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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

December 17, 1989

We're just days away from completing “THE POP CULTURE ADDICT'S ADVENT CALENDAR” for another year! Kind of makes you feel a lot of emotions, doesn't it? You may feel sad that the holiday entries are drawing to a close for another year, or you may feel happy because the holiday entries are drawing to a close, or you might feel anxious and nervous because Christmas Eve is next week and you still haven't made any preparations for the event.

In which case, I must ask “WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?!?”

Regardless, welcome to Day #17 of the calendar. And in this Tuesday Timeline, I plan on doing a blog topic on a television holiday episode that was very special. It also happens to be the very first episode of a long-running television series!

Imagine that, a television series that kicked off as a Christmas special! Not too many television series can boast that claim to fame, can they?

Of course, before we get into the holiday discussion of a classic Christmas television show, we should probably take a look at what else happened in the world on December 17.

497 BC – The first Saturnalia festival was celebrated in ancient Rome

942 – William I of Normandy is assassinated

1538 – Henry VIII of England is excommunicated by Pope Paul III

1718 – Great Britain declares war on Spain

1837 – A fire in the Winter Palace of Saint Petersburg kills over thirty guards

1892 – The first issue of Vogue Magazine is published

1903 – The Wright Brothers make their first powered, heavier-than-air flight in the “Wright Flyer” at Kitty Hawk

1938 – Otto Hahn discovers the nuclear fission of uranium

1944 – The Malmedy Massacre during the Battle of the Bulge occurs, which leaves eighty POW's dead at the hands of their German captors

1951 – The Civil Rights Congress delivers “We Charge Genocide” to the United Nations

1961 – The world's largest circus tragedy occurs as fire sweeps through the Gran Circus American circus grounds in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

1967 – Harold Holt, then Prime Minister of Australia, disappears while swimming near Victoria and is presumed drowned

1969 – The United States Air Force closes its study on UFO's

1981 – Brigadier General James L. Dozier is abducted by the Red Brigades in Verona, Italy

1997 – The United Kingdom commences its Firearms Act 1997, which extended the ban on firearms to include all handguns with the exception of antique and show pieces

1999 – American jazz singer Grover Washington Jr. (b. 1943) dies at the age of 56

2009 – Actress Jennifer Jones (b. 1919) passes away in Malibu, California at age 90

2010 – Mohamed Bouazizi set himself of fire, marking the catalyst of the Tunisian Revolution

2011 – Controversial North Korean leader Kim-Jong-il dies at the age of 70

We've also got a long list of famous birthdays for you today, and turning one year older are Dave Madden, Pope Francis, Tommy Steele, Bernard Hill, Ernie Hudson, Chris Matthews, Eugene Levy, Barry Livingston, Bill Pullman, Peter Farrelly, Mike Mills (R.E.M.), Sara Dallin (Bananarama), Craig Berube, Gigi D'Agostino, Chuck Liddell, Mick Quinn (Supergrass), Sean Patrick Thomas, Duff Goldman, Sarah Paulson, Giovanni Ribisi, Marissa Ribisi, Nick Dinsmore, Milla Jovovich, Jaimee Foxworth, Craig Kielburger, and Emma Bell.

All right. Now that we have all that out of the way, why don't we go ahead with today's Tuesday Timeline date.

How about going back in time twenty-four years to December 17, 1989?

Now, December 17, 1989 was a huge day for the world of television, particularly for the fairly new television network known as FOX. As we counted down the final days of the 1980s, FOX had only been on the air for a total of three years. And, while the network did have success stories in the television sitcom “Married...With Children”, and the sketch comedy show “The Tracey Ullman Show”, it really wasn't performing as well as other networks. Comparing FOX to NBC, CBS, and ABC, FOX placed a distant last place in the ratings. But, by the time 1989 rolled around, FOX decided to try something brand new. And that something would be inspired by one of the most popular features from “The Tracey Ullman” Show.

Now, “The Tracey Ullman Show” debuted on air in 1987, and the star of the show was British comedienne Tracey Ullman. She performed as several characters on the show, and even had a brief singing career in the early 1980s, with the song below being her biggest hit.

Well, in 1987, Ullman came up with the idea to create a show that was quite similar in style to “Saturday Night Live” and “SCTV”. And the show itself did quite well. People tuned in and watched the program during its four season run (it ran from April 1987 until May 1990), and it even won three Emmy Awards between 1989 and 1990.

And, here's an interesting fact that I didn't even know at the time. Apparently all of the choreography done on “The Tracey Ullman Show” was organized by then up and coming pop starlet Paula Abdul!

Anyway, what was interesting about the show was that the series only had six regular actors and actresses that appeared in the opening credits of the show. There was Ullman, Sam McMurray, Joseph Malone, Anna Levine, Julie Kavner, and Dan Castellaneta.

You might be wondering why I've bolded those last two names. Some of you may have figured out what the topic is by this alone, but I'll explain. You see, Kavner and Castellaneta were regular fixtures on the program. They acted in almost every other sketch and you could tell that they both had great chemistry together. Don't believe me? Click HERE, and you can watch Dan and Julie acting out a sketch from “The Tracey Ullman Show” right around the time it debuted in April 1987.

Oh, yeah...did I mention that in addition to the live-action sketches that Dan and Julie also worked on some animated sketches too? You see, one of the most popular sketches to be shown on “The Tracey Ullman Show” featured a suburban couple trying to raise their three young children in a household filled with chaos. Castellaneta and Kavner played the parents. As for the kids, the roles were filled in by voice actresses Nancy Cartwright and Yeardley Smith. Now, the animated shorts only appeared in one-minute vignettes, but people seemed to love them. I actually admit to being a seven year old boy and only watching “The Tracey Ullman Show” to watch these cartoon shorts. They were incredibly crude and loud and the weirdest cartoons that I had ever watched, but I knew that I had to watch them because for some reason, they mesmerized me, and I couldn't get enough.

Leave it to creator Matt Groening to make a cartoon that drew people in.

Little did Matt know just how successful the cartoon shorts would become. The shorts became so popular that it was decided that the family would create a holiday special to air during the Christmas season of 1989 to air exclusively on FOX. It would be the first full length half-hour program to star this cartoon family, and it would be a Christmas episode at that. Little did anybody know that twenty-four years later that the holiday special would be the beginning of a brand new television series...and that the series would STILL be on the air twenty-four years later!

Yes, on December 17, 1989, the episode “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” debuted on FOX. It would also serve as the pilot episode for the long running series “The Simpsons”, which has aired a total of 538 episodes and counting as of December 17, 2013!

So, for this edition of the Tuesday Timeline, let's take a look at how this juggernaut began. A time before the video games, the comic books, the DVD box sets, and the 2007 film came out.

Now, I can't seem to recall any other pilot episode that was Christmas themed. I really can't. And, a part of me wonders if “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” was meant to just be a one-off Christmas special, and that it was such a ratings winner that it spawned a 13-episode season in early 1990. I imagine that a full season was planned regardless, but it's interesting that they started the show with a Christmas episode...especially given that the show has aired almost twenty-five Halloween episodes!

Now, of course, everyone knows that “The Simpsons” was never going to be a show that was sugary-sweet like “The Cosby Show” or “Full House”. And, it was fairly risky for FOX to try their hand at an animated sitcom at the time “The Simpsons” first debuted. Prior to “The Simpsons” premiere episode, the last animated prime-time sitcom to air was “The Flintstones”, which ended its run 23 years earlier. But the network took a gamble, and it seemingly paid off. And, of course, the show did have its critics – some of which complained that the show was sending bad messages to the youth of the nation. But, compare “The Simpsons” to the likes of “South Park” and “Family Guy”, and it's actually quite tame. In fact, the very first full-length episode of “The Simpsons” had a lovely story behind it.

In this episode, the opening scenes take place at Springfield Elementary, in which we are first introduced to the Simpson family. We have the boorish Homer (Castellaneta), overprotective Marge (Kavner), bratty Bart (Cartwright), intelligent Lisa (Smith), and the silent Maggie, who has basically been sucking her pacifier for almost two and a half decades. Think of the dental bills that baby's going to have!

Anyway, we peer into the kids' Christmas pageant, where Lisa entertains us with a tribal dance from the South Seas, and where Bart gets yanked off the stage by Principal Skinner (Harry Shearer) after he bastardizes the Christmas carol “Jingle Bells”.

Hmmm...maybe THAT'S where I got my inspiration from!

Anyway, one of the constant complaints that I have about the holiday is the fact that Christmas has become too materialistic and commercial these days. It frosts my britches to see people only think about what they will be getting for Christmas and not focusing on what they can give. Of course, in the Simpson family, it seemingly starts out as just another money obsessed Christmas. And for the Simpsons, Christmas 1989 is looking like it will be the best Christmas ever. With Homer expecting a big fat Christmas bonus from his boss at the nuclear power plant where he works, and Marge stashing away a huge jar of money in her towering beehive hairdo, there's no way that Christmas could be ruined, right?

Well, let's just say that a couple of instances happen in which the family's Christmas fund is all but wiped out.

Here's a tip for all of you reading this. If you're taking your ten-year-old son out to the shopping mall to do some Christmas shopping, make sure that there are no tattoo parlors located within the mall, and make sure that you never leave your son unattended near said tattoo parlor. Because then your son might have the dumb idea that the best gift that they could possibly give to their mother is a tattoo that shows just how much he loves her. Of course, Marge discovers Bart's little scheme just before the tattoo gets finished, and Bart is left with a tattoo that says “MOTH”.

What is interesting is that Springfield happens to have a clinic in town that specializes in tattoo removal. The unfortunate thing is that tattoo removal in 1989 was a costly procedure...and it emptied out all of the money that Marge had saved all year long. But, while Marge was furious with Bart for having to use the Christmas money to get a tattoo removed, Marge was still relieved that Homer would be getting a bonus at work. They could use that instead of the jar.

Except that there was no Christmas bonus at all. Turns out that the pilot episode was also our first introduction to the cheapskate known as C. Montgomery Burns. And, Homer's boss took great delight in announcing that there would be no Christmas bonus for any of his employees (except maybe his lapdog Smithers, who is surprisingly absent in this episode).  So, we have Homer upset that he is not getting any extra money for Christmas, but is secretly thanking his lucky stars that Marge at least had the big jar of money.

So, you can imagine the disappointment when Marge explained what happened with the jar of money, it left Homer very crestfallen.  Of course, Homer didn't want to make Marge and the kids worry too much about Christmas by telling him that he didn't get his Christmas bonus, so he didn't tell them.  But seeing the following image below, we get an idea as to how devastated Homer really is.

Say what you want about his parenting skills, Homer really loves his family and is upset when there's nothing that he can do to make sure that his kids have a fantastic Christmas.

Homer does attempt to put a positive spin on things.  He buys all the gifts at a dollar store, he chops down a Christmas tree from some man's land - nearly getting caught in the process, and he even takes on a job as a department store Santa Claus in hopes of making enough money to even salvage Christmas for the year.  But when a bratty Bart pulls off Homer's beard, and Homer's pay is heavily garnished by taxes, Homer is forced to explain the situation to Bart, who actually takes it a lot better than I probably would have at age ten.  

Still, Homer is praying for a Christmas miracle, and when Barney Gumble (Homer's alcoholic best friend from school) informs him of a Christmas Eve dog race which could see Homer's twelve dollar takehome pay turn into twelve hundred dollars, Homer doesn't hesitate to take part.  But even though Barney has basically told him which dog will win the race, Homer notices that one of the dogs has a rather festive name, and he tells Bart that it must be fate.  Homer bets everything he has on Dog #8 in the race, even though the odds of #8 winning are abnormally high.  

And, well...Homer's instincts did not pan out.  Dog #8 came in last place, and now Homer had zero dollars for Christmas.  However would he tell his family?

But then Bart notices that dog #8 is being chased out of the park by its now former owner.  The dog is visibly scared, and it's assumed that the owner of the dog was not happy with him losing again.  But as fate would have it, the dog leaps into Homer's arms and decides that Homer and Bart would be able to provide him with a more domesticated life than that of racetrack underdog.  And with a little encouragement from Bart, Homer decides to take in the homeless pooch...still wondering how he was going to tell his family that Christmas was ruined.

Little did Homer know that bringing home the dog would turn out to be the best Christmas present ever!  Lisa and Maggie adored the dog at first sight, and even Marge was impressed that Homer brought home such a wonderful gift!  And as the episode ends, the entire family gathers around the piano to sing Christmas carols, along with their brand new family member.

Oh, one more thing.  The dog's name that Homer bet on?  "Santa's Little Helper".  And, I think we all can agree that the dog definitely lived up to its name that Christmas Day.

It's hard to believe that episode aired twenty-four years ago today!  I watched it when it first debuted, and I was only eight then!  But I think it also happens to be the Simpsons' best Christmas themed episode (though the one in which Bart shoplifts a video game was also very well done).

And, that is our look back on December 17, 1989, as well as Day #17 of the advent calendar.  Tune in tomorrow for the eighteenth day of the calendar, as well as the Whatever Wednesday for today!

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