Beloved cartoon character Milhouse Van Houten might have began life as part of an unsuccessful pitch for a Saturday morning cartoon.
In a discussion on Twitter last week, Simpsons superdirector David Silverman clarified some things about Milhouse’s origins, shooting down rumors he’s just a rip-off of Paul Pfeiffer from The Wonder Years (come on dudes, he’s pretty much just Akbar/Jeff with hair and glasses). He also shared a little more behind-the-scenes information about his first appearance. It’s been known that Milhouse first appeared in a pre-series Simpsons Butterfinger commercial – in 2000, Simpsons creator Matt Groening told TV Guide he “needed to give Bart someone to talk to in the school cafeteria” – but until now it was believed he was created specifically for that commercial.
According to Silverman, Groening re-used some kid characters he had designed for an unsuccessful NBC pitch. Milhouse happened to be one of those kids, and was used to fulfill the role of Bart’s friend. Some of the other kid designs may have immigrated to Bart’s class and became background characters. When asked for clarification about the pitch (had Groening pitched The Simpsons to NBC?), Silverman tweeted “[Matt Groening] pitched & dev[eloped] a diff[erent] show for NBC, Sat[urday] Morning cartoons. I — think.” (Keep in mind, Silverman was told this over two decades ago, so his recollection may not be totally accurate.)
UPDATE (9/23/2014): In this Vulture article, Silverman now says it was ABC, not NBC.
It makes sense. Groening has repurposed characters before – the Simpsons themselves originated from a novel he wrote in high school. It’s also known he went to a lot of pitch meetings in the eighties (“like, hundreds” according to cartoon pal Gary Panter) before landing his gig on The Tracey Ullman Show. Up to now, though, we’ve only heard about his pitch for an Eddie Murphy film.
So, in an alternate universe, NBC greenlit this kids cartoon (airing it alongside such classics as Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Smurfs, and Mr. T) and The Simpsons never came to fruition. And if School is Hell is anything to go by, the show would’ve been great. Which begs the question: would Milhousemania have swept the nation instead of Bartmania??
Watching that Butterfinger commercial provides only the briefest glimpse of that universe:
Who are those girls in the first shot? Did they have names? What other shows did Groening pitch? We’ll probably never know. Somebody should ask him.
UPDATE (5/24/2021): Fixed some defunct links; re-hosted Storify embed.