty cliché, but I also quite enjoy the unique effort they put into this particular story as well. The one thing I really liked about this story watching it back this time was the fact that no matter how many times Homer failed in his efforts to give his family an amazing Christmas, he still kept trying. I feel like no matter what he would have done, he would have been unable to give his family the Christmas they wanted, and heck, even if he did bet on the right dog and won the $130 dollars, I think it would have been a very cheap victory for Homer and one he would have regretted anyway. In other words, he had to fail in order to realize the true spirit of Christmas.
You could also say Homer was wrong for keeping the secret from his family, stealing private property, putting too much importance on money, betting his paycheck in the first place, and being extremely greedy with playing on unwinnable odds for a huge payout, but I do think his heart was in the right place. He didn’t do it to be rich or wealthy…he did it for his family and I think he made that very clear throughout the episode. Heck, he didn’t even want to go to the dog track at first, but because Bart was positive and confident, he figured it was at least worth a shot, and I don’t blame him for feeling that way. The point is, he didn’t give up until the very end and I can respect that. I also think it was sweet that the dog, which ended up costing the family nothing (at least when you ignore on-going food and care costs), ended up being the perfect present for the family anyway. And considering how important the dog will be for the family moving forward, I think it was a pretty solid gift for not only them, but also for watchers of the show as well, with this being the first episode and all.
It’s not the funniest episode of The Simpsons, but it’s very sweet and iconic episode of the show as well. I find myself watching this episode at least once every holiday season, mainly due to the fact that finding a holiday special on TV during the month of December is like finding a hammer at a hardware store. Despite that though, I still think it holds up very well and is still very much watchable, even with the older, cringing animation and the creation of many other Simpson holiday specials as well, some of which I do find myself enjoying a little more than this one. As far as Season 1 episodes are concerned, it is probably one of the better ones, as there isn’t really much wrong with it or much I find myself in opposition of. It’s something I can turn on and watch every Christmas with the family and never feel like it gets old or dated, even if it is the first episode of the television series.
Hey guys! I think that will do it for my first episode retrospective. I do apologize that this is going up a little late (I wanted to release this on Christmas), but as expected, since this is a new series, I ran into some conflicts with deciding how I wanted this to go. I think moving forward, I shouldn’t have as much difficulty with this, but please be patient with me as I’m still trying to figure everything out and get into a routine with this. As for the next episode, don’t expect any new ones until the year 2017. I would like to get Episode #2 up before I leave on a trip that starts on January 4th, but we’re just going to have to wait and see what happens leading up to those dates. As I said before, the scope of this project is pretty much undefined at this point, but no matter the scope, it’s going to be a big undertaking regardless. I am looking forward and dreading this project at the same time because of that. Despite that though, I’m going to try and have fun with it anyway, as it’s not very often that I get to talk about The Simpsons to this degree.
If you have any feedback or suggestions, feel free to go to Contact page and submit some fanmail with your remarks. You can also tweet at my SlimKirby Twitter account as well, but since this is a website project, let’s try to keep messages at the former, if at all possible. Thank you everyone and have a good day!