The Secret Origin of The Simpsons

The Simpsons turn 20 today (that is, if you don’t count the Christmas special as the first episode and completely ignore the original shorts from The Tracey Ullman Show), and there’s been a number of retrospectives to mark the occasion. An oft-repeated claim in many histories is that creator Matt Groening, fearing the loss of his Life in Hell characters, came up with the Simpsons in fifteen minutes before a meeting with Ullman producer James L. Brooks. But the characters actually originated nearly 40 years ago, in an unpublished novel Groening wrote in high school:

Chat Transcript (April 6, 1999):

Question hobgoblin: How old were you when you first came up with the idea for “The Simpsons”? I know that the show has been on for a long time.
Matt_G “The Simpsons” originated in high school.
Matt_G I wrote a bleak little novel called “The Mean Little Kids” starring a teenage Bart Simpson with buckteeth and a very bad complexion.

Interview with Robert William Kubey, published in Creating Television: Conversations with the People Behind 50 Years of American TV (Late 1991):

How quickly did The Simpsons gel in your mind?

I needed to come up with an idea really quickly. In the back of my mind was the idea of doing something that might possibly end up spinning off into its own TV show, so I created a family which I thought would lend itself to a lot of different kinds of stories. In high school I had written a novel, a sort of a very sour Catcher in the Rye, self pitying, adolescent novel starring Bart Simpson as a very troubled teenager. I took that family and transferred it, made them younger, and then drew. It took about 15 minutes to design the characters the first time out.

Were they all the same characters that we now know and love?

Yes, but they’ve been transformed.

Why didn’t you leave Bart as an adolescent?

TV does children really badly, and I thought there was room for something different. Teenagers are already running rampant on television, but kids are done very unrealistically in sitcoms. Sometimes, a particular character gels with an audience and becomes the star.

Was Bart at the center all along?

Yeah. The rest of the Simpsons in my original conception were in a struggle to be normal and Bart was the one who thought that being normal was boring.

And now you know… the rest of the story.